Peace activist and gold star mother Cindy Sheehan and spokesman for a war-based oligarchy George Will both published columns this weekend arguing that non-Americans are human beings. Sheehan's column was written in response to an Associated Press article that provided evidence that Americans disagree with this claim. Will's column, meanwhile, adds to this evidence by demonstrating a failure to understand the very point he's arguing for.
I had a conversation this weekend with someone who believes that Bush and Cheney lied us into an aggressive war and will never end it, but who opposes impeachment because it's antagonistic, "violent," and "will leave blood on the floor." I submit this as further evidence that Americans do not believe non-Americans are human beings. If congressional hearings and potential hurt feelings are too violent, what would the ongoing slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis be… if they were humans?
The Associated Press article that elicited Sheehan's indignation reported that Americans, when surveyed, tend to know almost exactly how many American soldiers have officially died in Iraq – an educational accomplishment that Sheehan may deserve some of the credit for. But when asked how many Iraqis have been killed in the current war, Americans tended to miss the mark dramatically, according to the AP.
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The only scientific survey that has been done estimated 655,000 excess deaths resulting from this war, "excess" meaning deaths above the already extremely high death rate during the period of sanctions that preceded the war. That estimate was made some months back, and the violence has continued to increase, not diminish.
The Associated Press, exhibiting its own Americanism, places the deaths at "54,000" but says the total "could be much higher." However, Americans in the AP's poll gave a median estimate of 9,890 Iraqi deaths. And why wouldn't they? The U.S. media has given them nothing to go on, and its polls reflect its failure. Some Americans have sought out information on the internet and educated themselves. Many, no doubt, responded with a estimate close to 655,000. (AP says 5% of respondents answered with a number over 250,000.) But many others probably guessed a number close to that of the U.S. death figure that they knew, or even something lower than 3,000. After all, we hear so much more about American deaths, and our media has been made so honest by the invisible hand of competition, that there simply must BE more American deaths. (AP says 8% of respondents said there'd been 1,000 or fewer Iraqi deaths.)
It's safe to bet that those who believe the death total is very low also tend to support the war, whereas those who know what it really is or even overestimate it tend to oppose the war. In part, this result would be driven by the fact that some of those already opposed to the war seek out information about it from a greater variety of sources, whereas some of those who support the war will insist that few Iraqis have been killed even if you pile the corpses in their living room. But, in large part, I suspect that many Americans would move toward opposing the war if they were informed of what the war has done to people, if they got the numbers right and heard a few of the stories behind the numbers.
However, the AP dug up a professor who disagrees with this theory, and it seems clear that the US media will not put it to a test anytime soon. According to the AP:
"Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who tracks public opinion on war casualties, said a better understanding of the Iraqi death toll probably wouldn't change already negative public attitudes toward the war much. People in democracies generally don't shy away from inflicting civilian casualties, he said, and they may be even more tolerant of them in situations such as Iraq, where many of the civilian deaths are caused by other Iraqis."
If Gelpi or the AP has any evidence for this, I'd love to see it. It's the "in democracies" part of the quote that is disturbing, and which led Sheehan to ask why – then – we should want to impose democracy on anyone. Gelpi seems either to be implying that people in dictatorships are less genocidally inclined than are people in democracies, or to be assuming that in democracies and only in democracies what the people think matters at all. But US public opinion is currently strongly against the war. The people have already "shied away from" this mass murder. And, according to the AP poll results, 77% of Americans find the level of civilian deaths in Iraq unacceptable.
Gelpi further pontificated thusly:
"Gelpi said that while Americans may not view Iraqi deaths through the same prism as American losses, they may use the Iraqi death toll to gauge progress, or lack thereof, on the U.S. effort to promote a stable, secure democracy in Iraq. To many, he said, 'the fact that so many are being killed is an indication that we're not succeeding.'"
Does Gelpi have evidence that Americans view people's deaths as part of such a meaningless calculation? Does the AP? Maybe they do, but the AP goes on to offer additional reason to believe that Americans have already "shied away," and done so for possibly decent reasons:
"Whatever their understanding of the respective death tolls, three-quarters of those polled said the numbers of both Americans and Iraqis who have been killed are 'unacceptable.' Two-thirds said they tend to feel upset when a soldier dies, while the rest say such deaths are unfortunate but part of what war is about."
In fact, if you look at the results of the poll, 65% said they feel upset when a US soldier dies, and 60% said the same about an Iraqi civilian dying. It's that 35 to 40% we obviously need to be worried about! Meanwhile 77% said the US casualty count was unacceptable, and an identical 77% said the same about Iraqi civilians. And this is the same group of respondents that tends to have no idea how many Iraqis have been killed.
If you read further in the poll results, you find that two-thirds of Americans believe Iraqi civilians oppose "the insurgency." So, Americans have no idea how many Iraqis have been killed and no idea what the ones left alive are thinking. Would any Americans lose their sympathy for Iraqis if they understood that most Iraqis support the violent defense of their nation? Is there a way to educate Americans to recognize their nation's crime in aggressively occupying another country, without in the process diminishing what empathy Americans can currently manage for the victims they see as their little brothers and sisters in empire?
It's hard to imagine the US corporate media ever conducting such an experiment. And this AP poll reveals the extent to which what the corporate media shuts out stays shut out. A majority of Americans understand that this war was based on lies, largely because that fact has slipped through, here and there, into the media's noise machine. Americans have no idea what is happening in Iraq, because those facts have not made it through the filter.
And they won't if George Will has anything to say about it. His new column attempts to persuade us of the urgent and timely fact that the Japanese during World War II were human beings. Will draws no connection to Iraqis today, and avoids any mention of how the U.S. government treated Japanese Americans during World War II. Nor does Will for a moment question the acceptability of war and of war on civilians. Rather, he argues for achieving a higher plain of understanding from which we slaughter families but feel bad about doing so. However, he does not insist that we feel bad until some years after the war is over:
"Perhaps empathy for the plight of the common enemy conscript is a postwar luxury; it certainly is a civilized achievement, an achievement of moral imagination that often needs the assistance of art. That is why it is notable that Clint Eastwood's 'Letters From Iwo Jima' was one of five films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture."
Having achieved this civilized feat by watching a movie, Will goes on to reassure the 40% of Americans who find killing civilian non-Americans acceptable that he's still on their side:
"Japanese forces frequently committed barbarities worse even than those of the German regular army, and it is difficult to gauge the culpability of conscripts commanded by barbarians. Be that as it may, the pathos of the letters humanizes the Japanese soldiers, whose fatalism was a reasonable response to the irrational. Viewers of this movie, while moved to pride and gratitude by the valor of the U.S. Marines, will not feel inclined to cheer."
Cindy Sheehan believes her son was commanded by barbarians. Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Fallujah: these are the names of unsurpassable barbarities. If the best we can manage is to refrain from cheering, we have a long way to go.
AP article: http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/node/18894
AP poll results:
Conversation on impeachment: http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/node/18904
Iraqi humans' stories: http://www.davidswanson.org/?q=node/472
And on film: http://www.uslaboragainstwar.org/article.php?id=9171
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