March 18, 2023
IF YOU WRITE a 4,500-word article about a 20-year war, you might want to mention how many people were killed.
While that seems obvious, Max Boot, an energetic backer of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, has written a lengthy article on the war’s 20th anniversary that fails to note the number of deaths. The toll is in the hundreds of thousands, if not more — the carnage is too vast for an exact count — but Boot merely mentions a “high price in both blood and treasure” and quickly moves on.
How high a price? Whose blood? There is no explanation.
Boot is hardly the only anniversary writer unable to mention the apparently unmentionable. Peter Mansoor, a retired colonel with several deployments to Iraq, likewise failed to squeeze a reference to the death toll into his 2,000-word assessment of what happened. Mansoor’s story, like Boot’s, was published by Foreign Affairs, which is funded by the Council on Foreign Relations and is pretty much the true north of establishment thinking in Washington, D.C.
Their failure, which is replicated in about 99 percent of America’s discussions about Iraq, is a lot more than sloppy journalism. The Pentagon and its enablers prefer to turn the killing and maiming of civilians into an abstraction by calling it “collateral damage” so that it becomes a detail of history that we can pass over.
Ignoring civilian casualties is a necessary act of erasure if you wish to avoid a frank assessment of not just the Iraq War, but also the legacy and future of U.S. foreign policy. If you specify those casualties — which is not just hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis in an illegal war begun with lies, but also millions of people injured, forced out of their homes, and traumatized for the rest of their lives — the discourse must change. The “high price” reveals itself as so grotesque that discussions can no longer center around the finer questions of how to better fight an insurgency or why “mistakes were made” by supposedly well-intentioned leaders. It becomes a matter of when do the trials start; who should be in the dock with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice; how large should Iraq’s reparations be; and when can we impose on ourselves something like the constitutional ban on the use of military force to settle disputes that we imposed on Japan after World War II?
Until Covid-19 came along, I thought the willful ignorance of Iraqi casualties was principally a matter of Americans not caring about the deaths of foreigners, especially those who are not white and not Christian. And that’s certainly true: We don’t care enough about those deaths, even if (or especially if) we are responsible for them. But the larger truth is that we also don’t even care about the deaths of our own citizens. Choices have been made that caused America to have one of the highest per-capita rates of Covid deaths, with more than a million dying so far, and probably another 100,000 dying this year. The numbers tick upward, but most of us hardly notice.
In addition to the Covid toll, there is also the violence America inflicts on itself with guns, cars, opioids, and a predatory health care system that yields the highest maternal mortality rate among the world’s richest nations. We are an exceptional nation but not in the way we have been told: America kills its own at rates that are far higher than peer nations. The situation is getting worse, not better, because life expectancy in the U.S. is plummeting while in comparable countries it is increasing.
It would take more than 4,500 words to get to the bottom of why America is so ruthless to itself as well as others. We certainly have a long history of externalized as well as internalized violence, thanks to the many wars we fought in the past century and a system of slavery that endured for generations. But it’s not as though the rest of the world is composed of quiet Luxembourgs: Whether we look at what happened in Germany in the 1940s or Rwanda in the 1990s or what Russia is doing now to Ukraine (and did to Chechnya), we are not unique.
In the early hours of March 19, 2003, which was 20 years ago, I drove to the Iraqi border in a Hertz SUV, and when I got there, a U.S. soldier whose face was daubed with camouflage paint yelled from the predawn darkness, “Turn off your fucking lights! Turn them off now!” He ordered me back into Kuwait, but after a few hours, I managed to sneak across the border at Safwan and joined the American march to Baghdad. Three weeks later, I watched as Marines toppled a statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.
Since then, I have written a lot about Iraq. My goal is to make Americans care about the violence committed in their name and to hold to account the political and military leaders whose orders our soldiers and mercenaries were carrying out. One of the lessons I have learned is that the stories I and other journalists write about those victims — and Afghan and Yemeni and so many other victims of American warfare — are insufficient, on their own, to turn the tide.
It is naïve to expect us to stop killing foreigners in large numbers if we remain complacent about killing ourselves in even larger numbers. Even if every story about Iraq noted the civilian casualties, I don’t think it would make everyone suddenly wake up (though it would still be the right thing to do). We’re not going to start caring about the lives of others until we start caring about our own lives.