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Hiding the Body Count The Little Deaths

The Little Deaths

by BRUCE JACKSON

Every few days the U.S. Department of Defense issues a terse press release of US military deaths in Iraq from non-combat causes. These lack drama or narrative so they are hardly ever noted in newspapers or television newscasts in places other than the hometowns of the newly dead. The DoD release for August 25, 2002, for example, read, in its entirety:

Pfc. Michael S. Adams, 20, of Spartanburg, S.C., died on Aug. 21 in Baghdad, Iraq. Adams was participating in a small arms fire exercise on the range when a bullet ricocheted and ignited a fire in the building. He died as a result of injuries sustained during the fire. Adams was assigned to 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Baumholder, Germany.

Spc. Stephen M. Scott, 21, of Lawton, Okla., died on Aug. 23 in Baghdad, Iraq. Scott died as a result of non-combat injuries. Scott was assigned to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Carson, Colo.

Pfc. Vorn J. Mack, 19, of Orangeburg, S.C., died on Aug. 23 near the Hadithah Dam, west of Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Mack jumped into the Euphrates River to take a swim and did not resurface. A search party found Mack’s body downstream on Aug. 24. Mack was assigned to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Carson, Colo.

These incidents are under investigation.

The U.S. does not, as a matter of public record, keep any listing of Iraqi civilian and paramilitary kills (but some nonmilitary people try: see Iraq Body Count ). There was no attempt at a count during the formal part of the war; there is no admission of a continuing count during this continuing part of the war. I have no doubt, however, that they do have their own body count of the civilian dead since the U.S. occupation of Iraq began. They’re just not distributing the numbers. They fear misinterpretation by people like you and me.

How is one to tell the difference between a family machinegunned to death by nervous 19-year-olds worrying that the car heading their way is a bomb and a guerilla driving a car that is in fact a bomb machinegunned to death by some other nervous 19-year-olds? How is one to tell the difference between a suicidal religious fanatic out for some American blood and some poor sonofabitch who goes amok and attacks a U.S. soldier because his eldest child just died because the hospital U.S. missiles blew up last spring is still not functioning and even if it had been he couldn’t have gotten the dying child through U.S. military barricades anyway? How is one to know if the woman screaming and waving her hands is just pissed off because she hasn’t had any electricity or potable water since last spring or if she’s got a bomb under that flowing dress?

No American military official, in the heat of a Mesopotamian summer, can make those distinctions. That would require investigations, time, personnel. It would require disciplining soldiers who shot too quickly or with no justification at all. Put an American boy on trial for murder in a place like this? For the death of one of them? Never.

Except for the most egregious civilian deaths, which is to say those that take place when a lot of independent witnesses are present, the kills are all of guerillas, Al Qaeda, paramilitary whatevers, or they are ignored entirely. It’s like Vietnam: if it’s dead it’s V.C. The only difference is, in Vietnam they bragged about the body count and in Iraq they hide it.

The count may be hidden from us, but they are not hidden from Iraqis. The deaths are real and specific. The dead all have names, every single one of them. They have families, every one of them.

Here’s one of those names Iraqis know: a man named Mazin turned a corner in a prosperous Baghdad neighborhood on the afternoon of Sunday, July 27, going home with his wife and teenage son. He was driving a Toyota Corona. Task Force 20, the U.S. military’s hit squad assigned to hunt down people close to Saddam, was just then mounting a raid on a house where they thought some bad guys might be holed up. Soldiers backing up the raiders had set up a roadblock. When they saw Mazin’s Toyota they immediately opened fire, blowing off the right half of his head. The wife and son, witnesses said, were injured and were taken away by the Americans.

A man named Mazin, who lived in a comfortable neighborhood, going home on a Sunday afternoon with his wife and son. He’s dead. Maybe they are too.

They add up, these deaths, day after day, no matter how many times a well-groomed one-star general tells an air-conditioned press corps that things are going well, things are under control, our boys are doing a wonderful job, thank you for your attention, God bless the United States of America and its President..

And then there are the journalist deaths. Seventeen of them now, the most recent a Reuters photographer shot dead by U.S. troops shortly after identifying himself to U.S. troops as a Reuters photographer. Only two of the journalist deaths were embedded-one was a vehicular accident, the other died in his sleep, like some of the G.I.s in the DoD non-combat death reports. The others were all shot to death or missiled to death, most of them by U.S. forces. (Proving that it is, on the whole, better to see only what they want you to see while embedded than look at what’s really going on when you’re not.)

The total number of U.S. military dead in Iraq since President George W. Bush’s melodramatic San Diego harbor aircraft carrier declaration of the war’s end now exceeds the number who died in combat. We don’t know how many civilians were killed by U.S. missiles and bombs and guns before Bush’s carrier declaration. If the post-carrier-declaration doesn’t yet exceed the pre-carrier-declaration they will. This is not going to stop.

Every day, more deaths. More G.I.s killed and maimed in official attacks with demonstrable bad guys that get reported in the press. More G.I.s killed and dying by accident or for unexplained reasons that are noted only in those almost invisible minimal DoD press releases. More Iraqis killed and maimed by U.S. soldiers making their world safe for democracy.

Every day, the little deaths. This war that we won.

BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: bjackson@buffalo.edu