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US stays blind to Iraqi casualties

THE WHITE HOUSE always said it would never count how many Iraqi parents we killed to liberate their children. We would never count how many toddlers we blew to pieces to free their elders. We would never count how many nuclear families we vaporized. We would never know if we razed a village to save a child.

This is the most disgusting and least discussed aspect of President Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the early days of his war Bush said, "The citizens of Iraq are coming to know what kind of people we have sent to liberate them. American forces and our allies are treating innocent civilians with kindness."

No one could possibly know the truth or lie of that statement, since the mantra of the military from Tommy Franks down to his spokespeople was, "We don't do body counts." The most bald-faced expansion on that policy was given in April by Brigadier General Vincent Brooks of Central Command. "In all cases, we inflict a considerable amount of destruction on whatever force comes into contact with us," Brooks said. "It just is not worth trying to characterize by numbers. Frankly, if we are going to be honorable by the warfare, we are not out there trying to count up bodies."

You cannot be any more frank than that. The very people we claim to liberate are not worth the honor of counting.

It is obvious why. In an unprovoked war based on unproven threats, it was not enough to vilify Saddam Hussein's soldiers to gain the invasion's acceptance among the American people. Bush also had to dehumanize innocent civilians to the point where if we slaughtered some of them, they were not worth our time, either. Bush clearly figured, if you do not count, you cannot lie.

If you do not count, you can stonewall the press and hit its softballs out of the park. In April, David Frost of the BBC suggested to Secretary of State Colin Powell that an early Iraqi figure of 1,254 civilian deaths was "relatively low." Powell responded, "I would say that's relatively low." In August, Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, said: "If you go back to what we achieved here, which was the liberation of 25 million people in less than three weeks, with fewer civilian casualties and less collateral damage than any war in history . . . the loss of innocent life is a tragedy for anyone involved in it but the numbers are really very low."

This has worked magnificently for eight months with no widespread complaints from Americans. That raises as many questions about our own humanity as Bush's. Did the Pentagon really do that good a job brainwashing Americans on the notion of sanitized warfare? Amid the demonizing of Saddam, were Iraqi civilians easier to dismiss because they were tan, Muslim, or both? Is the United States still mired in a quagmire of paternalism that goes back to the "saving" of "heathens" by yanking them from Africa and baptizing them into slavery?

Such questions ought to be stonewalled no more. Medact, the British affiliate of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, this week published a report that estimates the number of Iraqi civilian deaths during the invasion to range from 5,708 to 7,356. The report estimates that the number of civilian deaths after May 1, when Bush declared an end to major combat operations, ranges from 2,049 to 2,209.

Another study released last month by the Project on Defense Alternatives, based in Cambridge, estimated that the number of Iraqi civilian deaths in the first month of the war to be between 3,200 and 4,300. In June, the Associated Press estimated the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the invasion to be 3,250. The AP report said, "hundreds, possibly thousands of victims in the largest cities and most intense battles aren't reflected in the total."

The total of civilian deaths, whether they be 3,200 or 10,000, is low compared with conventional wars a half-century ago. But for a decade the Pentagon promised to end wars as we knew them with laser-guided surgical strikes of only military targets. The military cannot have it both ways, promising unprecedented precision at the same time it downplays mistakes through historical context. The alleged precision makes the casualties look less like an example of Bush's kindness than William Calley's out-of-control forces gunning down up to 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.

Just one Iraqi civilian death is horrible blood on our hands given that the attack on Iraq appears to have been based on a lie. Yes, Saddam Hussein killed thousands of his own people. But an American massacre does not make things right. If Americans have half the humanity they claim, they will no longer accept Bush at face value when his officers say, "We don't do body counts."

If we do not count the bodies, this atrocity will never have a face.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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