Cutting through the bullshit.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

'They might snap'

In a recent exchange on lenin’s tomb, Sean Coleman, Ireland Campaign Manager, Sudan Divestment Task Force, wrote,

Now imagine the US military unveiled a new strategy in Iraq: …attacks will be conducted without any reference to civilians, merely to say that if you're a civilian killed by an American bomb, it was your own fault for your proximity to the insurgents and your lack of "protection". Any such policy would be decried as a murderous and monstrous way to prosecute a war. That is because it is. Supporting it - as in the case of those who lend support to Iraqi resistance - is, I think, concurrently lacking in moral sense.

Now, writes Tina Susman, the April murder of the teenage son of a Los Angeles Times employee in Baghdad has provided an opportunity to see what is really going on there.

The 17-year-old had been struck by a bullet in the chaos that followed the explosion and was bleeding heavily. Within two hours, the boy was dead. Witnesses charge he was killed by U.S. troops firing randomly.

U.S. military officials say troops are trained to avoid civilian casualties and do not fire wildly. Iraqis, however, say the shootings happen frequently and that even if troops are firing at suspected attackers, they often do so on city streets where bystanders are likely to be hit. Rarely is it possible to confirm such incidents…With more troops on the ground as a result of President Bush's "surge," U.S. military officials acknowledge that there are greater chances for civilian casualties.

"Being that we are doing more operations in places where we were not before, and doing operations in large numbers, there is just more contact with the enemy and therefore more chance of people on the periphery being involved in that," said Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman in Baghdad.

According to counterinsurgency expert Kalev Sepp, "you just end up with another group of foreign occupation troops shooting civilians who they feel threaten them when their car drives too close to them."

If the anecdotal evidence is an indication, such deaths often occur after troops are shaken by roadside bombs, as occurred when The Times employee's son was killed April 17.

"They were confused and angry and suspecting anyone around," Mohammed said. "If a bird had passed by, they would have shot it."

The U.S. military said troops shot in self-defense after being targeted first by the bomb and then by gunfire, but Mohammed and other witnesses denied that anybody shot at the soldiers.

"It's a psychological thing. When one U.S. soldier gets killed or injured, they shoot in vengeance," said Alaa Safi, who said his brother, Ahmed, was killed April 4 when U.S. troops riddled the streets of their southwestern Baghdad neighborhood with bullets after a sniper attack.

"I can't tell you that nobody got killed in that specific incident," Garver said. "In some instances, we're not able to know what really happened."

"You must be reasonably certain that your target is the source of the threat," the rules state.

Military officials have acknowledged, however, that the rules are sometimes broken in the heat of combat…troops "become stressed, they become fearful" on a battlefield where it is difficult to tell civilians from insurgents…"But I would say it's stress, fear, isolation, and in some cases they're just upset. They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion and they could snap."

And who could blame stressed and frightened kids from snapping under such conditions? Clearly they need to be disarmed and removed from harm’s way. At least if a concern for innocent bystanders is the point. What always seems to get lost in these news reports is that the IEDs and the snipers wouldn’t be attacking American troops if they weren’t there in the first place. Garver speaks of the insurgents as ‘the enemy’. But in reality, he and his troops are the enemy. The insurgents can’t just pack up and go home. They are home.

Last year, retired Lt. Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran who is a professor of international relations at Boston University, estimated that U.S. troops alone had killed "tens of thousands" of innocent Iraqis, either by accident or through carelessness.

Even the troops directly involved in incidents often cannot say if civilian casualties have occurred.

So it’s no surprise that nobody is doing body counts. Furthermore

The challenge of reaching an accurate tally has become more acute since the military surge began.

The Iraqi government, eager to show that the security plan is working, has stopped releasing monthly civilian casualty figures to the United Nations, arguing that Cabinet ministries collecting the numbers were inflating them for political purposes.

The U.S. military rarely issues public reports on civilians it has killed or wounded. It did not respond to requests for information on civilians killed this year by U.S. troops.

And yet nobody wants to believe the estimates of excess deaths resulting from the invasion and occupation of Iraq from the only reliable source there is – the cluster survey carried out last July by a team from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al-Mustansariya University Medical School and published by Burnham et al. in the eminent British medical journal The lancet last October.

