Media coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War mostly portrayed the war as a blunder. There were systematic war crimes that have largely vanished into the memory hole, but permitting government officials to vaporize their victims paves the way to new atrocities.
On the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former First Lady Barbara Bush announced: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it’s gonna happen? It’s not relevant, so why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”
The Pentagon quickly institutionalized the Barbara Bush rule. Early in the Iraq war, Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, asked about tracking civilian casualties, replied, “It just is not worth trying to characterize by numbers. And, frankly, if we are going to be honorable about our warfare, we are not out there trying to count up bodies.”
Congress, in 2003 legislation funding the Iraq War, required the Pentagon to “seek to identify families of non-combatant Iraqis who were killed or injured or whose homes were damaged during recent military operations, and to provide appropriate assistance.” The Pentagon ignored the provision. The Washington Post reported: “One Air Force general, asked why the military has not done such postwar accounting in the past, said it has been more cost-effective to pour resources into increasingly sophisticated weaponry and intelligence-gathering equipment.” Acquiring more lethal weapons trumped tallying the victims.
The media blackout on the death count begins
After the invasion progressed, Bush perennially proclaimed that the United States had given freedom to 25 million Iraqis. Thus, any Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces were both statistically and morally inconsequential. And the vast majority of the news coverage left out the asterisks.
A 2005 American University survey of hundreds of journalists who covered Iraq concluded:
Many media outlets have self-censored their reporting on the conflict in Iraq because of concern about public reaction to graphic images and details about the war.
Individual journalists commented:
- “In general, coverage downplayed civilian casualties and promoted a pro-U.S. viewpoint. No U.S. media show abuses by U.S. military carried out on regular basis.”
- “Friendly fire incidents were to show only injured Americans, and no reference made to possible mistakes involving civilians.”
- “The real damage of the war on the civilian population was uniformly omitted.”
The media almost always refused to publish photos incriminating the U.S. military. The Washington Post received a leak of thousands of pages of confidential records on the 2005 massacre by U.S. Marines at Haditha, including stunning photos taken immediately after the killings of 24 civilians (mostly women and children). Though the Post headlined its exclusive story, “Marines’ Photos Provide Graphic Evidence in Haditha Probe,” the reporter noted halfway through the article that “Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish.” The Post suppressed the evidence at the same time it continued deferentially reporting official denials that U.S. troops committed atrocities.
In 2006, the U.S. military imposed new restrictions on the media, decreeing that “Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without service member’s prior written consent.” This effectively guaranteed that Americans would never see photos or film footage of the vast majority of American casualties. (Dead men sign no consent forms.) The news media did not publicly disclose or challenge the restrictions.
In 2007, two Apache helicopters targeted a group of men in Baghdad with 30 mm. cannons and killed up to 18 people. Video from the helicopter revealed one helicopter crew “laughing at some of the casualties, all of whom were civilians, including two Reuters journalists.” “Light ‘em all up. Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” one guy on the recording declared. Army Corporal Chelsea Manning leaked the video to Wikileaks, which disclosed it in 2010.
Wikileaks declared on Twitter: “Washington Post had Collateral Murder video for over a year but DID NOT RELEASE IT to the public.” Wikileaks also disclosed thousands of official documents exposing U.S. war crimes and abuses, tacitly damning American media outlets that chose to ignore or shroud atrocities.
A mid-2008 New York Times article noted that “After five years and more than 4,000 U.S. combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead U.S. soldiers.” Veteran photographers who posted shots of wounded or dead U.S. soldiers were quickly booted out of Iraq.
The Times noted that Iraqi “detainees were widely photographed in the early years of the war, but the U.S. Defense Department, citing prisoners’ rights, has recently stopped that practice as well.” Privacy was the only “right” the Pentagon pretended to respect — since the vast majority of detainees received little or no due process.
The collateral damage of innocent dead civilians
As the number of Iraqi civilians killed by American forces rose, the U.S. military increasingly relied on boilerplate self-exonerations. In September 2007, after U.S. bombings killed enough women and children to produce a blip on the media radar, U.S. military spokesman Major Brad Leighton announced: “We regret when civilians are hurt or killed while coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism.”
The vast majority of the American media recited whatever the Pentagon emitted in the first years of the Iraq war. This was exemplified in the coverage of the two U.S. assaults on Fallujah in 2004. The first attack was launched in April 2004 in retaliation for the killings of four contractors for Blackwater, a company that became renowned for killing innocent Iraqis.
Bush reportedly gave the order: “I want heads to roll.” He told Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez during a video conference:
If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell!… Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out!
U.S. forces quickly placed the entire city under siege. The British Guardian reported:
The US soldiers were going around telling people to leave by dusk or they would be killed, but then when people fled with whatever they could carry, they were stopped at the U.S. military checkpoint on the edge of town and not let out, trapped, watching the sun go down.
The city was blasted by artillery barrages, F–16 jets, and AC–130 Spectre planes, which pumped 4,000 rounds a minute into selected targets. Adam Kokesh, who fought in Fallujah as a Marine Corps sergeant, later commented:
During the siege of Fallujah, we changed rules of engagement more often than we changed our underwear. At one point, we imposed a curfew on the city, and were told to fire at anything that moved in the dark.
