The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians and Their Cultures
in America’s Wars, by Dr. John Tirman, MIT
Peace Forum, Lancaster Interchurch Peace Witness, and
International Studies Program, Franklin and Marshall College
March 4-5, 2015

How can we possibly understand war and its shocking consequences? I begin with the shaping of a narrative.

Joan Didion said, “we tell stories so we can live.” I take that to mean we tell stories to place ourselves in a larger picture, a cascading narrative of life and loved ones and culture and purpose, and as a caution against danger.

Søren Kirkegaard, as my friend James Blight insightfully points out, understood like few others the paradox of grasping the significance of events and indeed one’s own life. As Blight puts it, “We live life forward…groping in the dark, unaware of its ultimate outcome, yet we are forced to understand events in reverse, working our way backwards from outcomes to their supposed causes. This creates a profound disconnect between lived experience and our understanding of that experience.”

In this place of worship, I need not remind you that this is one of the reasons religion thrives. The anxiety stemming from this uncertainty of where we are in the flow of history is one reason why we seek out and embrace faith, why communities of faith are so important to us, because they provide a place, a spirit of comfort and caring and love in the face of so much uncertainty.

These two very human, and social, impulses—the need to know our past and the yearning for reassurance about our trajectory into the future—are especially acute in war. We tell ourselves stories of why we are “there,” why there’s a war, why our history commands us to take up arms. And we hope and usually believe at the outset that the trajectory of the war will yield a “good” outcome—the tyrant vanquished, the people’s sovereignty restored, our young men and women back from the front without injury.

When these hopes are dashed—as they have been more often than not since 1945—we are cast into that Kierkegaardian abyss of losing our bearings about what happened and why, and what that history means as we hurtle into the future.

The old Negro spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” which dates to the antebellum South, borrows a phrase from the Old Testament to sing, “ain’t gonna study war no more.” Of course, what’s meant by that and the Biblical reference is to not experience war again, but that is a godly injunction more honored in the breach. And I say we need to study war, and more, and more creatively, to understand how we experience it, where we stand in its maelstrom, and what it means for our future together.

What we have not studied, what we have not understood as a society, is the human toll of war—how war, including our U.S. warmaking, affects millions of people in the theater of armed conflict, and how these effects in turn reshape the war, its reverberations across continents, and its aftermath. We study closely the strategies used by generals, the equivocations of diplomats, the preening of politicians, but we don’t know the life-and-death struggle of ordinary people in the cities and towns and countryside of Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. It’s as if a biologist would examine an organism with no heed to its natural environment. What happens to civilians in war is not just “collateral damage”—an antiseptic term if there ever was one—but as important, as central, to the meaning of war as one can imagine. It’s about the wounds visited upon the body politic, the source of sovereignty, the flesh and blood of the nation.

I became intrigued by this absence of knowledge about civilians in Iraq at the outset of the 2003 war. It seemed that with all the violence of the invasion and the growing insurgency after Saddam was toppled, the civilian toll would have to be significant. But virtually no one was talking about what was happening to Iraqi society. In the autumn of 2004, some researchers from Johns Hopkins released a survey in Iraq indicating that 98,000 Iraqis had died in the first 18 months of the war. This estimate was largely ignored, but it spurred me to look more closely at civilian mortality.

I commissioned a second household survey of Iraq, which revealed an astounding 650,000 “excess” deaths attributable to the war as of June 2006. Other surveys, while not quite that high, confirmed numbers much greater than what was and is typically reported in the news media—about 100,000 Iraqi fatalities. There was controversy about the methods used to estimate, a topic I’ll take up tomorrow evening at Franklin & Marshall, but regardless of the methods used, the human toll of the Iraq War was largely ignored by the American public and policy elites alike.

