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Body Counts In Imperial Service
Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere
It is really impressive how efficiently the intellectual and propaganda resources of the imperial state are mobilized to meet its need to demonize its enemies and put its own and its client states' actions in a benevolent light. This is especially important for an imperial power that retains its democratic forms as it kills lavishly and on a global basis, and justifies these killings, and its enormous “defense” expenditures, on grounds of “human rights” concerns as well as “national security.” Getting its message across requires not only a compliant media and “journalists of attachment” who will follow the official agenda, but also an intellectual community of experts, academics and think-tank specialists, New Humanitarians, human rights group officials, and former leftists who have finally seen the light, who serve as “independent” commentators and guide the public toward the official truth. They constitute an ideological and propaganda collective that provides a gigantic echo chamber in which the official agenda resonates, and which helps get the public on the killing bandwagon.
The operation of this collective, and its techniques, are well illustrated by its treatment of “body counts” in comparable wars and atrocities throughout the world. Where there is an official and imperial demand for a high body count and great indignation, as in the case of Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 (earlier in Bosnia in the years 1992-1995, Kuwait in 1990-1991, still earlier in the case of Cambodia under Pol Pot, 1975-1978), the collective will be deeply concerned with civilian casualties, will pursue refugees relentlessly to get details of their suffering, and will search eagerly for dead bodies. Given that they know the truth in advance—that “another Hitler” is committing genocide, they will not look at evidence very critically, and will be happy to accept any story and any inflated account of numbers of bodies, however biased the source. They will also explain away the ex-post findings that “another Hitler's” body count had been inflated.
On the other hand, where the imperial power and/or its proxies are doing the killing, as in Afghanistan from October 7, 2001 onward, or in Panama in 1989, or in Iraq from January 1991 to the present; or where client states like Israel, Turkey, and Indonesia in East Timor are doing the killing, the establishment collective has little interest in civilian casualties [exception: Israeli civilians], fails to pursue refugees to get their stories of suffering, and does not engage in any search for dead bodies. Its members even tend to be sceptical of stories of suffering and estimates of dead bodies made by others.
This same contrast applies to larger body counts such as in the famous 100 million death toll of communism in the Black Book, which includes millions who died in Chinese and Soviet famines. But it would be unthinkable for writers in the mainstream to count in the death toll of capitalism those who have died of exposure, hard labor, starvation, and preventable diseases resulting from economic structures and policies, which would run well over 100 million; or the aggregate of “disappeared” in Latin America during the National Security State years; or the “collateral damage” deaths from sanctions and bombing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places. AOL Time Warner is not likely to be interested in publishing a Black Book of Capitalism.
With Milosevic “another Hitler” and the Serbs “willing executioners,” by NATO-power determination in the early 1990s, the quest for bodies was early and intense. But only Bosnian Muslim bodies were sought, not victims of the Bosnian Muslims or Croatians, although there is extensive evidence of repeated massacres of Serbs in Bosnia in the years 1992-1995. In 1994 and 1995, Muslim commander in Srebrenica, Naser Oric, proudly showed journalists videotapes of his “war trophies,” including severed heads and heaps of bodies of Serbs, but these were not the bodies the collective was seeking.
In his book Slaughterhouse, David Rieff says there were more than 250,000 Bosnians killed—and Rieff uses the word Bosnians to mean Bosnian Muslims only—but he gives no source, and he is clearly regurgitating claims of Bosnian Muslim officials, notably Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic. The propagandists on his side are truth-tellers. For Rieff, Susan Sontag, Hitchens, et al., this was “genocide,” but the thousands of Serbs killed by Naser Oric and bin Laden's cadres was not genocide; in fact, those slaughters and mass graves (at least 53 claimed by the Bosnian Serbs) never show up on the screen of the collective or reach the U.S. public.
