IGNORANCE IS BLITZED: If curiosity killed the cat, then writer John Tirman is here to say that America’s feline population is alarmingly safe. A soft-spoken man who weighs his words down to the last gram, Tirman will be talking at Chaucer’s this Thursday about his latest book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. I’m not sure whether you should stop by Harry’s for a stiff drink beforehand or afterward. Probably both. But given Tirman’s sobering subject matter, I doubt you’ll need a designated driver. Back in the early days of the Iraq War, when we were all basking in the rosy glow of quick and easy victory, Tirman — executive director and principal research scientist for MIT’s Center for International Studies — began to wonder what effect all the bombs we dropped were having on the Iraqi civilian population. You’d think we might be interested. The war, after all, was waged to liberate these people from the psychotic stranglehold of dictator Saddam Hussein. What Tirman discovered was an alarming dearth of information. The U.S. Military was hardly forthcoming about what it knew. And given the limited access the military allowed reporters, press reports of casualties — civilian or otherwise — were sketchy at best.
Equally striking to Tirman was the conspicuous dearth of curiosity on the subject. Being a former investigative reporter endowed with über-egghead institutional credentials, Tirman, however, was afforded a rare opportunity to scratch what itched him. He would co-conspire with researchers at Johns Hopkins, who were already co-conspiring with the British medical journal the Lancet, to study the matter. Teams of researchers would fly to Iraq, where they went house to house, surveyed the number of people who’d died, and compared those figures with pre-war Iraqi mortality statistics. In the first of two such studies, the Johns Hopkins–Lancet team attributed 100,000 “excess deaths” to the conflict. Later, in 2006, they would conclude the number was closer to 650,000. Another study undertaken about the same time put the figure closer to 400,000. At that time, Tirman said, U.S. military officials were estimating the number of civilian deaths between 30,000 and 50,000. We all know that war is hell. We also know you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. But that, by any reckoning, remains a very far cry from bombing the hell out of the chicken coop just to make a fried-egg sandwich.
Tirman makes no distinction between civilians, insurgents, and soldiers. They’re impossible to tell apart. The only thing that can be said for sure is that dead is dead. And if Tirman found, for example, that traffic deaths increased fivefold during the war, then he’d conclude those deaths were war-related. Tirman figured military commanders would want to know such information; if nothing else, it might help them better explain the breadth and intensity of Iraqi resistance to their supposed liberators. Tirman didn’t get much help from the military doing his research other than a few off-the-record interviews, during which regret at loss of civilian life would be expressed. But given that the Bush administration prohibited its own news media to photograph the flag-draped coffins of Americans killed in combat — now estimated at 4,477 — that’s hardly surprising. Last year, it was revealed — thanks only to WikiLeaks — that the military estimated the number of Iraqi civilians killed at 77,000.
Since that 2006 study, there’s been a whole lot more blood under the bridge. Tirman said a new report is expected soon which could peg the excess death toll at 800,000. He himself has suggested it could be more than a million. And on top of that, there are the 3.5 to 5 million Iraqis who fled their homes during the war. Of those, Tirman said, only 15 percent have returned.
In a grim way, I guess you can say things are getting better. When Tirman researched the Korean War — which claimed the lives of 35,000 American troops — he discovered that 1.5 million Koreans bit the dust. And while everyone knows the Vietnam War killed 58,000 Americans, few of us have clear in our minds the 2 to 3 million Vietnamese killed in that protracted struggle. Compared to those metrics, we’ve been almost surgical in the mayhem we’ve visited upon Iraq. But when you consider the reasons we attacked Iraq — what were they again? — that’s a whole lot of people who died considerably sooner than they otherwise would have.
As to why we’re so aggressively uninterested in the consequences of our actions, Tirman has lots of theories. He cites America’s storied and gory tradition of wiping out savages, all in the name of civilization. And there’s the “just world theory,” which enables us to discard outright any information that contradicts our carefully constructed conviction that the world is a just and orderly place and that we are decent, compassionate people. Killing millions of unarmed people — accidentally or incidentally — is something we just don’t do.
Given America’s prurient obsession with any and all form of statistical measurement, I asked Tirman if any stood out from all his research. The first, he said, came out of World War II. Initially, only one out of every seven American soldiers involved in combat situations could bring themselves to fire their weapons. (With improved training, the military has since gotten the fire rate up to 95 percent.) The second came out of a national poll conducted in 2007 in which Americans were asked how many Iraqi civilians they thought had been killed to date. Most people, Tirman said, put the number at 9,000.
Tirman’s book came out a couple of months ago. It’s an impressive tome, but it’s not generating a lot of sales. Or even talk. Terry Gross has yet to invite him on Fresh Air. The funny thing is Tirman’s kind of surprised by this. But of all people, he should know it’s much easier to forget something you never knew. Maybe on my way to or from Harry’s, I’ll buy him a copy of his book. Clearly he’s forgotten what he wrote.