Bloodless wars: from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Comres recently released the results of a poll they took to gauge the British public’s knowledge of the death toll from the war in Iraq since 2003.

Shockingly, the poll found that 59% of respondents thought that 10’000 people – both combatants and civilians – or less had been killed. Considering that the Iraq Body Count organisation, whose numbers are themselves an underestimate, documented nearly 7000 purely civilian deaths from ‘Coalition’ air raids in the first 3 weeks of the invasion alone (Circa March-April 2003), it seems staggering to me that anyone could think the death toll is only now, ten years later, at those levels. Of course, the real toll is likely in the several hundreds of thousands at this point.

Channel Four’s war correspondent Alex Thompson said the results would give ‘great comfort’ to ‘the generals who work so hard to peddle the lie of bloodless warfare’.

I just want to take a quick look here at how such ignorance (and I mean that in a literal rather than a pejorative sense) might come about, using the conflict in Afghanistan as an example. Anyone who follows Afghanistan closely – or tries to – will know serious, indepth reporting is often quite thin on the ground, especially when it comes to the question of Afghan casualties. In many ways Afghanistan, with all its attendant and ongoing horrors, is the forgotten war, even among much of the left wing blogosphere and commentariat. There’s a lot to be written about those various horrors, but on the question of casualties alone . . .

Here’s the BBC’s Defence Correspondent Caroline Wyatt, writing in 2010:

‘we at BBC News do not generally report the numbers of Taliban or insurgent casualties and fatalities, because there are no reliable or verifiable source figures available . . . Any apparent inconsistency in the reporting of deaths resulting from the military campaign in Afghanistan is not the effect of bias on the part of the BBC or its correspondents or editors. It reflects the fact that it is Nato policy not to deal in “enemy body-count” in Afghanistan, for a variety of reasons’.

That is, then, the BBC doesn’t report Afghan ‘insurgent’* casualties because NATO itself doesn’t report them. This seems like a fairly clear example of the BBC, a major and influential international news organisation, taking their reporting lead from NATO/ISAF. One might legitimately ask here, how can this not lead to bias? Might I suggest that the BBC actually do a little bit of . . . y’know, journalism, and try and find out those numbers for themselves? They surely have the resources and the contacts to do it – if they wanted to. How many ‘insurgents’ have been killed? 10’000? 20’000? 50’000? 100’000? We don’t really know, because we apparently aren’t allowed and aren’t supposed to know.

Wyatt goes on to say that:

‘We do, however, report the deaths of British service-people and of servicemen and women from other nations within the Nato-ISAF coalition, as well as the number of injured when those figures become available, because reliable figures are released regularly by Nato and the individual coalition members’.

Again, Wyatt is essentially saying that the reason the BBC does report on and give significance to NATO/ISAF casualties is because NATO/ISAF do themselves – a further example of them allowing NATO/ISAF to shape their war coverage. Considering that the BBC is the broadcasting wing of a state that is a senior partner within NATO/ISAF, and which constitutes one side in the conflict, you might say this is hardly surprising.

And state-corporate media giving prominent coverage to the deaths of ‘Our’ people, while almost totally ignoring the deaths of ‘Theirs’, is surely one way in which the perception of the ‘bloodless war’ (at least when it comes to the deaths of the supposed Bad Guys, and the natives in general) is cultivated. Reading state-corporate media coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan, you’d be surprised to learn that any Afghans are dying at all.

*I put insurgent in speech marks because it could mean anything from a committed anti-occupation fighter, to someone who simply picked up a gun or other weapon in the heat of their village or home being attacked by NATO/ISAF forces, to someone who wasn’t actually a combatant in any way, shape or form, but was simply labelled that for propaganda/legal reasons. Either way, their deaths, apparently, are of no great import.

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