Sunday, June 26, 2011

John Tirman, Civilians Killed in US Wars

The Progressive
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indifference to the suffering of the
natives,” Tirman writes.
Tirman goes on to critique strategic
bombing in the “Good War,”
echoing the criticisms of Howard
Zinn and John Kenneth Galbraith.
And he then provides a detailed dissection
of the Korean War. According
to Tirman, the U.S. intervention in
Korea was mainly a product of anticommunist
fervor made even more
intense by Mao’s triumph in China
(and linked by Tirman to America’s
gunslinger frontier mentality).
“The intellectual discourse about
the Korean War’s meaning, apart
from predictable lamentations about
the limits of U.S. power, never grappled
with the magnitude of loss,” he
writes about a war that was among
the bloodiest in the post-World War
II era. “This, too, is the apparent fate
of the failed venture in Iraq.”
The Korean toll would have been
far worse if General MacArthur and
President Eisenhower had made good
on their repeated threats to use nuclear
weapons against China and North
Korea. They chose not to, Tirman
reveals, out of a fear that the Soviets
would retaliate.
Racism played a major part then,
as it has done in more recent times.
“At times of national stress,” Tirman
writes, America reverts to “the malevolent
stereotyping of outsiders.”
way Tirman goes through
each war and analyzes the
many ways that U.S. tactics
brought about death and destruc-
strength of the book is the
Invisible Victims
The Deaths of Others: The Fate of
Civilians in America’s Wars
By John Tirman
Oxford University Press. 416 pages.
By Amitabh Pal
incredibly important venture.
I know of no other book that
so comprehensively catalogues the
victims of U.S. wars.
Tirman opens with an arresting
image: He walks to the Vietnam and
Korean War memorials in Washington,
D.C., and becomes conscious of
a gaping hole in both places: There
isn’t a single mention of the millions
of non-American civilians who were
killed in these conflicts.
“One of the most remarkable
aspects of American wars is how little
we discuss the victims who are not
Americans,” Tirman writes. “As a
nation that has long thought of itself
as built on Christian ethics, even as
an exceptionally compassionate people,
this coldness is a puzzle.”
The book is an attempt to solve
that puzzle.
Tirman begins his analysis in
earnest with the U.S. conquest of the
Philippines during the Spanish-
American War, which set the tone for
every war since then. “The pattern of
the American public’s response to the
war was repeated in every subsequent
conflict abroad—the righteous cause,
the brave American soldiers, the
brutish enemy, and in the consequent
horror of the war, the deep mourning
for fallen Americans, and the cold
he Deaths of Others is an
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of
The Progressive, is the author of the
new book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace:
Understanding the Muslim Principle
of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).
tion. This makes horrifying reading,
such as for Vietnam. “When
we went out, I would say about 50
percent of the villages we passed
through would be burned to the
ground,” he quotes one Marine.
But all of this astonishingly did not
make any difference to Americans,
with one survey cited by Tirman
showing statistically 0 percent of
the U.S. population motivated in
their opposition to the war due to
Vietnamese casualties alone.
Tirman has a number of perceptive
things to say even on the Iraq
War, a conflict I thought I had read
almost too much about.
For one, he shrewdly recognizes
the enormous toll taken by the sanctions
placed on Iraq in between the
1991 Gulf War and the Iraq War. He
combines all three into what he calls
a “twenty-year foreign venture for the
United States and a devastating reality
for the Iraqis.”
For another, he points out that the
U.S. culpability in the aftermath of
the 2003 invasion should not be limited
to the direct toll U.S. forces
exacted; instead, the United States
deserves a good deal of the blame for
overall fatalities due to its failure to
provide adequate security.
Tirman tallies the different ways
that Iraqis were killed, maimed, and
made refugees during the U.S. occupation.
And, yet, among the American
public, there was no recognition
of the bloodbath that had been
“When in February 2007, the
American people were asked, for the
first and only time, how many Iraqis
they thought had died in the war, the
response was both disheartening and
unsurprising: 9,890 was the median
answer, a figure that was likely low by
several hundred thousands,” Tirman
writes. “The lack of knowledge or
concern about the war’s victims was
an outcome of several reinforcing
tendencies in American political culture:
news media that only occasionally
reported the costs of the war to
Iraqis, the Bush Administration’s
insistence on how the war effort was
benefitting Iraq, a general avoidance
of the war’s consequences apart from
the U.S. casualty rate, and the longstanding
tendency to view the
‘enemy’ population as a dispensable
side effect of the American global
Tirman devotes a chapter to the
Afghanistan intervention, too.
“Based on reports of the U.N.,
Human Rights Watch, and a few others,
the total for civilian deaths ranges
from 15,000 to 35,000, including
nonviolent, ‘excess’ deaths, with about
9,000 directly from U.S. military
action, through the first half of 2010,”
writes Tirman. “The number of
deaths of those
or official Afghan soldiers is unknown
but is likely to be three or four times
higher.” (Emphasis in the original.)
The Bush Administration’s response
was sheer callousness. “We did not
start this war,” exclaimed Donald
Rumsfeld. “So understand, responsibility
for every single casualty in this
war, whether they’re innocent civilians
or innocent Americans, rests at the feet
of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
Tirman has an insightfully detailed
analysis toward the end of the book of
three major U.S. war atrocities: No
Gun Ri during the Korean War, My
Lai in the Vietnam War, and Haditha
during the Iraq War. They reveal
underlying similarities.
“The Haditha massacre followed
the pattern from the earlier wars—
initial shock at the revelations, military
lying and cover-up, investigations
in response to the media
coverage, rightwing backlash against
prosecuting or blaming soldiers, very
little legal culpability achieved, and
ultimate public indifference,” Tirman
not considered civilians
offers a number of reasons:
racism, the frontier
mentality, and something he calls “just
world theory”—the delusional denial
that everything is right with the world.
“The combination of these three
explanations forms a structure, an
architecture of indifference, accounting
for the silence and the animus the
American public displays toward the
civilian victims of U.S. wars,” Tirman
writes. “It is a sturdy forbidding
structure, a fortress that protects its
denizens from the chaos outside.”
This indifference leads to the
absence of necessary checks on U.S.
atrocities. An added consequence is
the anti-American sentiment this attitude
inflames in the rest of the world.
Where Tirman ventures into dubious
territory is in his assertion that
the constant American penchant for
wars (and its perfervid anti-communism)
is in good part a result of a
frontier mentality deeply embedded
in the American psyche.
“Especially after 1945, the ‘Indians’
were Soviet communists and
their allies,” writes Tirman. “The
‘wilderness’ was any country under
the sway of Marxism-Leninism and
the global south generally, just then
released from European colonialism
and hence reverting to a kind of
political and moral wildness to match
its physical and demographic
attributes. The ‘bonanza’ of the frontier
was domination of the world economic
system itself.”
All through the book, Tirman
hammers this thesis home, which
imbues his analysis of every conflict
from Korea to Iraq (with even the
Arab Muslim, according to him, acting
as a modern stand-in for the
Native American).
To me, the analogy seems a bit of
a stretch. Is the cowboy-and-Indian
mentality a part of the American psyche?
Yes. But is it a significant determinant
of U.S. foreign policy?
The other place where the book
doesn’t quite work is that it becomes
too statistically rigorous for a lay audience.
Regardless, Tirman has given us
the definitive study of an extremely
important but neglected subject. It’s a
must-read for anyone concerned with
the lethal impact of U.S. policy on
people in all corners of the world.
hy such indifference? Tirman

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