According to George Kenney, who worked on Yugoslavia in the State Department during the Bosnian war, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates 20-30,000 dead in Bosnia, and U.S. intelligence community estimates “run to tens of thousands.” Only a few thousand bodies have been found in Bosnia attributable to the Bosnia-Herzegovina wars, and the ICRC says “more than 20,000” are unaccounted for, which, again, doesn't get us near 250,000 and “genocide.” In Srebrenica, there have been only 473 bodies recovered, and there is absolutely no credible evidence that 7,500 men and boys who allegedly disappeared in this area in July 1995 were murdered. The absence of bodies, despite an intense search and strong incentives to produce them, hasn't interfered with the conclusion that 7,500 were slaughtered there.
One claim of course was that the Serbs removed the bodies. This is not credible, as removing thousands of bodies would not only require significant human and capital resources, not likely to be a high priority in times of intense warfare, but it would also be a project readily observable in satellite photos. U.S. satellite observations of this area never came up with any photos of killing, digging, or removal. The removal theory was also popular for Kosovo, especially after the Tribunal produced fewer than 4,000 bodies (on all sides, including dead soldiers). Long after the war, but timed well to provide a suitable context for bringing Milosevic to the Hague, a story was widely circulated about a Mercedes refrigerated truck dumped into the Danube with a load of bodies, the inference being that maybe many such trucks with bodies were dumped into the river. Needless to say no such evidence has been forthcoming.
The search for bodies intensified during the 78-day bombing war, and then in its aftermath, in NATO-occupied Kosovo. This was urgently needed by NATO's war-makers, as the really severe refugee flight and escalated killing followed the NATO bombing; before that, a Belgrade-NATO agreement had seen the drawing back of the Serbian army, the return of many of the refugees, admission of a sizable OSCE observer presence, and reduced killing, despite KLA provocations. A pre-bombing German Foreign office assessment even denied any ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, describing Serbian army actions there as targeted against KLA forces and strongholds. Furthermore, it eventually entered the public domain that the United States had actually aided the KLA before the bombing, so that the KLA's provocations aimed at inducing Serbian retaliation to help bring NATO into war could be said to be U.S.-sponsored. The indignation at Serbian retaliation was therefore cynical and hypocritical.
The NATO propaganda machine needed to ignore this history, as well as the military collaboration of NATO and the KLA during the war, and blame the refugee crisis and killings entirely on the Serbs. This was helped by a claim of an “Operation Horseshoe” plan to expel the Kosovo Albanians even without a NATO war. The establishment collective's cooperation in this task was exemplary, including the suppression up to this day of the evidence that the alleged Operation Horseshoe was a propaganda fabrication (exposed in a book by retired German Brigadier General Heinz Loquai, The Kosovo Conflict: A War That Could Be Avoided).
A final problem was the absence of enough bodies in Kosovo after the June 10, 1999 NATO occupation to satisfy the frenzied propaganda claims of genocide. During the war, NATO propagandists had made wild claims of 100,000 and even 500,000 killings and the word “genocide” was used freely to describe Serb actions. After the war, NATO and its agents organized what must have be the largest forensic search in history, and the media descended on the conquered province like an invasion of locusts, interviewing refugees, looking for and examining grave sites, insatiable for stories of abuse and bodies. They got painful stories from the refugees, many no doubt true, but there was much disappointment that the Trepca mine, for example, which Kosovo Albanian informants had claimed had been the site of mass cremation, showed no signs of any bodies having been burned there, and the Tribunal's final count was under 4,000 dead—from unknown causes and on all sides. According to the ICRC, there were some 3,500 Kosovo residents still missing in May 2001, a figure that included some 900 Serbs, Roma, and other non-Albanians. Whether these were all genuinely missing or had died is unclear.
