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Columbia prof. Jeffrey Sachs on Iraqi War Deaths

Iraq's Silent Dead

by Jeffrey Sachs
December 02, 2004

Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Evidence is mounting that America's war in Iraq has killed tens of thousands of civilian Iraqis, and perhaps more than one hundred thousand. Yet this carnage is systematically ignored in the United States, where the media and government portray a war in which there are no civilian deaths because there are no Iraqi civilians-only insurgents.

American behavior and self-perceptions reveal the ease with which a civilized country can engage in large-scale killing of civilians without public discussion. In late October, the British medical journal Lancet published a study of civilian deaths in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion began. The sample survey documented an extra 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths compared to the death rate in the preceding year, when Saddam Hussein was still in power— and this estimate did not even count excess deaths in Fallujah, which was deemed too dangerous to include.

The study also noted that the majority of deaths resulted from violence, and that a high proportion of the violent deaths were due to U.S. aerial bombing. The epidemiologists acknowledged the uncertainties of these estimates, but presented enough data to warrant an urgent follow-up investigation and reconsideration by the Bush administration and the U.S. military of aerial bombing of Iraq's urban areas.

America's public reaction has been as remarkable as the Lancet study -- for the reaction has been no reaction. The vaunted New York Times ran a single story of 770 words on page 8 of the paper (October 29). The Times reporter apparently did not interview a single Bush administration or U.S. military official. No follow-up stories or editorials appeared, and no New York Times reporters assessed the story on the ground. Coverage in other U.S. papers was similarly frivolous. The Washington Post (October 29) carried a single 758-word story on page 16.

Recent reporting on the bombing of Falluja has also been an exercise in self-denial. The New York Times (November 6) wrote that "warplanes pounded rebel positions" in Fallujah, without noting that "rebel positions" are actually in civilian neighborhoods. Another New York Times story (November 12), citing "military officials," dutifully reported that, "Since the assault began on Monday, about 600 rebellyls have been killed, along with 18 American and 5 Iraqi soldiers." The issue of civilian deaths was not even raised.

Violence is only one reason for the increase in civilian deaths in Iraq. Children in urban war zones die in vast numbers from diarrhea, respiratory infections and other causes owing to unsafe drinking water, lack of refrigerated foods, and acute shortages of blood and basic medicines at clinics and hospitals (that is, if civilians even dare to leave their houses for medical care). Yet the Red Crescent and other relief agencies have been unable to relieve Fallujah's civilian population.

On November 14, the front page of The New York Times led with the following description: "Army tanks and fighting vehicles blasted their way into the last main rebel stronghold in Fallujah at sundown on Saturday after American warplanes and artillery prepared the way with a savage barrage on the district. Earlier in the afternoon, 10 separate plumes of smoke rose from Southern Fallujah, as it etched against the desert sky, and probably exclaimed catastrophe for the insurgents."

There is, once again, virtually no mention of the catastrophe for civilians etched against that desert sky. There is a hint, though, in a brief mention in the middle of the story of a father looking over his wounded sons in a hospital and declaring that, "Now Americans are shooting randomly at anything that moves."

A few days later, a U.S. television film crew was in a bombed-out mosque with U.S. troops. While the cameras were rolling, a U.S. Marine turned to an unarmed and wounded Iraqi lying on the ground and murdered the man with gunshots to the head. (Reportedly, there were a few other such cases of outright murder.) But the American media more or less brushed aside this shocking incident, too. The Wall Street Journal actually wrote an editorial on November 18 that criticized the critics, noting as usual that whatever the United States does, its enemies in Iraq do worse-as if this excuses American abuses.

It does not. The United States is killing massive numbers of Iraqi civilians, embittering the population and the Islamic world, and laying the ground for escalating violence and death. No number of slaughtered Iraqis will bring peace. The American fantasy of a final battle, in Fallujah or elsewhere, or the capture of some terrorist mastermind, perpetuates a cycle of bloodletting that puts the world in peril. Worse still, America's public opinion, media and election results have left the world's most powerful military without practical restraint.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, November 2004.

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