The War No One Counts

In Iraq, one example of collateral damage


In the New York Times this week, there’s an op-ed piece called “The Forgotten Wages of War”. It’s written by John Tirman, who is the executive director of the Center for International Studies at M.I.T., and it deals with what is politely called “collateral damage”, as in harm that comes to people who are not, officially speaking, paid soldiers.

What is collateral damage? To Tirman, it is civilian deaths, largely underestimated. He quotes statistics on the war in Iraq: “In 2006, two separate household surveys, by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, found between 400,000 and 650,000 ‘excess deaths’ in Iraq as a result of the war. At the time, however, the commanding general in Iraq put the number at 50,000 and President Bush had claimed in late 2005 that it was just 30,000.”

It’s easy to lie about dead bodies. It’s also easy to count them.

But what about other collateral damage, different wages of war? The kind that doesn’t leave a corpse behind. The type of harm that lives on in minds and, yes, hearts, so that decades after peace has been officially declared, the hurt lives on and on?

The trouble with that kind of collateral damage is that it mostly affects women and children, who have little voice in conflict and, afterwards, sometimes want only to forget. Sometimes they are forced to “forget”, when families and society blame victims.

When, in 1864, Union Army General Sherman ordered troops in Georgia to march from Atlanta to coastal Savannah, he created what became known as the “scorched earth” policy. His troops killed livestock, burned crops, and foraged and consumed supplies. What became of the Georgians in his way – many of them children and women, some of them pregnant women – was immaterial. Certainly many died of hunger. Since transportation was impossible, others died of injuries or loss of blood.

Those were countable losses.

But what of the terror, the fear? The rapes? – since we know that in wartime, rape is used as a weapon of revenge, of terrorism, and of control. What of children who wake with nightmares that are less the product of imagination than observation and memory? What of induced mental illness, depression, psychosis? How about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects civilians as well as armed combatants?

Those uncountable harms didn’t show up in any accounting of the March to the Sea, as it’s known. Not then, not now. Nor in any current book-keeping of modern or contemporary war.

In Iraq, there has been more uncounted harm done to the civilian population than in the counted corpses.

As just one example, this investigation examines how the Iraqi war increased predators’ capturing and trafficking of women and girls. The chaos of battle makes entrepreneurs in human suffering. As one researcher notes, war and instability that followed the US invasion in 2003 “led to an environment where young women and girls became much more vulnerable to trafficking” and were sent as far away as the UAE to be kept as slaves and in enforced prostitution. Most will never be able to return to Iraq, even if they’re still alive.

There’s more collateral damage to be counted in wartime than the civilian corpses on the ground. That’s why they call it a fate worse than death.

If the Center for International Studies begins an accounting of contemporary war, if it seeks to make an accurate survey of harm done, then it needs to lift its eyes beyond corpses. It must take a look at the survivors, and count the collateral damage inflicted upon them by war. And be prepared for an extensive list.


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Filed under Domestic terrorism, Health, Iraq, News, Rape, Trafficking, Violence, War

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