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When body-counts kill

Our obsession with numbers of casualties in Iraq encourages the insurgents to make even more.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Some commentators seem to have been waiting with bated breath for the two-thousandth American soldier in Iraq to die. No sooner had CNN announced that, by its reckoning, the death on Tuesday of Staff Sergeant George T Alexander from wounds he sustained in a bomb attack north of Baghdad had brought the American death toll to a grim 2,000, than anti-war websites and news outlets (including those that normally accuse CNN of being in the pay of a pro-war, pro-Bush conspiracy) were making it into the big news of the month. Headlines said ‘Bloody milestone is Bush’s millstone’ and ‘Bring them home’, as Alexander’s death became an international media event, cited as evidence that the war and occupation are a disaster which now must be brought to an end (1).

Nothing better shows up the degraded state of the debate about Iraq than the obsession with numbers of dead and maimed. Both sides of the war debate marshal armies of the dead to do their dirty work for them. The anti-war side point to the 2,000 (now 2,003) dead American soldiers and ask ‘Was it worth it?’, and campaign for coalition officials to count the Iraqi dead so we can all know the truth about Iraq (2). The pro-war lobby dig up Saddam’s mass graves and display the corpses for everyone to see, and argue that more Iraqis would have died if Saddam remained in power than have perished under the coalition. In this degraded necro-debate, neither side makes a convincing argument against the war, or for it – but they do send a clear message to the Iraqi insurgents about how to hit the West where it hurts.

The anti-war brigade seems to have abandoned any attempt to build a political opposition to the war in favour of morbidly fixating on the dead and images of the dead. Visit any anti-war website and you will see an Iraq Body Count counter with a ticking toll of the civilians killed over the previous 24 hours. Others have US military death-counters which hotly anticipated the two-thousandth death earlier this week. One website caused an international storm with its Freedom of Information challenge against the Bush administration to release photos of American coffins arriving back from Iraq: it won, and the photos were published around the world (3). Journalists call for more scenes of death and destruction on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Michela Wrong of the New Statesman has said that she is ‘sickened and disgusted by the outrageous lack of graphic violence on our screens today’: she wants more ‘blood and guts’ from Iraq because ‘we are literal-minded creatures. To believe something, we need to see it.’ (4)

Beyond the liberal media, flagging up death has become a central plank of the anti-war movement. In both America and Britain the anti-war movement has pushed the grieving parents of dead squaddies to the front of their campaigns in the hope that their pitiful and pained faces will convince the rest of the public to become anti-war. Cindy Sheehan, whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq, has been protesting around America. And as the Los Angeles Times reported, ‘leading liberal and anti-war activists [are] parachuting in to try to make her their long-sought voice’ (5). They hope, perhaps, that the strength of her grief will compensate for the weakness of their own political convictions. Anti-globalisation author Naomi Klein argues that the image of a grieving mum or dad is ‘the mother of all anti-war forces’ (6).

Anti-war activists campaign, exhaustively, for a count of the Iraqi dead. On a recent BBC Newsnight special, Lindsey German of the UK Stop the War Coalition demanded of foreign secretary Jack Straw that he count the dead civilians in Iraq; we have a ‘responsibility’, she claimed, to set the record straight. One anti-war writer in the US says it is incumbent on US forces to count dead Iraqis, because ‘if we do not know or care about the human cost of war for the winners and losers, America will be forever diminished in the eyes of the world’ (7).

These may appear as radical stances: challenging the West over the death and destruction it has wreaked in Iraq and calling for the publication of gruesome photos that would likely have been banned in earlier eras. In truth, the death-obsession of anti-war activists is motivated by cynicism and opportunism, and it represents a gobsmacking abdication of responsibility for coming up with a convincing political argument against the war. In place of a hard debate about new forms of Western intervention and why they’re a problem – and debates about whether the West should have the right to interfere in other state’s affairs, or whether a people can ever be liberated from without – we get shock-horror snapshots of dead kids and blown-up body parts and weeping mums and dads virtually having nervous breakdowns on the manicured lawns of the White House, in an effort to blackmail us emotionally into being concerned about the war. They hope that gore will make people anti-war, where their own political arguments may have failed to.

So when Michela Wrong calls for more ‘blood and guts’ on TV because the viewing public are ‘literal-minded creatures’, she demonstrates her own inability to construct a political case against the invasion of Iraq and her contempt for the masses. Instead of saying why the war was wrong in principle – a bad decision politically and morally – she points to Iraq’s blood-spattered streets and says, ‘Look, it’s all so gross!’ She also betrays a belief – widespread among anti-war thinkers and activists – that the general population is too selfish and stupid (we’re ‘literal-minded’, apparently) to be concerned about Iraq, so we had better shock them out of their stupour by showing them a severed head or two. Funnily enough, the insurgents in Iraq deploy similar arguments: they fancy that their videos of Westerners being decapitated or religious worshippers being incinerated outside a mosque might awaken the Arab masses to the need for jihad in the Middle East. They, too, rely on Blood and Guts TV in lieu of having anything remotely interesting to say.

The end result of the anti-war movement’s approach is the message that nothing is really worth fighting, and possibly dying, for. The focus on the tragedy of death, to the exclusion of a political case against the war that caused such death, suggests that death is always a waste and that we’d be better off ‘bringing Our Boys home’. Yet many people have supported wars in which thousands of people were killed, because they believed in what the war was for. What would today’s anti-war movement say about the thousands who willingly went to fight and kill (and possibly die) on the side of the Republicans against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s: that they paid ‘too high a price’ for their principles? Around 357,000 Britons died during the Second World War – as did millions of others around the world – but that is still considered by many to have been a ‘good war’ to defeat the Nazis.