When I looked at the Korean War and the Vietnam War, I saw something very similar. Different methods were used to estimate mortality and some of the numbers are widely divergent, but it’s clear that many people lost their lives in both wars—between 3-4 million in Korea, and between 2-4 million in Vietnam. Enormous numbers of families were displaced by these wars as well, roughly 5 million people during each war.
But what was most striking about all these wars—and I would include Afghanistan in this as well even though the mortality levels are much lower—is not only the number of local people who died as a result of the wars, but how those people were perceived at the time and afterwards. To what extent did the news media, the policy elites, and the general public notice that so many people were dying, and acknowledge those losses?

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is very little notice, scant to no acknowledgement. Virtually all attention to the casualties of war is showered on American soldiers. This is unsurprising. Yet one would have expected a sizable number of news items—newspaper features, television news segments, etc.—dedicated to what was happening to the people we were there to liberate, or save, or defend. But that’s not what happened.

What happened during the war in Iraq is telling. Very few articles appeared about civilian life under the U.S. occupation, which lasted eight years. Very few, if any, charities were created to cope with the hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans in Iraq. There were no congressional hearings on the matter. The Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence that grew through 2005 and 2006 occasioned many comments in the news media that in effect blamed the victims of the U.S. invasion. A telling example is when marines were prosecuted for a massacre of 24 civilians in the Anbar town of Haditha, many Americans rallied to the marines and criticized those who backed the prosecution.

The Haditha massacre recalled similar atrocities in Korea and Vietnam—No Gun Ri in Korea, and My Lai in Vietnam. Each incident was at first met with shock and horror, but that quickly morphed into support for the American troops, questioning the damning accounts, calls for amnesty and the like. (No Gun Ri was uncovered forty years after the fact, but followed the same pattern.) In the case of the worst of them, My Lai, where 400 innocent people were executed by U.S. soldiers, only the platoon leader, William Calley, served any time, and that was confinement to his apartment for three years. No one served time for the other atrocities.

The atrocities at My Lai, No Gun Ri, and Haditha can serve as proxies for their respective wars as a whole. The public and political figures went from fleeting concern to effective denial of the atrocities, and of the war’s human consequences. For all three wars, the prevalent attitude in the public was, after about a year or two, that the war was “a mess” and they wanted nothing to do with it anymore. It has been a stunning display of fundamental indifference to the colossal carnage of each of those conflicts.
The story we have told ourselves about these wars is that the United States went into each with the best of intentions, fought heroically, but finally yielded to unforeseen forces and setbacks. It’s a comforting story and one that doesn’t reckon with the destruction of these countries. The destruction—the millions of lost or ruined lives—is left out of this story because it’s too painful to include. The death and destruction does not fit well with the account of heroism and sacrifice, and the orderliness we expect in our lives and our institutions. So we ignore it. We tell ourselves stories to live, to survive emotionally and morally, and only this heroic and unsullied story told about American wars will do.

Time has proceeded several years more since the bloodiest days in Iraq, and of course in Vietnam and Korea. What can we understand now about those violent days that could help us on our trajectory into the future? How can we empirically reconstruct the narrative of war to lead us to better choices going forward?

During the war in Iraq, one question that kept coming up was why Sunni Arabs in particular were forming insurgencies to upset the U.S. presence. It was widely supposed that the change in status was at the root of Sunni-led violence, because Saddam and generations of rulers in Iraq had been Sunni Arabs, even though they made up just 20 percent of the population. It was a legacy of the Ottomans.

On its own, this explanation seemed weak. There was no chance of restoring Ba’athist rule or anything like it; rational choice should dictate that Sunni Arab leaders cooperate in making the constitution and recreating Iraq as a pluralist democracy. But the insurgencies persisted for years, without much visible leadership, a set of demands, an ideology. If they were fighting to restore Sunni supremacy, these elements of a political program would be evident.
Instead, the more compelling explanation stemmed from the violence itself. The United States, in toppling Saddam and then trying to suppress armed resistance, roughed up, killed, or imprisoned many thousands of Iraqis. The dense social and kinship networks in Iraq were provoked by this violence; if a cousin were killed, you would more likely than not seek revenge. In Sunni communities, the structure of Islam is very decentralized—unlike the hierarchical Shias—and resistance formed around the mosque, the tribal leaders, former Ba’athists. The sanctions the U.S. imposed in 1991 and maintained for more than a dozen years had loosened Saddam’s grip outside Baghdad, and these tribal and religious leaders had stepped into the vacuum: they had networks already operating when George W. Bush invaded. So the pushback against the U.S. military was relatively easy to mobilize and sustain. And the violence fed on itself, becoming cannibalizing in a civil war.

