The Relative Value of Human Lives

Please reflect on some statistics produced in November by the Pew Center which polled the American public about all sorts of things. Almost as an afterthought, the pollsters asked “What is the name of the president of Russia?”

63 per cent of Americans could not answer “Putin”.

Another basic general knowledge question was “Recently, the Palestinians were given control of the Gaza Strip. Do you know which country gave them this control?”

48 per cent of Americans did not know that it was Israel.

These responses serve to confirm my long-held belief that most people in every country are simply not interested in affairs beyond their borders. It isn’t just Americans who are ludicrously ignorant of life in foreign lands, and yet they, and most people round the world, have forthright and even vicious views about how to treat foreigners. The matter of nationality is of much importance, especially to those who could not identify a country other than their own on an atlas. (See the hilarious “Who to Attack Next”, which casts doubt on the view that mankind may be nature’s last word in the development of Planet Earth.)

It is apparent that the value of your life depends to a great extent on the country whose passport you hold. If you are, say, a Yemeni, Filipino, Afghan or Sudanese, your life is near zero in worth, so far as the world at large is concerned. But if you are from a country that wants to protect its citizens, and that desire is backed by economic clout or military muscle, then you stand a good chance of being looked after by your native land.

To take one example : ten years ago there was a mysterious parachute drop of weapons in north west India from an Antonov aircraft. The details don’t concern us, here, but what happened to the people who carried out the operation was revealing, in view of their nationality. There were five Latvians and two Britons in the airplane that was forced to land in India. (One Briton managed to get out of the country, in a remarkable operation conducted by professionals.) The remaining six were sentenced to life imprisonment, possibly justifiably. But their fates then altered.

After four years in prison the Latvians suddenly became Russians in nationality, and President Putin of Russia told the Indians he wanted them released, which they were — instantly. The Briton, Peter Bleach, wasn’t so lucky. He was left by Britain to rot in jail forever. The British foreign minister went through the motions of trying to do something and wrote two letters to his opposite number in India. Both were ignored. There wasn’t even the courtesy of an acknowledgement, which says quite a lot about how the Britain of prime minister Blair is regarded by India and a lot of other countries, nowadays. Mr Bleach was eventually set free last year as a gesture of goodwill because India was arranging a deal to buy 66 planes for its air force from the UK. There was no question of the miserable Blair getting tough.

But Russia has always gotten tough. (Several people have emailed to ask me why I like to use ‘gotten’, as I am not American. I always reply that what was good enough for Shakespeare is good enough for me, and that my favorite phrase from The Merry Wives of Windsor is “He was gotten in drink.”) Anyway, Russia was and continues to be very tough indeed concerning protection of its citizens abroad.

In the horrible, anarchic years in which so many people were kidnapped in Lebanon — journalists, academics, businessmen and spooks — there were victims from many countries. But no Russians. The reason there were no Russians taken hostage is simply that the ambassador of the Soviet Union in Beirut sent for the heads of the various terror groups and said words to the effect : “If you dare take a single Soviet hostage we will kill you and your entire families.”

And the Sovs could and would have carried out their threat. They weren’t amateurs. They had Arabic speakers who had specialized in the region since their teens. Some of them had attended the American University. They were ruthless, but they didn’t flail about being ruthless when they knew they would alienate the population by killing civilians.

Of course it isn’t that the Sovs were averse to killing civilians. God forbid the thought, if you will excuse the expression in this context. The Soviet Union was right up there with Hitler, Mao and all the African dictators in callously extinguishing the lives of countless millions of men, women and children. But there was, and continues to be in the Russian leadership, some regard for the relative value of lives. It is immoral and disgusting, of course, to be selective. But it works.

And we are all selective about the value of lives. Every country in the world is selective.

There is no country in which newspapers have not at some time had grotesquely nationalistic headlines about a global disaster. The Times of Calathumpia (it’s a country just to the right of Xenophobia), for example, will carry something like : “SIX CALATHUMPIANS KILLED IN TSUNAMI. 300,000 others dead” on the front page.

Then it publishes interviews with the relatives, friends and family pets of the dead Calathumpians on pages 2 through 15, with a center spread of photographs from their College Year Books and recollections from backyard barbecues over the past decade or so. The 300,000 dead foreigners are given space once the six dead heroes (because all people of your own nation who die in earthquakes or whatever are ‘heroes’) have been described in unremittingly maudlin detail from cradle to grave.

And this is merely a surface-scratch on the carapace of moral-resistant humbug that surrounds us all. It would be nice to think that devout Christians believe that Buddhists (for example) deserve understanding and are also God’s People. But many millions of Christians have no such Christian sentiments. They regard the lives of non-Christians as being less important than those who are ‘Saved’.

And, to be unpalatably honest with ourselves, there are very few of us who do not consider some individuals or even entire peoples to be inferior because of their religious practices, skin color, place of birth, national characteristics, ethnic habits, dietary practices, or anything, really, that makes them different from the ‘normal’ (read, ‘perfect’) person that we fondly imagine ourselves to be.