Susman writes, for example, ‘Estimates of civilians killed…range from tens of thousands to as many as 600,000.’ In reality, Burnham did not estimate civilian deaths at all for quite sound reasons. For one thing, they thought it could endanger the interviewers to probe too deeply into such matters. For another, in this context, it is simply not possible to distinguish reliably between civilians and combatants. And since the resistance only exists as a response to the occupation, those killed fighting the occupation are absolutely no less victims of the occupation than those who die without taking arms against their oppressors.

In contrast, Iraq Body Count’s (IBC) claim that it can rely on the mainstream media - i.e. 65 journalists holed up in the Green Zone or 'embedded' with Coalition troops - to distinguish reliably between combatants and non combatant deaths in each and every case is beyond naive. It is wilfully dishonest.

In this connection, I want to emphasise a point Eli Stevens always makes.

In the news today, a car bomb in Baghdad killed 23 people and injured 68 others, while later, a second killed 17 people and wounded 55 others. Will you ever hear what happened to those 123 injured people (or the others who were injured in incidents where the numbers of dead didn't reach double-digits, and weren't even "newsworthy" by the standards of American reporting on Iraq)? Not a chance. Will some, maybe even the majority, die later today in the hospital, or tomorrow, or next week? Quite likely. But according to the Western press (and those such as Iraq Body Count), 40 people died in those two incidents, a number which will never change.

So it never contributes to the IBC count. Obviously, this is not an issue with the Burnham team’s methodology.

Furthermore, Burnham et al did not estimate ‘as many as 600,000’ dead. They estimated about 655,000 excess deaths, although for statistical reasons, the true number could have been as low as 400,000 or as high as 940,000. And that was a year ago, a year moreover that has seen Iraqis dying at an accelerating rate. The current number of Iraqis who have died because of the occupation of their country is almost certainly a million or more.

While on the subject of Burnham et al again, apologists for the invasion have made a clumsy attempt to discredit their findings by suggesting that the sampling methodology deployed in the survey is subject to ‘main street bias’ (MSB). Interviewers were instructed to select a ‘residential street’ intersecting a main street, to select a dwelling at random, and to interview the household residing there and the next 39 households.

The MSB hypothesis relies on the assumption that the interviewers would have interpreted ‘main street’ as ‘principal thoroughfare’ and selected the first household in a street intersecting one of these that was itself a main street. It also assumes that car bombings and other killings would occur on these secondary main streets where markets are thought to be located. This is of course irrelevant, as those killed at a bazaar are not just those residing whose in the flat above it. Anybody buying or selling there is equally vulnerable, whether they live in the same building, in the same street, or somewhere else in the neighbourhood, or anywhere.

The 17 year old son of the LA Times employee lived

…in a middle-class neighborhood of split-level houses with balconies, driveways and cerise bougainvillea draping garden walls. The stroll took him down his quiet street to a commercial strip with small stores, butcher shops and cafes. Parallel to the strip is a median and then a highway, which passes beneath a concrete tangle of overpasses before heading to the airport. Blackened blotches are evidence of the frequency of attacks on troops patrolling it.

One tragic incident showing, among other things, that in a city full of rampaging stressed and frightened US troops armed to the teeth, you don’t have to live on a main street to be a victim of the violence they have unleashed.


  1. Try getting your own facts straight before impugning the work of others.

    Your representation of newsgathering in Iraq is laughable, even if it's true that no one can say with certainty how many have been killed, let alone how many are combatants.

    There's no excuse for shabby propadandising, particularly not if you claim that's what you oppose.

    Daniel Simpson

  2. Well, Daniel, once you recover from your amusement, why don't you lay the real story on us?

    My information is largely from the International Federation of Journalists and the April/May 2007 issue of American Journalism Review. What about yours?

  3. Well, Reuters, for whom I used to work, has at least 70 staff dotted around the country (most of them Iraqi). To the best of my knowledge, none of them are based in the Green Zone, or currently embedded with the "coalition". That's already made a mockery of your stats. Need I go on?

    Try doing some research before just recycling bits of Internet that match your prejudices.

