by Ben Schreiner
On December 19, the last remaining US military convoy in Iraq crossed the border into Kuwait, effectively ending America’s nine-year long war and occupation. (Of course, the US will continue to maintain a heavy presence in the country via its massive embassy).
With the war’s close, a multitude of retrospectives on the combat appeared in the US press. As one Associated Press story began, “In the beginning, it all looked simple: topple Saddam Hussein, destroy his purported weapons of mass destruction and lay the foundation for a pro-Western government in the heart of the Arab world.” Needless to say, the very reason a war of preemptive aggression once seemed so “simple” was due to the jingoistic propaganda readily churned out by the US press in the run up to the 2003 invasion.
So, then, after witnessing nearly a decade of conflict, has the American press finally come to display a sense of measured humility regarding the sheer carnage the war has wrought? Well, no. Perhaps, though, it is fitting that a war launched with the help of a press eagerly disseminating false pretexts, now ends with the very same press keenly penning revisionist assessments.
Typical of the sorts of appraisals coming from the American press on the Iraq War and its costs is a December 15 New York Times editorial. As the US “newspaper of record” editorialized, “It is a relief that the American role in the misguided Iraq war is finally over…We mourn the nearly 4,500 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives.”
For starters, let us notice the use of the word “misguided.” Instead of labeling the Iraq War for what it clearly was — an act of international aggression, in other words, a war crime — it is instead portrayed as merely a tactical mistake. The refrain, however, is by no means limited to The New York Times. For example, The Los Angeles Times reflected that the war was a “miscalculation,” CNN stated that it was “contentious,” The Wall Street Journal labeled the conflict as “divisive,” and the PBS Newshour lamented that it was “not worth the costs.”
The war itself, we see, is never portrayed as an immoral and criminal act, but rather a strategic blunder arguably hampering US national interests. As The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote, “We join Obama in hoping that the aftermath of the American presence will be a free, democratic and pluralist Iraq, and one that doesn’t ally itself with Iran.” (Here we also see the true meaning of Iraqi “freedom” and “democracy” to be fealty to the US and its strategic aims.) And this, in the end, is the narrow spectrum from which the tepid and quite belated measure of dissent from the US press on the Iraq War arises. Imperial ends are not to be questioned — only the imperial means.
A second commonality in the US media assessment of the Iraq War has been to address the costs solely incurred by the US. All US press reports on the end of the war readily cite the nearly 5,000 American combat deaths, in addition to often citing the nearly 30,000 American soldiers who have been injured. The majority of stories also typically reference the heavy financial toll of the war, which, no doubt, is certainly quite staggering (perhaps over $3 trillion).
Yet, the effect of this almost exclusive fixation on the US costs is rather perverse. For as important as such costs are for the US public to understand, such an obsession functions to transform the war’s aggressor into its victim. The “liberators,” as Vice President Dick Cheney liked to dress the invading US Army as, in effect become the victims of the ungratefully “liberated.” Thus the war’s true “sacrifices,” as one CNN op-ed
noted, actually came not so much from Iraqis, but from Americans who selflessly sacrificed for the cause of Iraqi freedom.
Ulterior and more cynical motives for a country making such substantial national “sacrifices” are never entertained. As President Obama stated in remarks signifying the end of the war, “Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.” America, we learn, is a benign empire practicing a benign form of imperialism. So benign, in fact, that it endures the hardships of war merely because it is “right.”
Lost, of course, amidst the tallying of American costs and the boasts of American Exceptionalism, are the costs imposed by the benevolent empire on the Iraqi people. But when the US press is not busy suppressing the overall costs endured by the Iraqi people, it is busy grossly underestimate Iraqi casualties.
The standard figure cited in the American press for Iraqi fatalities is the 104,122 – 113,700 range provided by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) — although as we have seen, The New York Times editorial board puts the figure in the tens of thousands. As ghastly as 100,000, or even 10,000, civilian casualties are, they pale in comparison to the true magnitude of the bloodshed.
The commonly cited IBC figures provide a rather incomplete assessment of Iraqi casualties. This is because the IBC relies primarily on “crosschecked media reports of violent events leading to the death of civilians.” The problem of media based sourcing was illustrated in a University of California-Berkley study surveying the deaths in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. The study, as David Edwards and David Cromwell write in their book Newspeak, “found that numbers of murders reported by the media in fact decreased as violence increased.” The explanation for such an apparent abnormality is rather straightforward. For journalists are not immune from violence. And thus as violence increases, the ability to freely move about and accurately report within the combat zone lessens, leading to decreased reports of fatalities.
Therefore, the much more accurate Iraqi casualty figure comes not from an analysis of media reports, but from the independent non-partisan organization Just Foreign Policy, which incorporates a 2006 peer reviewed Iraq morality study published in the medical journal Lancet. The Lancet study found “654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war” from the start of the invasion to July 2006. Updating these figures, Just Foreign Policy today estimates the Iraq War casualty figure to presently stand at a sobering toll of 1,455,590 — ten times the magnitude of the IBC figure.
For context—if such a number can truly be put in context—this surpasses the number killed in 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Unsurprisingly, this more comprehensive assessment of Iraq War casualties has rarely seen the light of day in the US press and has continued to be suppressed in the recent bout of reflections on the cost of the war.
And so then after nine years of bloodshed, largely cheered on by a war hungry US press, the conclusion of the American media as the war draws to an end is that it was all indeed a rather costly mistake. But the mistake, we are told, was not one of criminality — as any reasoned assessment of the war would inevitably conclude — but rather more strategic in nature. For in what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright deemed the “lone indispensable nation,” aggression is always a justified posture.
This, in fact, is something not only shown in the media reflections on the Iraq War, but also seen in the escalating rhetoric Washington currently levies against Iran. Hence, until the American people come to fully understand the unvarnished truth of their state’s crimes, until the American press comes to fully interrogate such crimes like any functioning free press would, we can only expect American imperial adventures to continue apace. We can only expect future revisionist media assessments of future imperial wars.
Read in al-Akhbar English here.