It’s a lengthy piece but it is worth the time. On the so-called war being “over” and how “they count only civilians killed by violence who are named in English-language news and some morgue counts.”
First, many of these news outlets had endorsed the war and never quite recanted. Even if a newspaper did admit to a mistake in judgment about the war, acknowledging that you’ve been hoodwinked by the Bush administration and then seeing that error magnified by 5 million refugees and perhaps a million dead is a hard pill to swallow.
Second, the Bush White House worked overtime to decry any of the high estimates, and the Murdoch media machine did its part in attempting to discredit the household surveys in particular. The reaction to the Johns Hopkins estimate of 650,000 “excess deaths” came in for savage treatment, trashed as a “political hit” in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. This campaign against the scientists had a chilling effect.
Third, journalists have rarely if ever engaged the technical debate about estimating casualties, preferring to report mortality—if at all—as a political story. The science is complicated, to be sure, but accessible. The epidemiologists who are thoroughly conversant with the most advanced techniques of estimating fatalities come down squarely on the side of the household surveys and the higher numbers.
Journalism in the Iraq war tended to focus on the Bush administration’s foibles and the chaotic political wrangling in Baghdad. The attention to civilians and the violence of the war quickly fell into a few reliable tropes: the Shia-Sunni fratricide, spectacular car bombs rather than the quotidian reality of violence, Baghdad-centric reporting (because it was too dangerous to travel), and any glimpse of progress on the ground. While Iraqis were reporting (through blogs and polling) that 80 percent of the violence was due to the U.S. military and the conditions of life were intolerable, this perspective rarely found its way into major news media in the United States.
Fourth, the political establishment, including the Democratic leadership, would not touch this issue, and the news media was left without an opposition voice. The implication of so many deaths, a large fraction by the hands of U.S. soldiers, was politically a third rail. For many reasons—not least the hunger for heroes in the aftermath of 9/11—the troops have been accorded nearly unprecedented adulation, and such heroes cannot be accused of excessive use of force. So politicians have steered clear, and the rare one who did raise a question, such as the late, pro-military congressman John Murtha, were mercilessly attacked.
Fifth is the troubling matter of racism. The major U.S. wars since 1945 have been waged in Asia, and a certain “orientalism”—not unique to Americans, of course—has framed our perceptions of the local populations. How much a factor this is in ignoring the suffering of these populations is very difficult to gauge (about 1.5 million Korean civilians were killed in the Korean war, and between one and two million Vietnamese, and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, in America’s Indochina war, all largely disregarded). But racism surely accounts for some of the cavalier disrespect the public and press show toward the civilian suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The sixth and last explanation for indifference—and perhaps the most powerful—is a psychological one. We tend to avert our eyes from gruesome spectacle; it disrupts our sense of an orderly, just world. We want to believe that the mayhem is not happening, that in the end everything will be all right, or that the victims are to blame. These kinds of reactions—demonstrated time and again in clinical experiments by social psychologists—are reflected in society and also in the news media.