One lesson we can draw from this is that war is unpredictable: once you start one, you simply don’t know what will happen moving forward in time.

Another way of understanding the past is to look at the present moment. What do we see in Iraq? The rampages of the Islamic State, or ISIS, are a direct result of the last 25 years of war and sanctions. Many of the leaders of ISIS were in prison during the last U.S. war, including al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader. The war left millions impoverished and without male heads of households. People were malnourished, traumatized by the colossal violence, terrified by the sectarian warfare and more likely than ever to recede into ethnic or sectarian identities. As the historian Juan Cole has remarked, Iraq was “a smoking ruin.” The reign of the Shia prime minister Nouri al Maliki—hand-picked by the U.S. ambassador—only hardened sectarian divisions and suspicion, while Iraq plummeted to become one of the most corrupt states on Earth.

For all these reasons, ISIS could and did gain quickly. It’s no surprise that its first major triumph was overtaking Fallujah, the site of the most ferocious battles of the U.S. war, and where Iraqi mortality was extremely high, people were forced out of their homes, and chemicals like white phosphorous were widely used by the U.S. military. The war so disordered Iraqi society, and especially the beleaguered Sunni Arabs, that a extreme group like ISIS could build a following and meet little local resistance despite its harsh brand of devotion. The impoverishment, resentment, and sheer despair among Iraqis is the proximate cause of ISIS’s success.

Each war has its own consequences. Consider Korea. One important lesson we can learn from studying the war and the years before it began in June 1950. The story we “know” about the Korean War is that the North Korean communists crossed the 38th parallel established at the end of the Second World War to attack the American ally of South Korea; thus ensured an enormously violent three-year war, punctuated by General MacArthur’s heroic landing an Inchon, his drive to the northern edge of the country, the Yalu River, the entry of the Chinese communists into the war, and the stalemate that settled very near to where the war began.

There is another narrative, or shafts of light on this broad narrative, which are illuminating. The Korean War might have been avoided if the U.S. occupation were more flexible and include slightly leftist political organizations in the period after Japanese surrender. A rightist politician, Syngman Rhee, maneuvered into the South Korean presidency with American support, and throughout this period the U.S. occupation authority and Syngman Rhee dealt very harshly with labor strife in particular. The historian Bruce Cumings, in his magnificent two-volume account of the war, makes the case that the war could have been avoided.
The war itself was violent in part because Korea is very densely populated and in part because it was a civil war. Much of the violence was realized in the strategic bombing of the north by Gen. Curtis Le May, who boasted that the U.S. air force didn’t leave a single building standing. We bombed dams to flood vast areas of the north. People were forced to live in caves.

Is it any wonder, all these years later, that North Korea became a horribly disfigured state? South Korea took about four decades to shake off its repressive, right-wing government. So the consequences of division and war have been extremely difficult for the Korean people.
The Vietnam War’s impact is even more vivid. Vietnam went through years of very harsh poverty after the war. But the most striking human outcome of the war was the legacy of the use of dioxin, one of the most lethal substances known, in so-called Agent Orange, exposing 4 million Vietnamese people. It killed hundreds of thousands, and left as many or more disfigured, disabled, and passing the onerous effects on genetically to future generations. Three hundred thousand Vietnamese suffer from Agent Orange effects today. The United States will not acknowledge this legacy.

