John Tirman, The Death of Others. The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars

IssueApril 2012
Review by Ian Sinclair

A big book in every sense, The Death of Others looks at the fate of civilians in American wars since 1945 – focussing on the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Tirman, executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT and the person who commissioned the 2006 Lancet study on deaths in Iraq, argues that the American public is indifferent to the suffering of civilians in the wars their tax dollars pay for – just as the US military has little concern for civilians in the warzone itself.

The basic mortality figures, though contested, are deeply disturbing – perhaps three million Koreans dead from 1950-3, two to four million Vietnamese dead, and the Lancet study showing 655,000 Iraqi deaths by 2006.

However, it is the detail that is most shocking. In Korea, one US Eighth Army directive stated: ‘all civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly’.

In Vietnam, a 1972 Newsweek report of a US mission found just 748 weapons among supposedly 11,000 enemy dead. Subsequent investigations concluded there were over 5,000 civilians killed in the operation.

Tirman gives three reasons for the US public’s indifference – good old-fashioned racism, a dominant frontier myth that sees violence as both morally regenerative and entwined with democratic values, and something called ‘Just World Theory’.

The latter idea, borrowed from social psychology, seems best summarised by the playwright Arthur Miller: ‘Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.’

He is quick to dismiss the belief that the supine corporate media negatively influences Americans’ knowledge and opinion of foreign wars, stating ‘greater information about the event does not change the dynamic of indifference’.

For this reviewer, this assertion is the only false step in a hugely important, extensively footnoted, tour de force. Because if Americans don’t care about the civilian victims of US military power, why does the US expend so much money and time on wartime public relations?

As Noam Chomsky has said about ‘citizens of the imperial power’: ‘I think they do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know’.

In fact, if public opinion is so impervious to information about the suffering of civilians, what’s the point of being an activist? Indeed why write a book on the subject at all?