What's an Iraqi Life Worth?
By Andrew J. Bacevich | July 9, 2006
In Iraq, lives differ in value -- and so do deaths. In this disparity lies an important reason why the United States has botched this war.
Last November in Haditha, a squad of Marines, outraged at the loss of a comrade, is said to have run amok, avenging his death by killing two dozen innocent bystanders. And in March, U.S. soldiers in Mahmudiyah allegedly raped a young Iraqi woman and killed her along with three of her relatives -- an apparently premeditated crime for which one former U.S. soldier has been charged. These incidents are among at least five recent cases of Iraqi civilian deaths that have triggered investigations of U.S. military personnel. If the allegations prove true, Haditha and Mahmudiyah will deservedly take their place alongside Sand Creek, Samar and My Lai in the unhappy catalogue of atrocities committed by American troops.
But recall a more recent incident, in Samarra. On May 30, U.S. soldiers manning a checkpoint there opened fire on a speeding vehicle that either did not see or failed to heed their command to stop. Two women in the vehicle were shot dead. One of them, Nahiba Husayif Jassim, 35, was pregnant. The baby was also killed. The driver, Jassim's brother, had been rushing her to a hospital to give birth. No one tried to cover up the incident: U.S. military representatives issued expressions of regret.
In all likelihood, we will be learning more about Haditha and Mahmudiyah for months to come, whereas the Samarra story has already been filed away and largely forgotten. And that's the problem.
The killing at the Samarra checkpoint was not an atrocity; most likely it was an accident, a mistake. Yet plenty of evidence suggests that in Iraq such mistakes have occurred routinely, with moral and political consequences that have been too long ignored. Indeed, conscious motivation is beside the point: Any action resulting in Iraqi civilian deaths, however inadvertent, undermines the Bush administration's narrative of liberation, and swells the ranks of those resisting the U.S. presence.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded U.S. forces when they entered Iraq more than three years ago, famously declared: "We don't do body counts." Franks was speaking in code. What he meant was this: The U.S. military has learned the lessons of Vietnam -- where body counts became a principal, and much derided, public measure of success -- and it has no intention of repeating that experience. Franks was not going to be one of those generals re-fighting the last war.
Unfortunately, Franks and other senior commanders had not so much learned from Vietnam as forgotten it. This disdain for counting bodies, especially those of Iraqi civilians killed in the course of U.S. operations, is among the reasons why U.S. forces find themselves in another quagmire. It's not that the United States has an aversion to all body counts. We tally every U.S. service member who falls in Iraq, and rightly so. But only in recent months have military leaders finally begun to count -- for internal use only -- some of the very large number of Iraqi noncombatants whom American bullets and bombs have killed.
Through the war's first three years, any Iraqi venturing too close to an American convoy or checkpoint was likely to come under fire. Thousands of these "escalation of force" episodes occurred. Now, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has begun to recognize the hidden cost of such an approach. "People who were on the fence or supported us" in the past "have in fact decided to strike out against us," he recently acknowledged.
In the early days of the insurgency, some U.S. commanders appeared oblivious to the possibility that excessive force might produce a backlash. They counted on the iron fist to create an atmosphere conducive to good behavior. The idea was not to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Iraqis, but to induce compliance through intimidation.
"You have to understand the Arab mind," one company commander told the New York Times, displaying all the self-assurance of Douglas MacArthur discoursing on Orientals in 1945. "The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face." Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book "Cobra II," Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: "The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it."
Such crass language, redolent with racist, ethnocentric connotations, speaks volumes. These characterizations, like the use of "gooks" during the Vietnam War, dehumanize the Iraqis and in doing so tacitly permit the otherwise impermissible. Thus, Abu Ghraib and Haditha -- and too many regretted deaths, such as that of Nahiba Husayif Jassim.
As the war enters its fourth year, how many innocent Iraqis have died at American hands, not as a result of Haditha-like massacres but because of accidents and errors? The military doesn't know and, until recently, has publicly professed no interest in knowing. Estimates range considerably, but the number almost certainly runs in the tens of thousands. Even granting the common antiwar bias of those who track the Iraqi death toll -- and granting, too, that the insurgents have far more blood on their hands -- there is no question that the number of Iraqi noncombatants killed by U.S. forces exceeds by an order of magnitude the number of U.S. troops killed in hostile action, which is now more than 2,000.
Who bears responsibility for these Iraqi deaths? The young soldiers pulling the triggers? The commanders who establish rules of engagement that privilege "force protection" over any obligation to protect innocent life? The intellectually bankrupt policymakers who sent U.S. forces into Iraq in the first place and now see no choice but to press on? The culture that, to put it mildly, has sought neither to understand nor to empathize with people in the Arab or Islamic worlds?
There are no easy answers, but one at least ought to acknowledge that in launching a war advertised as a high-minded expression of U.S. idealism, we have waded into a swamp of moral ambiguity. To assert that "stuff happens," as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is wont to do whenever events go awry, simply does not suffice.
Moral questions aside, the toll of Iraqi noncombatant casualties has widespread political implications. Misdirected violence alienates those we are claiming to protect. It plays into the hands of the insurgents, advancing their cause and undercutting our own. It fatally undermines the campaign to win hearts and minds, suggesting to Iraqis and Americans alike that Iraqi civilians -- and perhaps Arabs and Muslims more generally -- are expendable. Certainly, Nahiba Husayif Jassim's death helped clarify her brother's perspective on the war. "God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here," he declared after the incident. "They have no regard for our lives."
He was being unfair, of course. It's not that we have no regard for Iraqi lives; it's just that we have much less regard for them. The current reparations policy -- the payment offered in those instances in which U.S. forces do own up to killing an Iraq civilian -- makes the point. The insurance payout to the beneficiaries of an American soldier who dies in the line of duty is $400,000, while in the eyes of the U.S. government, a dead Iraqi civilian is reportedly worth up to $2,500 in condolence payments -- about the price of a decent plasma-screen TV.
For all the talk of Iraq being a sovereign nation, foreign occupiers are the ones deciding what an Iraqi life is worth. And although President Bush has remarked in a different context that "every human life is a precious gift of matchless value," our actions in Iraq continue to convey the impression that civilian lives aren't worth all that much.
That impression urgently needs to change. To start, the Pentagon must get over its aversion to counting all bodies. It needs to measure in painstaking detail -- and publicly -- the mayhem we are causing as a byproduct of what we call liberation. To do otherwise, to shrug off the death of Nahiba Husayif Jassim as just one of those things that happens in war, only reinforces the impression that Americans view Iraqis as less than fully human. Unless we demonstrate by our actions that we value their lives as much as the lives of our own troops, our failure is certain.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.