With the body count numbers clearly inadequate, instead of pointing out that NATO officials had lied and admitting that they had been gulled, the media and other members of the propaganda collective dropped the subject. Having exploited the inflated claims and squeezed all they could out of refugee testimony, and having failed to mention that the claim of an Operation Horseshoe had been refuted, the collective's abandonment of the subject meant that they left a system of convenient lies intact. This would allow them to support the Tribunal in anything it did, as the Tribunal worked with a closely related system of politicized and biased “information.”
The new humanitarian members of the collective, who had swallowed and disseminated the inflated numbers, also never recanted based on the actual body count. None of them have ever mentioned the evidence that the United States had secretly aided the KLA before the bombing war and was in active contact with them during the war. None has conceded that “Operation Horseshoe” had been demonstrated to be a propaganda concoction; Christopher Hitchens repeats that “a plan of mass expulsion...was in train,” and Michael Ignatieff says that “Milosevic decided to solve an ‘internal problem' by exporting an entire nation to his impoverished neighbors.”
For Ian Williams and Ignatieff, those who point to the absence of bodies consistent with the inflated claims of NATO propaganda are “revisionists.” Both cite Tribunal estimates as the last word—Williams says Carla del Ponte's estimate of 11,334 dead based on “eyewitnesses” “should have put questions concerning the death toll to rest,” but no—“the downward revision of the numbers murdered in Kosovo is proving very fashionable—even in the New York Times,” which to Williams's outrage put up a headline “Early Count Hints at Fewer Kosovo Deaths.” The actual body count was under 4,000, but for Williams, del Ponte's estimate of how many she expects to be found is the only relevant number, given the Tribunal's known objectivity. (In dismissing the need for investigating NATO's war crimes in bombing Serbia, del Ponte acknowledged taking NATO press releases as an authoritative source of information, but Williams probably wouldn't find this problematic either.)
Williams does the New York Times an injustice. In addition to never finding the U.S.-KLA connection of news interest nor the collapse of the Operation Horseshoe claim nor the contesting evidence concerning the Racak massacre, the paper called on Michael Ignatieff to give the authoritative word on “Counting Bodies in Kosovo” (November 21, 1999). Like Williams, Ignatieff has the “revisionists...getting their facts wrong.” The NATO leaders didn't exaggerate the killings. While U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen claimed that 100,000 Kosovo Albanian males were “missing,” he “also clearly stated that his reports showed that 4,600 Kosovars had been executed, a claim that has been confirmed by the forensic trail of evidence uncovered by war crimes investigators since June.” But Ignatieff eventually admits that the Tribunal had up to then found only 2,108 bodies, so that “forensic evidence” based on discovered bodies could certainly not demonstrate that 4,600 people had been executed. Of course, Ignatieff talks about a forensic “trail of evidence,” but this rhetorical trick cannot cover up the fact that he is engaging in deliberate deception. He also doesn't discuss Cohen's use of “missing,” in the midst of a war when such a number was a meaningless propaganda ploy, used to suggest the likelihood that 100,000 had already been murdered.
The Tribunal estimated that 11,334 bodies will be found, so Ignatieff says whether they will be found “depends on whether the Serb military and the police removed them.” That the Tribunal's estimate might be inflated for political reasons or be simply mistaken is ruled out by ideological premise. The Tribunal hasn't found more than 4,000 bodies, but neither Ignatieff nor the Times has noticed.
Afghanistan: What Bodies?
The contrast between the media and collective's treatment of civilian casualties and body count in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan after September 11 couldn't be more dramatic. The media's disinterest in questioning Afghan refugees is especially noteworthy as there were large numbers put to flight by the bombing, and this new burden of war was imposed on a population already in a starvation crisis. Elementary humanity would make their condition and plight of interest. But, on the other hand, U.S. policy success depended on minimizing the effect of the bombing war on civilians. A good propaganda system will therefore make Afghan civilian victims “unworthy,” and their plight will be ignored. The U.S. media and collective responded at least as well as Pravda or Izvestia responded to the demands of the Soviet state when it was doing damage to Afghan civilians.
