From the lack of body counts in Iraq, to drug wars to torture, the
United States is making the world a worse place to live in.
The following three subchapters are excerpted from John Tirman's 100
Ways America Is Screwing Up the World (Harper Perennial, 2006). Read
another excerpt here.
Three ways America is screwing up the world:
1. "We Don't Do Body Counts"
When U.S. General Tommy Franks uttered those words in 2003, he was conveying
the new sentiments of the American military and its civilian leadership, that
counting the dead of "the enemy" was not necessary or useful. Franks,
who may be remembered as the only general in the annals of American history
to lose two wars, was simply repeating what his political handlers told him
to say, as all active duty generals do. In this case, it was an attempt to deflect
the moral consequences of a "war of choice," a lesson Frank's generation
learned from Vietnam. But the "no body counts" policy reverberates
around the Arab and Muslim world, to America's detriment.
The policy is an insult and a mistake for two reasons. First, it lends the
impression -- or is it a fact? -- that the United States does not care about
civilian casualties. In the autumn of 2005, in a fairly typical sequence, the
military announced that a sweep of Anbar province in Iraq had resulted in the
death of 120 "terrorists." No civilian casualties were reported by
the U.S. government, or by the American press. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news organization,
had firsthand accounts of dozens of casualties. And it is inconceivable that
major military operations of that kind would not result in casualties of the
innocent. This is an embittering legacy of the war: not merely the fact of large
numbers of war dead, but the neglect of even acknowledging that this could be
occurring or is important enough to investigate.
Second, it is bad for the war effort itself. The American people have a right
to know what is going on in their name. Learning about things like Abu Ghraib
and casualties from foreign news sources or NGOs makes the revelations all the
more troubling, as they think they are being lied to by their government. (Which
they are, of course.) And military planners themselves should understand what
the effect of operations is on civilian populations. Family ties are strong
in Iraq, with close extended kinship networks; killing of family members, especially
innocent family members, is likely to produce more resistance -- and more terrorists.
It is one of the seemingly inexplicable things in Iraq -- how could the insurgency
grow when America is so clearly a liberator, where even Sunni Arabs will ultimately
be better off if only they would lay down their weapons? The answer is not only
that they are former Saddamites or jihadists. The far more probable answer is
that the insurgents are driven in part by acts of defense, in effect, or vengeful
A military officer told me around that same time that "rules of engagement"
for U.S. troops were so broad that civilians even faintly suspected of being
insurgents were routinely "blown away." Men talking on cell phones,
for example, while a U.S. military convoy was passing were fair game for shooting.
Many anecdotes of this kind circulate, but have stimulated little curiosity
on the part of journalists.
Most take at face value the estimates of Iraq Body Count, a noble effort to
count, via press reports, the total number of Iraqi civilians killed in the
war. Their estimate by the end of 2005 was about thirty thousand, but their
method was incomplete, as they readily acknowledge, since they count only those
who are reported dead in two or more reputable news sources. That's like doing
the census of the United States by counting everyone mentioned in the news media.
A more complete estimate was provided by a team of epidemiologists, led by
American and Iraqi health professionals, and published in the British medical
journal, The Lancet. Using a well-tested method of random cluster surveys, interviewing
more than 7,000 people, their midrange estimate was 98,000 dead in the first
eighteen months of the war, with 80 percent of those likely to have been killed
by U.S. and U.K. forces.
That report was widely dismissed in the United States as politically motivated
or flawed, though the secretary of state and many others used the same method
to estimate casualties in other wars, such as the Congo. (The method, by the
way, while widely misunderstood, is perfectly sound.) The violence, by most
accounts, increased in the next eighteen months, and one can safely assume that
the actual dead in Iraq now exceed 100,000 by perhaps tens of thousands more.
The real reason why The Lancet study is ignored, and the whole topic of civilian
deaths downplayed, is because that scale of mayhem is just too sickening to
accept in a news media that largely supported the invasion, and by politicians
who would pay a price for even indirectly criticizing the conduct of U.S. troops
who, after all, do the killing.
The moral consequences of war are always inconvenient. They are especially
troubling when a war has a veneer of righteousness. This attitude afflicts the
media elite as much as the political leadership. "We don't do body counts"
could have been uttered by the editor of the Washington Post as easily as the
general in charge. That they are both morally bankrupt on this issue is obvious
for all the world to see.
2. Getting High
Much of my professional time is spent studying armed conflicts around the world.
One can't help noticing that wars today are often mixed up with crime, and
that crime is often about drugs -- heroin and cocaine, in particular. The production
of opiates is connected to the wars and instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan,
and Burma. Cocaine is produced in the Andean countries of South America, particularly
Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and all three have suffered from ongoing civil
wars --Colombia's is almost forty years old -- and social unrest. Then there
are the transit countries, like most of Central America. You add it up and a
lot of countries are involved. Of course, one country is most involved, not
as an exporter, but the consumer: the United States.
Getting high is an American tradition. Alcohol and tobacco consumption is as
old as the Republic. The use of legal pharmaceuticals for depression, anxiety,
sleeplessness, and the like increased markedly after the Second World War. The
legal drug market set the stage for illegal drug consumption. Even now, after
all the public service campaigns about these issues, the consumption of alcohol
by American teens and pre-teens is astounding in scale: 20 percent of the alcohol
imbibed nationwide goes down the gullets of kids between twelve and twenty years
old, and in that age group, half of them drink. They account for $22 billion
So the stage is set for illicit drug consumption. Americans consume more cocaine
than any other country, 300 million metric tons annually. In the 1990s, about
$70 billion was spent in America on coke by 3 to 4 million "hard-core"
users and some 6 million occasional users. Up to a million Americans were hooked
on heroin, and that cost about $20 billion a year. Trends suggest that use of
cocaine may actually be declining, but statistics in general are a little dodgy
when it comes to these practices. It's still a very big business.