In all these countries, unexploded bombs maim or kill a staggering number of people—often children. There are an estimated 800,000 such live weapons in Vietnam. In South Korea, about one million land mines remain active from the Korean War. In Laos, where 270 million bombs were dropped by the U.S. in the 1960s, 80 million unexploded bombs are believed to be active on the ground. In Cambodia, where 750,000 people died as a result of U.S. bombing and another 1.5 million died when the psychopath Pol Pot ruled—another result of the chaos caused by the American war—there may be as many of four million active landmines.

Even forty years later, the trauma of the war remains.
Truong Thi Le, who was 30 at the time of the massacre, had nine family members murdered by Charlie Company. She survived because she was able to hide in the rice fields with her 6-year-old boy. During the massacre, “her daughter was sitting dying, holding her grandmother, who was already dead. She said to Mrs. Le: “Mother, I think I am very badly injured, maybe I’ll die, I don’t think I can survive. You have survived, you had better take little brother away. Please don’t stay here as the Americans will shoot you.’ . . . When the troops left she carried her child home in her arms, but there was no home left. It was burned to cinders.”[i] Interviewed on the 30th anniversary of the massacre, she tells a reporter she still works in the rice fields where she hid with her little boy. “To get there she walks 55 paces down a dirt path, to the well into which a man was thrown and shot, then 40 paces to a silkwood tree, where 15 people, two of them toddlers, were shot, and finally 70 paces to the site of a now-destroyed watchtower, where 102 villagers were assembled and slaughtered. She doesn’t think about the killings all the time, she says. ‘Only when I walk by here.’ How often does she make that trip? ‘Every day.’”

In Iraq, we have not only the very lethal activities of ISIS, but continuing sectarian division in Baghdad and elsewhere. The city, once a blend of Sunni and Shia and Kurd, is now ethnically cleansed, which was done during the U.S. occupation, violently, before and after the so-called surge of early 2007.

The story we tell ourselves is that the surge—the introduction of 30,000 new U.S. troops in January 2007—led to a “victory” in Iraq because the sectarian killing subsided. But the ethnic cleansing and the purchase of Sunni Arab sheiks’ support were more decisive. Ultimately, the “cleansing” did reduce overall violence, but at the high price of dislocation, further division, and mistrust, all of which contributed to the political stalemate and retribution that has gripped Iraq since the U.S. invasion. This in turn led to near total distrust of the Iraqi army in their first encounters with ISIS, because the army was a Shia-led instrument.

And amidst the machinations of politicians is, again, the human story. Yezidi women under ISIS control, for example, tell stories of rape and forced marriages, some involving girls as young as 14. A few years ago, I was reading some blogs written by Iraqis when I came across one by a father in Baghdad:

I cannot imagine a father or mother hating their children. But in our miserable existence, we come very close to that.
An average parent in present-day ‘free Iraq’ spends a good portion of the day and night worrying to death over his or her children going to school, going out with their friends, being a shade late in coming home . . . Their agony in their sleep soaking wet in their sweat during the long power cuts in the mercilessly hot summer nights of Baghdad is a dull pain of helplessness and fury in the heart.
Most of the time you are sick with worry over their safety and well-being. The knowledge that they are in constant danger consumes you. It eats you alive.
You then realize that it is your love for them that is killing you. You begin to hate that love

These stories, if more widely shared, should haunt us and should haunt our politicians. But because the stories involve consequences of U.S. policies, we hear little of it. The civilian losses in the civil war in Syria, which does not much involve the United States, received four times as much coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post in 2013 as did the U.S. war in Iraq in 2006 at the height of the violence. Why? Because we feel much more comfortable discussing other people’s atrocities. We turn away from the responsibility for our wars’ devastation like we shun a beggar on the street.
Why is that? Why do we turn our backs to Koreans, Vietnamese, Afghans, and Iraqis as we have? Why do we bury or deny their stories, the ones they need in order to live? I do not believe this vast carelessness is due simply to racism or some sense of American superiority. These sentiments undoubtedly play a role. But there is more to it than that.