For the U.S. media, it was “A Nation Challenged” and a “War On Terror.” The focus has been on U.S. war plans, war actions, successes in attacking the enemy, coalition organization, and reactions on the home front. Considerable attention has been paid to civilian casualties and the pains of death, but only as regards the victims of 9/11; in fact, the New York Times has been providing humanizing accounts, day after day, of each and every victim of the World Trade Center bombings. But you would have to look hard in the massive coverage of the war to find U.S. media reports that even touched on civilian casualties from the intensive U.S. bombing raids on Afghanistan or the war's effects on refugee generation and starvation. In an enlightening contrast, whereas the Guardian (London) reports “Refugees left in the cold at ‘slaughterhouse' camp: 100 Afghans perish daily as strained network collapses under flood of new arrivals” (January 3, 2002), the Washington Post features success in averting famine and averts its eyes from the Afghans in travail (“Massive Food Delivery Averts Afghan Famine,” December 31, 2001).
Even when U.S. bombs repeatedly hit marked Red Cross facilities in Kabul, and U.S. officials admitted that this was intended, the U.S. media reported this with brevity and without the slightest indignation, and it did not impel them to look at U.S. bombing strategies more closely. Even the open admission of an intention to harm civilians, as in British Admiral Sir Michael Boyce's statement, “The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognize that this is going to go on until they get the leadership changed” (NYT, October 28), does not move the U.S. media. Investigative zeal on this subject is non-existent. When the academic Mark Herold went to the trouble of carefully studying news reports at home and abroad, and came up with a tally of over 3,700 civilians killed by U.S. bombs from October 7 to December 7 (“A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan”), no major U.S. news institution bothered to report this finding.
Equally interesting has been the silence and/or apologetics on civilian casualties on the part of the new humanitarians who were so deeply concerned with the officially approved victims in the Balkans. Writing and reporting on the Afghan war, Timothy Garton Ash, David Rieff, Michael Ignatieff, and Bernard Kouchner have expressed not a word of concern over the civilian bombing casualties, or the enhanced starvation threat resulting from the war, or possible “war crimes.” Chistopher Hitchens has been positively enthused over the war, and knows by intuition and faith in his leaders that there has been “no serious loss of human life” from the bombing and that the Bush administration has followed “an almost pedantic policy of avoiding ‘collateral damage'” (Nation, December 17, 2001).
Hitchens's Nation colleague, Marc Cooper, was indignant at a citation to Mark Herold's study of civilian casualties, claiming that Herold's body count is “totally unverified and unscientific.” Cooper, who was never outraged over the much less scientific claims of Kosovo Albanian deaths by William Cohen and other NATO spokespersons, is no doubt waiting for the Bush administration to “verify” the Herold body count. It is noteworthy that Cooper doesn't express indignation that neither the government nor media seem to have made an effort to study civilian casualties as Herold has done, a failure that clearly facilitates the killing of civilians—but his arguments are perhaps understandable given that the war strikes him as a “just cause,” making the Afghan civilians correspondingly unworthy. His, Hitchens's, and the new humanitarians' stance toward these civilian killings makes them facilitators of de facto war crimes.
East Timor, Turkey, and Israel
It goes almost without saying that the U.S. mainstream media have not sought out refugees and pursued body counts of East Timorese victims of Indonesia, Kurdish victims of Turkey, or Palestinian victims of Israel. There is no way the U.S. public could know that Turkey had been killing Kurds and producing refugees during the 1990s on a scale that exceeded Serb operations in Kosovo by a large factor. Similarly, as regards Israel and the Palestinians, the media have continued their long tradition of making the Israelis the victims, the Palestinians the aggressors and terrorists, the numerical body count on the ground the inverse of the impression of body count conveyed in the media (see Herman, “Israel's Approved Ethnic Cleansing, Part 3, How the U.S. Media Protects It,” Z Magazine, June 2001).
