Thursday, July 08, 2010

War by the numbers

I’m not a big math guy, having spent my college years interpreting 17th century sonnets and writing about radical left-wing, decentralist movements in Latin America -- you know, the kind of experience that has well prepared me for a career as a bookstore clerk and I can only hope, some (very hard) years down the line, street-corner preacher of conspiracy and prophesier of doom. When it comes to looking at U.S. foreign policy, though, numbers can be a very useful thing.

Consider the sheer enormity of the fact the the U.S. government this year "will spend more on Afghanistan than any other country in the world spends on defense, with the exception of China," according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Congress has already appropriated this year alone more than $100 billion for the war, a figure Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation notes is 10 times the size of Afghanistan's gross domestic product (GDP). If divided on a per capita basis, each Afghan could receive $3,708 in U.S. taxpayer largesse -- equivalent to more than four years their average wages, and a damn sure better way to win Afghan loyalty than the General Petraeus-embraced, parachuting-sociologist effort to win hearts and minds by killing 2.5 percent less innocent men, women and children than under a killing-as-usual scenario.

More numbers: according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, there is in the area of 50 to 100 members of al-Qaeda. In neighboring Pakistan, there may be "more than 300" members, according to Michael Leiter, director of the U.S. government's National Counterterrorism Center. Yet nearly 100,000 U.S. troops are deployed in the region, along with another 20,000 NATO troops -- meaning their's 240 or so Western soldiers for every one alleged member of al-Qaeda.

The most important figure, though, and the most morally significant to my mind, has to do with the number of those killed in the name of terrorism versus those killed by the self-styled war on terrorism.

In the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, just under 3,000 people were murdered by members of al-Qaeda. The response to those attacks? Using an extremely conservative estimate, 100,000 Iraqi civilians died as a direct result of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, equivalent to nearly three dozen 9/11s. In Afghanistan, tens of thousands of civilians have died since 2002, many attributable to the Taliban/insurgency, yes, but all as a direct result of events set in motion by American intervention (from the late 1980s-onward), including more than 4,000 civilians killed -- that's another 9/11 -- from January 2009 to March 2010 alone.

It's understandable that one might have greater sentimental attachments to those one knows, or one's fellow countrymen; it's natural to mourn a close friend or family member who dies more than someone you didn't know who lived on the other side of the globe. But what about when it's your fellow countrymen -- your friends and family, perhaps -- killing those innocent but distant strangers? Even if the killing's ostensibly launched in response to a real evil -- the attacks on September 11, 2001 -- I'd suggest that when dozens of innocents must die for each precious life of an American you hope to safeguard, the moral righteousness of that response is fatally undermined. Forget nationality: none of us choose what country we are born in, so why should the conscientious, moral human being value one life more than another because of nothing more than the accident of birth? As I said, a sentimental attachment to one's countrymen is understandable, but that doesn't mean it's morally defensible.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, does not value the life of an innocent foreigner to the extent they do that of a possible voting-and-donating U.S. citizen, not that it has much respect for the lives of the latter either. Indeed, if President Obama or his liberal cheerleaders in Washington actually cared a whit about the lives of those unfortunate enough to be born in not-America, if they really sought to "stop U.S.-caused civilian casualties" in Afghanistan, as liberal journalist Spencer Ackerman writes, then they would embrace that great peacenik refrain: "stop the war."

No need for any white papers or bipartisan, blue-ribbon commissions: just get the hell out.

But it can't be that simple, for what role would that leave for Serious Liberalism and all those catered roundtable discussions at Washington think tanks with panelists laying out high-minded plans for Saving Afghanistan From The Natives? Not much. Ackerman, who supports the Afghan war just as he did the invasion of Iraq, writes that if the goal is not to stop murdering people but to "erode the influence of al-Qaeda’s allies in Afghanistan while reducing civilian casualties to the 'absolute minimum'," quoting all-around awesome dude David Petraeus, then it's of the utmost importance not to immediately halt the evil that is bombing and shooting innocent people, but to get right "the balance between fighting insurgents and protecting civilians."

Now, most supporters of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in their personal lives, are probably no more violent than the most committed peace activist; they probably play with their dogs and go "aww" when they see cute little animals too. But when someone comes to think of war in the cost/benefit terms of the Pentagon bureaucracy, even the meekest among us can support great evil in the abstract, the killing taking place safely abroad and providing endless folly for quasi-intellectual debates about counter-insurgency strategies. Accepting the premise that the there can be an appropriate "balance" between killing civilians -- that is, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, newlyweds and schoolchildren -- and whoever it is we're defining as the "insurgents" these days, I'd argue reflects a pretty screwy moral philosophy, endorsing as it does the killing of poor foreigners now based on the possibility, the hypothetical, that some of those impoverished survivors, the families of the Afghans we kill, might some day seek vengeance and kill us; a dozen dead Afghan civilians now to stave off the possible death of one person with an American passport, not counting those foolish enough to oppose U.S. policy and board a peace flotilla.

Some would argue (ahem) that there can be no "balance" when it comes to protecting civilians; you don't kill them, and if you do, you should be considered a murderer and punished accordingly. It's an obvious crime only compounded by the fact the Afghan war is not in the least bit necessary to protect the national security of the United fucking States.

But then that's the difference between modern liberalism and radicalism: the former will rationalize murder if it's backed by the leading technocratic intellectuals of the day and carried out by the State under the auspices of some modern day White Man's Burden, while the latter, valuing human life equally regardless of nationality and not making moral distinctions based on a murderer's uniform, will condemn -- not condone -- violence whether it's perpetrated by governments or non-State actors. You can probably see why they're not part of the panel discussions.

(Cross-posted at AlterNet)


  1. Anonymous9:56 AM

    good stuff. think you got the 1:240 ratio backwards though, unless we only have 2 troops there these days.

    if only...

    also, it's hard to talk about the war in afghanistan without mentioning that the taliban offered to turn over bin laden both before and after the 9-11 attacks, and were rebuffed. this is just as much a war of choice as iraq, and anyone with half a brain would ponder the "coincidence" of choosing to invade 2 counties with such vast natural resources.

  2. Good catch and excellent point.

  3. What bookstore do you work at? I too occupy the Fetid Hell-Swamp at the Center of the American Hegemon...

  4. Er, perhaps I misread that...

  5. Lorenzo,

    I don't actually work at a bookstore, but the way this whole journalism industry is going . . . .

  6. Also: no offense intended to bookstore clerks. They've done a lot less damage to the world than journalists.

  7. Check out this source that Ed Herman uses when discussing deaths as a result of the US invasion in Iraq in 2003:

    They came up with around 600,000 dead at least...