Of course, you – like me – might consider the Iraq war to have been a political disaster, motivated by America’s and Britain’s search for some sense of mission and purpose where they have none at home. It is a travesty that so many Iraqi, American and British lives should have been extinguished for this cynical cause. But that means we need political arguments about the causes of Gulf War II, rather than this politics of pity where we throw our hands in the air at the consequences of the war rather than interrogate and challenge the war itself. The anti-war focus on broken bodies and scattered limbs sums up their patronising view of Iraqis as the poor little victims of jackbooted neocon crazies. And from this viewpoint the role of activists becomes to offer pity rather than solidarity, to flag up how pathetic and beleaguered Iraqis are – and how easily their bodies break – rather than positing an alternative to Western intervention.

In many ways, the coalition has only itself to blame for this death cult. It was coalition leaders who made casualties into a big political issue. On the eve of the war, it promised that the conflict would be swift and relatively painless and that it would avoid taking too many Iraqi or coalition casualties: some reports even claimed that this might be the first ‘clean war’ with no civilian deaths. The speech given by British Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins set the scene. He told troops that ‘Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly here…’ (8) President Bush said the US Army entered Iraq with ‘respect for its citizens, for their great civilisation, and for the religious faiths they practice’ (9). The military strategy for ousting the Baathists involved avoiding heavily populated towns and cities, so that civilian deaths would be kept to a minimum (10). So it is not really surprising that civilian deaths have come to be seen as hard evidence that the war has gone horribly wrong.

When, as in all wars, large numbers of civilians and soldiers started to die, coalition leaders became increasingly defensive. The Pentagon’s ban on photographing returning military coffins suggested that it was embarrassed by its dead, seeking to sneak them in the backdoor and hurry them into the earth without anybody noticing. Bush stopped attending military funerals, reportedly because he did not want to ‘bring attention’ to the number of dead Americans (11). Last year Bush officials revealed that the president spent Easter ‘praying for American casualties to ebb in Iraq’ (12). By originally declaring that it would do everything to avoid causing too many deaths, and then turning shamefaced from its fallen soldiers, the coalition helped to politicise death in Iraq, to turn it into a symbol of failure, a sign that things are falling apart. The anti-war movement merely feeds off this official fear and loathing about spilling blood in Iraq, by insisting that we should get to see the blood in all its gory glory.

The pro-war lobby plays the same game as its opponents – using dodgy death counts to justify its war. It uses mathematical mumbo-jumbo to show that if you take the total number of Iraqis killed by the Baathists (estimates vary from 200,000 to two million) and divide it by the number of years Saddam was in power (24, the one number everyone agrees on), you will discover that more Iraqis would have died over the past year had Saddam remained in power than have died in the postwar chaos. So Mark Steyn argues that 29,200 would have been killed by Saddam in a single year (a quite extraordinary figure) and fewer are being killed by the coalition in the space of a year. So while things may be bad now, they would have been statistically sadistically worse if the Baathists were still in charge. Anti-war activists counter that in fact 100,000 have died as a consequence of the coalition’s war (an equally dodgy figure, which comes from the Lancet) and therefore Iraqis are worse off. And on it goes: an interminable and grotesque competition of death stats.

If this was just a degraded debate, that would be bad enough. But it also has real and bloody consequences in Iraq. The politicisation of the dead by both camps in the West – the transformation of Iraqi civilians into effectively a bargaining chip in debates about the war – acts as an invitation to the insurgents to kill even more. When carnage in Iraq is presented automatically and internationally as a sign of American failure, when Western journalists call for more ‘blood and guts’ to wake up the viewing public, then the insurgents are more than happy to provide it. This helps to explain why this particular insurgency seems hellbent on killing as many civilians as possible; why it executes ‘spectaculars’ such as the killing of 26 children taking sweets from a US soldier or the grotesque incineration of 60 worshippers standing next to a petrol tanker outside a mosque. It was the coalition and its opponents that made civilian injuries and fatalities into a political issue, the defining issue of the war, in fact – and the insurgents exploit that in their dramatic attacks on civilian targets. Western handwringing effectively gives a green light to these murderous insurgents.

The people of Iraq are paying a heavy price indeed for the degraded and morbid politics being imposed on their country.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Bring them home, Senator Patrick Leahy, republished on TruthOut, 25 October 2005

(2) Who’s counting the dead in Iraq?, Helen Thomas, Miami Herald, 5 September 2003

(3) Burying the evidence, Guardian, 26 April 2004

(4) ‘World View’, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 26 April 2004

(5) Anti-war voice resonates in mother’s Texas vigil, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 2005

(6) The mother of all anti-war forces, Naomi Klein, Alternet, 9 July 2004
(7) Who’s counting the dead in Iraq?, Helen Thomas, Miami Herald, 5 September 2003

(8) Waging politically correct war: the inoffensive offensive?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2003

(9) Waging politically correct war: the inoffensive offensive?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2003

(10) See Military disengagement, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) See Twenty-first century Antigones?, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) Bush prays for a drop in Iraq casualties, Scott Lindlaw, Associated Press, 11 April 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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