The cultural historian Richard Slotkin provides an insight on one aspect of this. Slotkin, who taught for many years at Wesleyan, authored three books of monumental significance that carefully shows that American culture and indeed government actions in the world are profoundly influenced by what he calls the Frontier Myth—the ideas developed by the Puritans that they were facing a hostile wilderness, populated by savages, and that it was their divine mission to encounter the wilderness, subdue the savage, and reap the bounty of their efforts. In this “errand to the wilderness” the Puritans and generations of Americans following them would perforce use violence. But this violence was not, as one would expect, a last resort, but rather a means of purifying the soul in pursuit of God’s intentions. It was, and is, as Slotkin shows, regeneration through violence. And this was relevant to the Frontier because, of course, each foray into the wilderness was expanding the frontier across the continent.

Later generations secularized the Puritans’ vision to imbue the frontier and frontier life as the noblest expression of democratic values—pioneering, small scale politics, hard work, turning the wilderness into productive land, and of course claiming the land for the European-origin settlers. The hero, like Daniel Boone, figures prominently in this sweep across time and geography. The Frontier Myth carried us all the way to California, virtually exterminating the indigenous tribes, and when the frontier closed, people like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson regarded the world’s wildernesses as ripe and rightly objects of American interest.

We can see the frontier myth at work even today. In Iraq, the conflict was often depicted in cowboys and Indians imagery. One of the most famous stories of early in the war in 2003 was the captivity and rescue of Jessica Lynch, an army private who was badly injured in an attack and was heroically rescued by Army Rangers. Captivity stories are central to the Frontier Myth—think of John Ford’s epic film, “The Searchers”—and Jessica Lynch was made to order. Only the story wasn’t true in most key respects. But we heard constantly about the savagery of the insurgents, and of the Taliban in Afghanistan, just as we hear about it today in ISIS.

Our sense of mission and our troubling embrace of violence comprise a plausible explanation for our indifference toward the “savages” killed in our wars. But I believe another theory also sheds light on this callousness. That’s what’s called Just World Theory. Developed by social psychologists years ago and tested in experiments countless times, Just World Theory holds that we see our world as being orderly and essentially just. This is a first world phenomenon. When you do see a beggar on the street, what do you do? Most people walk by and don’t help out. Many of them feel hostility toward him, because he’s upset our notions of our world being orderly and just. Now consider this on a societal scale, viewing a native population ravaged by U.S. actions. Do we sympathize? Well, the cold answer is no, we don’t: we turn away, because this ravaged population was not part of the deal of intervention. We were supposed to be greeted like Parisians welcomed us in 1945. Instead, we’re the perpetrators of violence, the lords of disorder. So we turn away, permanently.

When President Obama have a speech at the end of the deployment of US troops in Iraq, in 2011, he did not mention Iraqi civilians at all. If you go to the Vietnam war memorial on the national mall in Washington, you will not find any mention of Vietnamese. At the Korean War memorial nearby, there’s not a word about Korean civilians.

These are not stories we want to tell ourselves. But to survive, we should. We need the narratives of sadness and loss and injustice every bit as much as we need the stories of bravery and happy outcome. As we hurdle into the unknowable future, those stories prepare us to be better global leaders. We need to tell them to ourselves now, and listen to others who are trying to speak to us as well.

Dr. John Tirman, researcher, author and Executive Director of the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Tirman was educated at Indiana University (B.A., 1972) and earned a doctorate at Boston University, where he specialized in political theory with Howard Zinn. At MIT he heads the Persian Gulf Initiative, which has conducted ground-breaking work on Iraq war mortality and U.S.-Iran relations. He is editor or coeditor, and coauthor of several collected volumes, including The Maze of Fear: Security & Migration After 9/11 (2004); Terror, Insurgency, and the State (2007); and Multilateralism Under Challenge? Power, International Order, and Structural Change (2006).