When Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites battled English soldiers at Culloden virtually all the casualties were combatants.
With improvements in the technology of killing – gunpowder, muskets, rifles and artillery – the death toll in battle generally increased reaching a peak during World War I. Here as many as 60,000 allied troops were killed on a single day as they were ordered in wave after wave to run across the open fields of the Somme towards German machine guns which ran red hot as they delivered young male corpses, widows and grief-stricken families by the thousand.
The civilian death toll – though higher than the days of hand to hand combat – was still relatively low.
With aerial warfare in the Second World War an entirely different picture emerged. Civilian casualty numbers climbed rapidly as cities became legitimate targets.
The single greatest crime in this new warfare was the American use of nuclear weapons to specifically target the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilians dying in flashes more brilliant than a thousand suns.
On the third anniversary of the US led invasion and occupation of Iraq it’s not surprising to find that with this “modern warfare” the civilian casualty rate has climbed from below 5% in Culloden-type battles to reach as high as 95% of those killed.
Credible estimates put the number of civilian deaths in Iraq at more than 100,000 in the three years since the invasion.
An accurate count is not possible because the occupation forces have specifically refused to allow the counting of civilian deaths. When challenged about this the US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said he was “not interested” in the number of Iraqi civilian deaths. These lives lost are merely “collateral damage”.
Most were killed in air strikes by US forces with the greatest number of civilians killed on the ground in the so-called “terrorist-cleansing” of Falluja in which the city was largely destroyed and the thousands of remaining inhabitants obliterated.
Today the killing goes on. It was reported earlier this month that Faik Bakir, the director of the Baghdad morgue, has fled Iraq in fear of his life after reporting that more than 7000 people have been killed by Iraqi Interior Ministry death squads in recent months. The Ministry operates with a US mandate.
Rumsfeld is however interested in the number of US troops killed but only so far as this number remains below a level when it would trigger open hostility from the US public and result in a steeper decline in support for the war. The signs are that this is becoming a major problem.
It’s a problem in another way too. As the death toll rises so does the number of US soldiers injured or maimed which means more funding needed for rehabilitation etc. It is small surprise that here the US administration is moving to lessen the “fiscal risk” of these returning soldiers by cutting eligibility for invalid benefits and veteran pensions.
These were “America’s finest sons” when they volunteered and went to war but are now an embarrassing financial liability.
Like front line soldiers anywhere in the world these young Americans for the most part are from working class families – recruited from low-paid jobs and the dole queues.
Why do they do it? For the same reason that thousands of young kiwi males walked off our farms and out of our factories to join the great adventure which was to be World War I. They would be home by Christmas after fighting the “war to end all wars”
When Samuel Johnson said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” he could equally have said it’s the first port of call for the army recruiter.
Meanwhile the beneficiaries of the Iraq war are the large corporations with fat contracts to provide infrastructural support for the invasion and occupation. Billions of dollars in profits have now been made by US and UK corporations with plenty more to come. In the process the Iraqi economy has become almost totally privatised – a process set in train irreversibly well before any constitutional discussion and before the first vote was placed in a ballot box. The oil industry remains in state hands but the plans are being drawn up for the big oil corporations to move in.
The most encouraging sign to emerge from the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the more that 15 million who marched against the war in February 2003. The world as a whole saw through the lies of weapons of mass destruction. As the New York Times said there are two superpowers in the world today – the US administration and world public opinion.
May the second superpower win.