It was a telling fact that as Indonesian killing in East Timor reached a peak in 1977 and 1978, New York Times coverage of that area fell to zero. This was possibly the closest thing to genocide we have seen since World War II, but the word is not applied to this case (in contrast with its lavish use for Kosovo), and veteran New York Times reporter Henry Kamm even explicitly denied its applicability to East Timor (February 15, 1981). That was what Times reporters call a “complex” case, as a good genocidist (Suharto), long supported by the United States, who brought “stability” to the area, was in charge.
In 1998 and 1999, when Indonesia attempted to prevent and subvert the U.N.-sponsored independence referendum in East Timor, the Indonesian army and paramilitary forces killed over 5,000 defenseless civilians even before the August 30, 1999 vote, according to Church estimates (John Taylor, East Timor: The Price of Freedom). This was far more than died in Kosovo in the year before the bombing war, estimated by UN human rights rapporteur Jiri Dienstbier at some 1,800, and more than the number of bodies found in Kosovo even after the war. But the disinterest of the U.S. mainstream media in refugees or body counts was close to complete, and when on the rare occasion numbers killed have been offered, they are low. Seth Mydans suggested that “as many as 1,000 people” died in the independence struggle, with no citation to source, an estimate that fits well the paper's durable coverup of Indonesia's abuse of these unworthy victims (“Bones Offer Testimony Of Killings In East Timor,” September 30, 2001).
The new humanitarians have followed the same pattern, attending with great indignation to the “genocide” in Bosnia and Kosovo, and somehow never getting around to the frequently far more numerous unworthy victims of their own state and its clients. In a recent study that David Peterson and I did on “the New Humanitarian Crusaders” for a forthcoming book on Human Rights: Challenging the New Consensus (edited by David Chandler), we found that in a sample of 101 recent mainstream media articles on human rights written by a dozen leading new humanitarians (Rieff, Sontag, Kouchner, Havel, Hitchens, Ignatieff, Ash, Kaldor, Aryeh Neier, Geoffrey Robertson, Tim Judah and Kenneth Roth), the Yugoslav conflicts were discussed in detail in every article, but human rights issues in East Timor, Turkey, and Israel were mentioned briefly in only three.
The new humanitarians' lack of interest or concern with victims deemed unworthy by their state was well captured by Christopher Hitchens's treatment of East Timor, where he credits the new interventionism in Kosovo for having helped the East Timorese. Although the intervention was belated, in the end “The Indonesian occupiers sailed away” (“Genocide and the Body-Baggers,” Nation, November 29, 1999). He omits mentioning that the United States and its allies knew, and watched without doing anything about it, while many more innocents were killed than died in Kosovo before the bombing war; that in addition to the large numbers killed, the destruction was immense and 85 percent of the population was made refugees; that no food drops were implemented on behalf of the refugees; that nothing was done to help the more than 100,000 refugees under Indonesian control in West Timor; that no forensic teams were rushed to check out war crimes and no war crimes trials are pressed by the West.
That was Hitchens's last word on this subject, as he sailed away to focus on the villainy in Kosovo, and then the just war against fascism in Afghanistan.
Body Counts in Imperial Service
The beauty of this system is that it works without coercion—the media and new humanitarians display great energy in pursuing the mistreatment of the worthy victims of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or Milosevic, and their indignation seems entirely spontaneous; and their disinterest and absence of indignation at the abuse of the unworthy victims of Suharto, the Turkish generals, Ariel Sharon, or U.S. bombers in Serbia, the Sudan, and Afghanistan seem equally natural. Both their benevolence and indifference are channeled perfectly to serve the demands of the imperial state as they quickly internalize the patriotic agenda. Thus they can pay little or no attention to Saddam Hussein's victims while he is in imperial service (before August 2, 1990), but quickly begin the aggressive search for bodies after he becomes another Hitler (from August 2). This is the way a model propaganda system should work. Z
Edward Herman is an economist and media analyst. His most recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000).