THE DEATHS OF OTHERS: A challenging op-ed piece!


Concerning the lives of others: Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve known Dan Rodricks for years. Although not that well!

In Sunday morning’s Baltimore Sun, Rodricks wrote one of the most challenging opinion columns we’ve seen in years.

His column concerned “the deaths of others,” the title of a new book by an MIT researcher. Rodricks remembered the way we went into Iraq, then turned to a challenging topic:
RODRICKS (9/11/11): But what you might not know is the scope of death and destruction we inflicted on the civilian population of Iraq; it was completely disproportionate to the offenses against us, a horrifying overreaction to Sept. 11.

You can be excused if you're not familiar with the numbers. The Pentagon rarely made comments about civilian casualties during the invasion, and the media seldom asked about or reported on them. Plus, general indifference is quite common through history, according to John Tirman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who explores this subject in "The Deaths of Others," a challenging new book about the fate of civilians in American wars.
“Disproportion” is a matter of judgment. The number of civilian deaths in Iraq is a fact, though the fact may be hard to determine. That said, Rodricks is plainly correct on one point; the number of civilian deaths was largely ignored in our public discourse. Rodricks expanded on that point, helped along by some statements by Tirman:
RODRICKS (continuing directly): The very topic of culpability for civilian suffering is essentially out of bounds in the echo chamber of Washington political discourse," writes Mr. Tirman, executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT. "The idea that civilian casualties are unsettling to the American public and that the resultant outrage serves as a check on military behavior is nonsense. The human costs are simply not discussed in any sustained or probing way; even scattered attempts to account for the dead is a highly charged endeavor."

That was clear in the fall of 2006, when researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported the results of an epidemiological survey of Iraq households and estimated 655,000 "excess deaths" in the first 40 months of the war.
Rodricks went on to discuss the methodology of that Hopkins/Bloomberg survey, which “was derided in the media and dismissed by the Bush administration.” As he ended his column, he returned to Tirman’s most challenging theme:
RODRICKS: Not all civilian deaths were caused by direct military force; the sectarian violence unleashed in the chaos after the U.S. invasion was accountable for a lot of the deaths, too. But it's all war-related. The "excess deaths" estimate was based on a comparison between Iraq's prewar mortality rate and the post-invasion rate determined by the 2006 survey.

"There is little evidence that the American public cares what happens to people who live where our interventions are conducted," Mr. Tirman concludes, less in condemnation than in curiosity. "What are the consequences of this vast carelessness?"

One consequence is the risk that survivors of our post-Sept. 11 interventions, still climbing out of their smoky ruins, hate us as they never did before.
Does the American public “care what happens to people who live where our interventions are conducted?” Presumably, yes and no. As many academics are wont to do, Tirman is making a sweeping claim about 300 million people. In another area, he’s on firmer ground: Plainly, the media avoided this general topic in the case of Iraq. It’s harder for people to care about things if those things don’t get discussed.

Will survivors hate us more than before? We can’t answer that question. We will offer these reactions to Rodricks’ challenging column:

First: A nation’s discourse is largely defined by the topics that don’t get discussed—by the topics the nation agrees to ignore. There’s no doubt that the media largely agreed to ignore civilian deaths in Iraq. Another example, one that’s much stranger: The way the liberal world has agreed to avoid discussing the brutal political “journalism” of the Clinton-Gore years, including that of Campaign 2000.

Second: It’s largely built into the human brain to disregard the deaths of others. This is another way of saying that we humans are wired to be tribal. For the most part, we humans have to remind ourselves that the deaths of others actually matter. In a similar way, we have to remind ourselves that it is evil to attribute hateful motives to all members of some other tribe—perhaps on the basis of embarrassingly weak-minded “surveys” concocted by “academics.”

Yesterday, we watched some of the real-time video from September 11 shot by amateurs on the streets of New York. (Extensive footage ran on the History Channel.) Quite understandably, these people were amazed, astounded, overwhelmed by the things they saw that day. But destruction like that is not uncommon in various parts of the world.

How do people react to such events in those places? That involves the reactions of others, the importance of which we must constantly teach ourselves not to ignore.


  1. But what you might not know is the scope of death and destruction we inflicted on the civilian population of Iraq; it was completely disproportionate to the offenses against us, a horrifying overreaction to Sept. 11.

    Iraqi offenses against us = 0

  2. The comments and dislikes at the Baltimore Sun are illuminating in a familiar Tribal fashion. Morality be damned still appears to be the central taking point.

  3. excellent point myiq2xu. But Bob's right about the broader point: that you never hear about the staggering number of casualties inflicted by the U.S. in a war that never had to be fought.

    Beyond that, at the risk of sounding tribal myself, I have to say that it makes me a little sick to see Cheney, Karen Hughes, Rumsfeld, et. al on the talk shows/in documentaries reflecting on 9/11. I think a very strong argument can be made that the attacks would not have happened but for the Bush administration's willful ignorance of the "hair on fire" warnings and the obsession with starting a war with Iraq.

  4. I have to ask -- are the human costs to any "tribe" involved in the Iraq war discussed in any sustained or probing way?

  5. The press bears much of the blame for our apparent lack of interest in how many people we've killed or helped to kill overseas, but I don't see a huge groundswell of interest among people I know for the most part. It seems to me to be an obvious question to ask--How many people are dead because of us? You don't need some extraordinary level of insight to think about this. There's a chicken and egg question here--is the lack of interest in the general public due to the press, or is the press following the public? I'd guess it's more the fault of the press, but it's hard to say.

    As for the actual number, there was a more conservative number that came from a survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine which said there were about 150,000 deaths in the same period covered by the Lancet study which estimated 650,000. So the number is unknown. But even the more conservative estimate was three times higher than Iraq Body Count's figure for the time and if that ratio was accurate and still holds, the death toll now would be over 300,000. Higher estimates (based on extrapolating the Lancet paper) would put it at over 1 million.

  6. Well, the really interesting thing is that if a majority of Americans were really immune to the deaths of others, then the media wouldn't have to expend so much energy NOT reporting on it. I take the fact that the media is so careful to avoid reporting those numbers (it's certainly not the difficultly of ascertaining accurate numbers that's holding them back, since accuracy isn't something they value) means that media owners fear it would accelerate opposition.

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