The industry that supplies the habits of Americans gives new meaning to the
word globalization. West African couriers go to Bangkok to purchase Burmese-made
heroin and run it through no-hassle airports in Africa and take their chances
at border crossings in Mexico and Canada. Cocaine shippers, we know, have their
own air fleet. The transit points for all this stuff reads like a who's who
of failed states (or venues of the Reagan Doctrine): Angola, Cambodia, Guatemala,
Nigeria, Honduras, Mozambique.
The drug money -- a little goes a long way in some of these countries -- feeds
the corrupt and brutal, rogue cops and dirty politicians, ready to take the
graft in one hand and U.S. "war on drugs" money in the other. They
are often involved with the other contraband that fuels war and crime: gunrunning,
diamonds, or even higher-end goods like nuclear technology. They sometimes have
connections to the likes of al Qaeda. It all seems to go hand in hand. And drugs
are at the center of it.
The war on drugs is generally considered to be a failed policy, and an expensive
one, though it has its defenders. Our federal and state governments spend something
like $50 billion annually, both at home and abroad, in the drug war. A million
are arrested, many of them incarcerated, bringing on more billions in costs.
In places like Colombia, the war on drugs is mixed up with the civil war itself.
Local police and military elites use the drug war for other purposes -- not
only old-fashioned graft, but as a way to settle scores and dispatch enemies.
Eradication of crops only works if the local people want it and there are alternatives,
which are rarely in the mix. Very few independent analysts regard the war on
drugs as a success, mainly because it is being fought in the wrong places --
the problem is not abroad, but in ourselves.
Free trade helps the drug trade. The war on terrorism may hinder it in some
places, but help it in others. In Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban
opened the door to new cultivators and exporters of heroin.
It's a very confusing picture. The one remedy that has not been tried, of course,
is legalization. There is a ferocious debate about the harmful effects of drugs,
and what legalization (controlled, taxed, etc.) might bring. But one thing is
certain: the hunger for illegal drugs in the United States reverberates around
the world. It is violent, corrupting, and enormously costly to millions of people
on every continent.
I will keep this one short, because it is so obvious and hardly any rational
and moral individual would disagree with me. In fact, there is so much unanimity
on this matter among knowledgeable people worldwide that I thought perhaps this
should not be one of the 100 Ways. But then I saw Condi Rice in Europe defending
the "renditions" of "suspects," spirited off to secret prisons
where no doubt they would come in for some serious hands-on interrogations,
claiming these contemptible practices saved European lives -- almost certainly
a complete falsehood -- and I thought, well, yes, torture deserves a few words.
America has overall been quite free of torture as an official state policy
or practice, so it is perhaps a little premature to claim that the recent reliance
on torture prisons for the massive detentions of fighters from Afghanistan and
Iraq and others has "screwed up the world." Too soon, but not too
far fetched. The revelations about the U.S. torture techniques and the persistence
of Bush administration in defending and using them are a colossal national shame
that has muddied whatever conceivable moral clarity guided the new crusades
in the Middle East.
Apart from it being morally repugnant, a slap at the ideals the country tends
to uphold, and a violation of international law -- often flimsy reasons in the
minds of torturers -- the practice of maximizing pain doesn't work. People who
actually know something valuable (unlike the thousands of low-level prisoners
at Guantánamo and other prisons) are the least likely to talk. And some
will talk and say anything to stop the beatings, burnings, poisonings and other
methods in the torturer's quiver. Hence, the many false alarms and "orange
alerts" since 9/11 (which, conveniently, also have political value). "No
one has yet offered any validated evidence that torture produces reliable intelligence,"
notes General David Irvine, a specialist on interrogations. "While torture
apologists frequently make the claim that torture saves lives, that assertion
is directly contradicted by many Army, FBI, and CIA professionals who have actually
interrogated al Qaeda captives."
In its Eight Lessons of Torture, the Center for the Victims of Torture, an
experienced, Minneapolis-based NGO, notes in lesson number one (that torture
does not yield reliable information) that "nearly every client at the Center
for Victims of Torture, when subjected to torture, confessed to a crime they
did not commit, gave up extraneous information, or supplied names of innocent
friends or colleagues to their torturers." And as many people have argued,
including former interrogators, torture has a corrupting influence on the torturers.
The big "what-if" in the debate is "what if a captured terrorist
knew of a plan to detonate a nuclear weapon in Manhattan, should we use all
means to stop that?" Such what-ifs depend on many implausible scenarios
converging. The simple fact is that suicide bombing has shown that the most
politically violent people will die for their cause; this is not exactly news.
So if in the unlikely case (getting a nuclear device is an extremely low-probability
event) someone did know of such a thing about to happen, and we're pulling out
their fingernails, we can rest assured they won't talk, because they would have
committed to dying anyway. People who argue otherwise are not only morally corrupt
but naïve. We could, however, pose a more likely what-if: What if a would-be
terrorist becomes a deadly fighter because America is torturing his compatriots?
That"what-if is already under way. Some people -- American torturers --
have blood on their hands as a result.
Case closed. The torture, the illegal detentions, the unnecessary killings,
the grisly prisons -- not a single benefit has been shown from this tawdriness
and moral depravity. It is likely to outlive its alleged purposes and brand
the perpetrators forever.
John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center
for International Studies.
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