9/11: an Historical Context

On this day three years ago a total of 2,973 people died in America at the hands of 19 Islamic terrorists in the most devastating domestic attack the US had ever experienced (the War of 1812 only killed 2,260 Americans, even although the Brits burned down the White House).

The 9/11 event was immediately denounced as an act of war, which it was (though by whom?), and the Bush administration quickly promised constant war against terrorist “evil” in reply, a notion the president continues to re-iterate.

But Americans have yet to be offered 9/11 in any historical context. Indeed, any discussion of terrorism as acts of war that is not 100% condemnatory is branded as unpatriotic. Because of this, U.S. citizens are missing important truths and cannot weight the attack of three years ago in any sensible way.

It is curious, too, that trying to find a detailed analysis of the 9/11 deaths is a difficult task. On the world wide web, the most recent breakdown of the figures come from an article in a newspaper in Iowa. Is there a reluctance because the total, almost never stated precisely but at 3000, does not quite blend with the hysterical invective that still blurs discussion about its implications?

In historical terms of war casualties worldwide, 9/11 was a relatively minor event. But because for two centuries Americans have lived invulnerably, protected by two vast oceans and confident no foreigners could invade or even bomb them, the Sept 11 carnage was psychologically catastrophic. Americans said it changed the world, but in fact Americans, or the US government, are making the most changes.

Some comparisons: From September to May 1941-42, the Nazi bombing blitz on Britain killed 40,000, all civilians and 5,000 of them children. At that rate Americans would have to experience identical 9/11s once a week for over three months to equal Britain’s suffering.

America’s worst losses of its own were in the Civil War (1861-65), when a total of 214,938 on both sides died in combat. But in the early hours of one day, March 10, 1945, more than 300 US B-29 planes fire-bombed Tokyo in a meticulously planned air-raid that incinerated 108,000 Japanese in their homes. Of those, 88,000 were never identified and all were civilians, many children.

Turning to larger statistics of World War II (some of which do vary), we find megadeath. The number of Chinese civilians who died was 7.75 million; Soviet Union, 7 million; Germany, 2.75 million; Japan, 672,000. Then there is a zero — the United States lost no civilians, say some statistics. Others put it at 6,000, but those were non-military citizens killed abroad, not at home.

World War I was the notorious charnel house. On July 1, 1916 on the first day of the battle of the Somme, opver 20,000 British soldiers were killed, mostly by German machine guns. It was the worst disaster in British military history. In the navy battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916, the Brits lost 6,097 sailors and 14 ships, with the Germans suffering “only” 2,551 deaths and 11 ships for a day’s total of 8,648 dead.

But what about those sissy French? Between August 4, 1914, the first day of the war, and the 29th of that month, 260,000 French soldiers had perished. By the autumn the French had lost more men than the whole of the US army’s deaths in the entire 20th century.

The US lost 47,752 military personnel in the Vietnam war (1964-73) and another 33,629 in Korea (1950-53). Its total killed in combat in World War II was 292,000, more than Britain, which lost 264,000. But 2.05 million Chinese military were killed and 1.3 million Japanese.

These were set wars, it may be said, and the “war” against terror is not so formalised. True, but again no statistics are offered. For instance, although the terrorist “Troubles” in Northern Ireland lasted from 1969 to 1998, the total killed on all sides exceeded 9/11 by 495, for a total of 3,468 in a part of the UK with only a population of 1.5 million, about the same as Manhattan, during that time.

If we are seeking civilian deaths on 9/11 we should exclude the Pentagon’s 125 deaths. Not all of them were in uniform, but official web sites are poor on any breakdown. Removing them all drops the total to 2,848, a shocking number to be sure, and one which offers for the bereaved no comfort in comparison.

But that is not the point. It is that the world is a shockingly violent place and Americans should be advised of this.

Professor Rudolph Rummel, of the University of Hawaii and formerly Yale, is the acknowledged expert on what he calls “domicide” or death by government. These are killings brought about by official orders or policies of governments whether or not elected democratically (and the worst are usually not).

In his book called Death by Government (1994 Transaction Publishers, NJ), Dr Rummel estimates that the world domicide total from 1945 to the end of the last century was over 80 million. That figure may include acts of genocide, but does not take in deaths by famine. It exceeds by five times the international total killed in World War II, and in that war far more civilians perished than people in uniform.

Meanwhile President Bush is claiming that his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made not only the US, but the world “a safer place” from terrorism. Unfortunately this is not true.

The world total for 2002 was about 750 people killed. Last year it was around 650. This year it already exceeds 1,000, including the recent deaths in the Russian school, the 191 killed in Madrid in March, and the 271 in the Shiite festival in Iraq the same month.

None of this should detract from the solemnity of today’s anniversary. But the figures offered above should be marked, as well as the 9/11 dead mourned.

CHRISTOPHER REED can be reached at: christopherreed@earthlink.net

[Editors’ Note: We have some minor quibbles with a few of CHRISTOPHER REED’s numbers, in an otherwise edifying column. Military deaths during the Civil War are generally recorded at being somewhere between 620,000 and 700,000, a figure which rightly includes deaths of the wounded, prisoners-of-war and by disease. Add in civilian casualties and the Civil War death toll probably exceeds 1.25 million. By one estimate, one-in-ten American families suffered a casualty in that bloodfest. On one September day alone, more than 22,000 fell on a field in Maryland called Antietam–8 times the number of casualties of 9/11. Pearl Harbor also deserves mention in any tally of attacks on America. On that December day in 1942, 2,403 Americans died, including 68 civilians. The death count was slightly less than the 9/11 attacks, but the American population was then roughly half of its present size. The events of 1812, lost in the misty corridors of history to many, remain fresh in the minds of both the Cockburn and St. Clair households. Cockburn’s relative, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, sacked Washington and feasted off of Dolly Madison’s china, while the relatives of Kimberly Willson-St. Clair hosted Little Jimmy Madison and Dolly in the Maryland countryside (now buried under subdivisions) on their flight from Washington, set aflame by Cpt. Cockburn’s torch-wielding terrorists/liberators. AC/JSC]