    Our dear leader has your number... ;)


  4. This piece from IraqBodyCount lists several sources they use:

    One of several they list (aside from Reuters too) is the National Iraqi News Agency. I looked them up and it says: "It has 15 editorial and executive staff at it's head office in the Sadoun district of Baghdad and correspondents in all 18 Iraqi governorates."

    The 'green zone' must be a lot bigger than what I would have thought.

  5. Gee, Daniel, you sure got me there! Finally tumbled. My hideous mug will never be seen in public again. Or maybe I'll forgive myself the hyperbole.

    According to a recent NY Times article (, there are about 150 attacks in Iraq per day - 164 in February, 157 in March, 149 in April. 'The attack data are compiled by the Pentagon but were made public in a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.' They appear to believe they have a vested interest in minimising the number, so we can be confident we know how dispassionate and reliable a source the Pentagon is. Needless to say, we don’t know how the Pentagon arrives at its figures and the enumeration is only of insurgent attacks. I haven’t seen a source reporting ‘Coalition’ attacks.

    Now let’s just suppose that in addition to the reported 70 Reuters correspondents, there are a total of say 500, even 1000, distributed all over Iraq. All competent, committed, courageous, and aggressive newsgatherers. Just for comparison, the Canberra Parliamentary Press Gallery consists of 180 journalists. The NY chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association boasts over 450 members in the metropolitan area. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were even larger number of non Asian American journalists working in that region, a much more compact region than Iraq, with less than half the population, free movement all over, a good public transport system, and no war, little threat of abduction. Even so, I daresay there are unreported deaths in New York.

    Now suppose the US military strafes a village somewhere. How do the journalists find out about it in the first place, unless they are actually within earshot? Suppose they somehow find out about it and can get there. Is it possible that the military would close the area to journalists? Is it conceivable that the only source of information like numbers of casualties and their combatant status would actually be the perpetrators? Can you imagine that they might not be 100% forthcoming with honest information? Might they want to minimise the number of civilians killed? What if the correspondent actually got to the scene within a reasonable time after an attack? Even if the correspondent got to interview a lot of witnesses and survivors, can we be absolutely sure that they know with certainty each and every insurgent and each and every civilian and will be totally honest about it? Even if they are personally affected and may hold a grudge against the perpetrators?

    That is the beginning of the problems facing IBC. The next problem is that they require corroboration, so at least two of these courageous correspondents have to get to the scene. How likely is that? And then there is the issue the Eli raises about the subsequent deaths that are never, ever reported.

    So even if I have exaggerated about the numbers of journalists and their location, there is still no reason to think that what IBC enumerates is more than the tip of the iceberg.

  6. Well, Reuters, for whom I used to work, has at least 70 staff dotted around the country (most of them Iraqi). To the best of my knowledge, none of them are based in the Green Zone

    Seventy for the whole of Iraq? Is that even one for every main city and town in Iraq? I can't see how this meagre boast warrants the sneering attitood of your original post.

  7. So even if I have exaggerated about the numbers of journalists and their location, there is still no reason to think that what IBC enumerates is more than the tip of the iceberg.

    Which is why they say as much on their website. Which is why I called you on your shabby propagandising. Which is why your admission is welcome, even if it undermines whatever confidence anyone might have been tempted to have in the rest of your unsupported assertions.

    Seventy for the whole of Iraq? Is that even one for every main city and town in Iraq? I can't see how this meagre boast warrants the sneering attitood of your original post.

    Well, my sneering comrade, your first mistake is to associate the meagreness of the Baron's boast with the substance of my point, which is that The Bureau of Counterpropaganda is too transparent to pull off its fat ones.

    Your second is miss the point, presumably deliberately.

  8. Er, that'd be "to" miss the point. But you knew that too.

  9. Somehow, you don’t seem to have approached this exchange in what I would call a comradely spirit, Daniel, so I don’t know where you get off calling lenin ‘comrade’. As for sneering, I think you can accept the laurels for that.

