9/11 and the deaths of others: America's legacy of civilian casualties

One of the first questions Americans asked each other after Sept. 11 was, "Why do they hate us so much?" For many, it was just a rhetorical question in the wrenching aftermath of our nightmare. Others took a real, if fleeting, interest in understanding the beliefs and attitudes that fueled the attacks. But I think most of us resented that question and had no interest in the answer, convinced there could be no rational explanation for the indiscriminate killing of any civilian population, particularly ours.

Everything that followed flowed from that. We wanted revenge, and the Bush administration knew Americans would appreciate and support some old-fashioned frontier justice. So troops went into Afghanistan to find those who'd plotted the attacks and those who had given them harbor.

Of course, our military response didn't end there.

By March 2003, we were bombing Baghdad for the second time in 12 years. After the Gulf War and a decade of sanctions against the people of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, we invaded that country. Though Iraq had had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney presented it as an operating base for terrorists and, of course, the dictator who ruled the country supposedly had weapons of mass destruction.

You know where the story went from there.

But what you might not know is the scope of death and destruction we inflicted on the civilian population of Iraq; it was completely disproportionate to the offenses against us, a horrifying overreaction to Sept. 11.

You can be excused if you're not familiar with the numbers. The Pentagon rarely made comments about civilian casualties during the invasion, and the media seldom asked about or reported on them. Plus, general indifference is quite common through history, according to John Tirman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who explores this subject in "The Deaths of Others," a challenging new book about the fate of civilians in American wars.

"The very topic of culpability for civilian suffering is essentially out of bounds in the echo chamber of Washington political discourse," writes Mr. Tirman, executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT. "The idea that civilian casualties are unsettling to the American public and that the resultant outrage serves as a check on military behavior is nonsense. The human costs are simply not discussed in any sustained or probing way; even scattered attempts to account for the dead is a highly charged endeavor."

That was clear in the fall of 2006, when researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported the results of an epidemiological survey of Iraq households and estimated 655,000 "excess deaths" in the first 40 months of the war.

The lead researcher was Gilbert Burnham, a Bloomberg doctor and former military officer. "A less partisan and more earnest scientist would be rare," Mr. Tirman writes, noting that the door-to-door survey carried out in Iraq to estimate civilian deaths due to war was the same method epidemiologists use to estimate deaths due to earthquakes and hurricanes. Dr. Burnham's work stood up to review.

But, of course, it was derided in the media and dismissed by the Bush administration, which estimated civilian deaths at about 35,000 after three years of war.

In his book, Mr. Tirman offers a highly detailed analysis of the Bloomberg study, in comparison to others with lower war-mortality estimates, and concludes that Dr. Burnham's research was sound. Iraqi health care workers, mostly physicians, went door to door in randomly selected neighborhoods throughout the country. They asked a few simple questions: Has anyone in the household died since the U.S. invasion? If so, when? If so, how? Is there a death certificate?

Not all civilian deaths were caused by direct military force; the sectarian violence unleashed in the chaos after the U.S. invasion was accountable for a lot of the deaths, too. But it's all war-related. The "excess deaths" estimate was based on a comparison between Iraq's prewar mortality rate and the post-invasion rate determined by the 2006 survey.

"There is little evidence that the American public cares what happens to people who live where our interventions are conducted," Mr. Tirman concludes, less in condemnation than in curiosity. "What are the consequences of this vast carelessness?"

One consequence is the risk that survivors of our post-Sept. 11 interventions, still climbing out of their smoky ruins, hate us as they never did before.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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