When Leslie Stahl of CBS asked Madeleine Albright on May 11, 1996 if the deaths of half a million Iraqi children because of US-induced UN sanctions were “worth it”, Albright replied “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.” Would she have said that if the kids had been white? Certainly, this was a staggeringly cold and horrible utterance, but one wonders how many people — and in how many countries? — supported her point of view. Because it is only us silly sentimental liberals who took exception to her endorsement of actions that would have had King Herod think admiringly about appointing her as chief infanticide advisor.

There is a comic side to all this nationalistic chauvinism. When a newsworthy event takes place, the media of most countries immediately look for the local angle. The parish-pump parochialism of even the most prestigious newspapers is staggeringly funny. (Most countries’ television news, generally with the exception of the BBC, is concerned with fatuous home-town nonsense.) Today, as I write this piece, the ‘New Zealand Herald’ front page headline is AUCKLAND MAN HELD HOSTAGE. It concerned an unfortunate man taken captive by the murderous loonies in Iraq. (That is the Iraqi murderous loonies; not the other murderous loonies who blitz towns with chemical weapons that aren’t chemical weapons because they are used for democracy.) One would imagine from the banner headline that a New Zealander was involved. That would be a reasonable assumption.

But given the immaturity and lack of savoir faire of the tiny tots involved in production of today’s newspapers, that is not at all a reasonable conclusion to reach. As revealed later in the front page splurge : “Harmay Singh Sooden [the ‘Auckland Man Held Hostage’], 32, a Canadian citizen born in Africa of Indian parents . . .” was kidnapped in Iraq along with three other people who had, alas, no connection with Auckland or any other centre of high culture. The others were real foreigners, although Mr Sooden, who had been a student in Auckland, is no more an Aucklander than is Yogi Bear. It is this type of thing that exemplifies the parochialism of many countries’ newspapers — and of their readers. For it is readers (and especially advertisers) who dictate what appears in newspapers : and what they want is trivia. (And, in the case of the UK, Ms Trivia with Big Tits.) But if there has to be reportage of boring international events, then this has to be closely focused on nationalism, because the lives of citizens of any newspaper’s country are by definition more valuable than the lives of foreigners.

The relative value of lives is nowhere more starkly highlighted than in the two wars that Bush Washington is conducting at the moment, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraqi civilians are killed in their scores by insurgents’ car bombs and the scale of slaughter of Iraqi civilians by US troops is monstrous. The number of dead caused by insurgents (the word that is so disliked by the moron Rumsfeld) is faithfully recorded by the Pentagon. The number of Iraqi civilians killed by US bombing is ignored. All Iraqis killed — all of them, without exception — are “terrorists”.

The oafish US Air Force General Walter E (Buck) Buchanan III, commander of US Central Command Air Forces, said last month in Dubai that reports of civilian casualties in Iraq were exaggerated and that many deaths had been “staged”. (The cretin also said that White Phosphorus had not been used as a weapon, which the Pentagon had been forced to admit it had, just the day before he warbled from a different song sheet. Where on earth do they get these people from?)

But we shouldn’t blame fatheads such as Buck Buchanan the Third for being so gross as to announce that the number of Iraqi casualties had been exaggerated [by whom?] and that dead Iraqis weren’t really dead because their deaths had been “staged”. He and his ilk really believe that everything the US says is Right, and everything that foreigners say is Wrong. He has probably never seen the photograph of the weeping, blood-covered three year-old Iraqi girl whose parents had just been killed by a merciless hail of fire from trigger-happy soldiers. The general and his merry jet-jockeys, after all, bomb from 30,000 feet and never see the results of their slaughter. It’s just a video game to the boys upstairs. And, as the general and all Pentagon propagandists assure us, their bombs never miss. They are smart bombs.

But the trouble is that the people directing them are not as smart as their bombs. And the bombs kill hundreds of civilians because many of the people who direct them on to their targets are semi-robots, and in any case couldn’t give a damn about the lives of ragheads. The relative value of lives formula in the US military is that foreigners don’t matter. Kill a few hundred civilians? What the hell does it matter?


“October 18, 2005. KANDAHAR, Afghanistan. Reuters – US troops shot four Afghan policemen dead and wounded another after mistaking them for militants during an operation in southern Afghanistan, a senior local official said on Tuesday . . . Earlier this month US troops mistook some policemen for militants during a hunt in the adjacent province of Helmand, again killing four and wounding another.”

Imagine what would happen if US troops had shot dead some British or German police on patrol in Afghanistan. There would be uproar. But they were only Afghans who were killed. Who cares? Nobody has ever heard of these incidents except those who closely follow developments in the shambles that Bush has created in Afghanistan. There were eight families devastated by the loss of their breadwinners, but they are only Afghans.

The relative value of lives internationally is a simple assessment. And the only conclusion is that the life of a person from a poor nation, or one without military or economic clout, is worth less than the life of a citizen of a powerful one.

When this is displayed in terms of the military might that is exercised by barbaric occupation forces such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, then the difference becomes even more reprehensible in moral terms. But then, morality is in pretty short supply round the world. It’s better just to bury your head in the sand and occasionally lift it out to squawk that all foreigners are nasty. Few people would disagree with you.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website


Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.