    This blog makes no pretense of objectivity. I definitely take sides. I think you’re going a little too far to call what I write ‘shabby propaganda’, particularly in light of what else is on offer. The utterly unconscious, unexamined nationalist spin that permeates everything in the mainstream media springs to mind. Which is one of the reasons it is so ludicrous that IBC proudly proclaim, ‘We rely on the combined, and self-correcting, professionalism of the world's press to deliver meaningful maxima and minima for our count.’

    It’s true that they disclaim, ‘Our maximum therefore refers to reported deaths – which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.’ But they don’t make it that easy to find. When I checked a few minutes ago, most of the links on the site were down, but there used to be a long diatribe against the Burnham study that really does not sit well with the modesty of the disclaimer.

    Now, as for sticking to the point, there were three main points in that post. It is disingenuous to a) assert that Coalition troops exert themselves to minimise civilian casualties; b) claim to distinguish reliably between combatants and civilians; and c) pretend that ‘mains street bias’ undermines the credibility of the JHU-AMU study. The report of the murder of the LA Times employee’s child offers evidence supporting these points. My parenthetical and facetious remark did not even form part of the argument. With the benefit of hindsight, I could have just as well omitted it. Thanks to you, perhaps I’ll consider extraneous matter like that more carefully. But you want to pretend there is something central about it. Of course, if you’re convinced that it utterly undermines my credibility, you’re welcome to read the NY Times or whatever and believe that crap.

  10. Of course, if you’re convinced that it utterly undermines my credibility, you’re welcome to read the NY Times or whatever and believe that crap.

    Well, I certainly do read the NY Times and whatever too, as I presume you must to find out facts about Iraq, whatever prisms you have to push them back through to unembed them from the framing that may or may not be appropriate, depending on who wrote and edited the story in question.

    I've been bantering in sneering tones with "lenin" for years. I'm fairly sure he can handle it as well as he handles himself. Ooer.

    Anyhow, I'm certainly not particularly sympathetic to the politics of the SWP, if that's what you're getting at, tavarish. But the acerbic tones aren't intended to be uncomradely. I suppose it depends where one's sitting, but they seem to be standard blogobabble, although few seem to appreciate the return of service.

    I won't waste either of our time by asking you to substantiate your unsupported assertions about reporting by citing some specific deaths unreported by the media IBC monitors. Or by rerehearsing the pointless debates kicked off by the serial misrepresentations of IBC's work by the moral men of Media Lens.

    Suffice to say, however, that I see nothing to disagree with in your assumptions a) and b).

    But as one who's actually tried to do some frontline reporting I tend to get narked when I read bogus misrepresentations of what it entails, purely for the purposes of moral grandstanding on the Internet (or in other quasi-political fora where the like-minded bloviate at each other).

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I've run out of proto-pomposity and I've got other things to do.

    Sincere best wishes,


  11. Actually, I never rely on the NYT for facts. I read it for the spin. And, as I wrote in August, ‘I love the NY Times. It always keeps my blood at a healthy boil.’ (

    What I’m getting at, compañero, is that comrades typically take a more constructive approach to criticism. As you may have gathered, I’ve pick a nit or two in my time and your criticism of my blog post is just empty sniping – it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter at all. A comrade would have pointed out that the remark about the media in Iraq doesn’t contribute to the argument and is probably not strictly correct. Instead, you pretend that a trivial error in an ancillary parenthesis undermines not only the argument it doesn’t form a part of, but my credibility as a whole. Like some adolescent cretin might be inclined to do.

    Now obviously IBC aren’t deliberately omitting the deaths that go unreported in the media they rely on. They omit them BECAUSE they are unreported. For the same reason, neither I nor anybody other than a witness will be able to instantiate the omissions. Don’t be ridiculous. Medialens’s criticism of IBC, from what I’ve read, revolves around the fact that the media and personages like US President Bush take their counts and treat them as if they were some kind of maxima, when as we’ve already discussed, IBC themselves acknowledge, albeit sotto voce, that they can only report the tip of the iceberg. Under the circumstances they have a responsibility to correct that impression publicly on a regular basis, if not in each individual instance. If that is the substance of Medialens’s critique, then I agree with them.

    The points labeled a, b, and c in my previous comments were not assumptions. They were points that I and others have made and that the recent revelation of the LA Times employee’s son’s killing provides further evidence for.