Rather than change the rules of engagement to limit civilian carnage, the Bush administration demonized media outlets that showed U.S. victims. On April 16, a few days after Kimmitt’s comment, Bush met British Prime Minister Tony Blair and proposed bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar (a staunch U.S. ally). Blair talked Bush out of attacking the television network offices. A British government official leaked the minutes of a meeting, creating a brief hubbub that was largely ignored within the United States.
Bush had previously talked to Blair in 2003 about attacking the Al Jazeera television transmitter in Baghdad. A few days/weeks later, the U.S. military killed one Al Jazeera journalist when it attacked the network’s headquarters in Baghdad, and several Al Jazeera employees were seized and detained for long periods of time.
The Bush administration decided to crush the city — but not until after Bush was safely reelected. Up to 50,000 civilians remained in Falluja at the time of the second U.S. assault. At a November 8, 2004, press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that “Innocent civilians in that city have all the guidance they need as to how they can avoid getting into trouble.” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Myers said three days later that Fallujah “looks like a ghost town [because] the Iraqi government gave instructions to the citizens of Fallujah to stay indoors.”
Supposedly, Iraqi civilians would be safe even if when American troops went house to house “clearing” insurgents out. However, three years later, during the trials for the killings elsewhere in Iraq, Marines continually invoked the Fallujah Rules of Engagement to justify their actions. Marine Corporal Justin Sharratt, who was indicted for murdering three civilians in Haditha (the charges were later dropped), explained in a 2007 interview with PBS:
For the push of Fallujah, there [were no civilians]. We were told before we went in that if it moved, it dies…. About a month before we went into the city of Fallujah, we sent out flyers…. We let the population know that we were coming in on this date, and if you were left in the city, you were going to die.
The interviewer asked: “Was the procedure for clearing a house in Fallujah different from other house clearing in Iraq?”
Sharratt replied: “Yes. The difference between clearing houses in Fallujah was that the entire city was deemed hostile. So every house we went into, we prepped with frags and we went in shooting.” Thus, the Marines were preemptively justified in killing everyone inside — no questions asked. Former congressman Duncan Hunter admitted in 2019, “I was an artillery officer, and we fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah, killed probably hundreds of civilians … probably killed women and children.”
The U.S. attack left much of Fallujah looking like a lunar landscape, with near-total destruction as far as the eye could see. Yet, regardless of how many rows of houses the United States flattened in the city, accusations that the United States killed noncombatants were false by definition. Because the U.S. government refused to count civilian casualties, they did not exist. And anyone who claimed to count them was slandering the United States and aiding the terrorists.
Commas, not corpses
In September 2006, Bush was asked during a television interview about the ongoing strife in Iraq. He smiled and replied, “I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is — my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy.” To recognize the importance of civilian casualties would have marred his story about the conquest of Iraq as a historical triumph of democracy.
The Pentagon spent more money bribing Iraqi journalists than counting Iraqi victims. As long as there were enough cheerleaders in Iraq and on the home front, the bodies of U.S. victims did not exist — at least in the American media.
Pentagon contractors offered strategic advice on how to keep victims off the radar screen. In 2007, the RAND Corporation released “Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reaction to Civilian Deaths in Wartime,” explaining how to best respond to bombing debacles. The study concluded that “the belief that the U.S. military is doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties is the key to public support for U.S. military operations.”
The RAND report was more concerned about bad PR than dead children. RAND’s experts asserted that “Americans and the media are concerned about civilian casualties, and pay very close attention to the issue.” This is the charade that provides a democratic sanction for the U.S. government’s foreign killings.
In reality, most Americans are clueless about the foreign toll of their government’s policies. An early 2007 Associated Press poll found that Americans were well-informed about the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. But the same poll found that “the median estimate for Iraqi deaths was 9,890.” Actual fatalities were at least 15 times higher — and perhaps 60 times higher.
In December 2005, Bush said that 30,000 people “more or less” had been killed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion. In October 2006, a reporter asked him: “Do you stand by your figure, 30,000?” Bush replied, “You know, I stand by the figure.” The United Nations estimated that 34,000 civilians were killed in 2006 alone. Regardless, Bush “stood by” his estimate from the prior year. This was the Fallujah methodology on amphetamines: It was impermissible to recognize or admit the deaths of any Iraqis who perished in the 10 months after Bush publicly ordained the 30,000 number.
Iraq’s Health Minister estimated in November 2006 that “there had been 150,000 civilian deaths during the war so far.” The Iraqi Ministry of Health had kept track of morgue records but ceased its tabulation after arm-twisting from U.S. authorities.
It is folly to pay more attention to Pentagon denials than to piles of corpses and flattened villages. The greater the media’s dependency on government, the less credible press reports on official benevolent intentions become. When the official policy routinely results in killing innocent people, it will almost always also be official policy to deceive the American public about the killings. It is naive to expect a government that recklessly slays masses of civilians to honestly investigate itself and announce its guilt to the world.
Killing foreigners is no substitute for protecting Americans. Permitting governments to make their victims vanish profoundly corrupts democracy. Self-government is a mirage if Americans are denied information to judge killings committed in their name.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.