John Tirman

The Deaths of Others

VTR Date: May 5, 2012

John Tirman discusses the fate of civilians in America's wars.


GUEST: John Tirman
TITLE: The Deaths of Others
VTR: 05/05/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is John Tirman, Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of a recent Oxford University Press volume, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.

Now, drawing from his study of Americans’ historic indifference to body counts other than of our own, earlier this year Mr. Tirman had an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “The Forgotten Wages of War”.

A few days later a Times Sunday Dialogue on “Do We Live in a Less Deadly Time, or Not?”, presented Robert Jay Lifton’s compelling critique of Steven Pinker’s new book NOT ironically titled The Better Angels of Our Nature, which insists that “violence has long been declining and that this may be our most peaceful era in our species’ existence”.

To begin, then, I would ask my guest if he believes there is as much of a disconnect as I perceive between the thrust of his book on The Deaths of Others and Steven Pinker’s thesis concerning The Better Angels of Our Nature. What do you think?

TIRMAN: That’s a good question. I think that the two are not incompatible. That is that the idea that we are witnessing, as I document, large scale civilian casualties in America’s wars. The wars that I covered mainly were Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. And Pinker’s discussion of declining violence … because if you look at history and the breath of history that he does, one could easily hold that overall in a world’s population of 6 billion now … that the number of deaths by violence is much smaller than it was in a world of 1 billion in the 19th century or so. Or even earlier.

So I don’t think the two ideas are incompatible. But I do insist, I guess, that we are still witnessing wars … America’s wars are what I cover … but of course there are others as well. Those in the Congo, for example, which have been particularly deadly in the last decade or so, in which you’ve seen hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people being killed.

HEFFNER: Well, I was interested in what the reaction must have been to your writing, to your concerns about others …

TIRMAN: Right. Well, of course, one of my principal assertions here and I think a fairly original one is that the American public is essentially indifferent to this high mortality in America’s wars … the, the deaths of people who live in the war zones, not the deaths of American soldiers.

HEFFNER: You say … “indifferent”. You mean “unknowing”, or both?

TIRMAN: It’s a little bit of both. I think there’s enough news coverage of these major conflicts, Iraq, Vietnam, etc. that, that the American public is certainly aware that there’s a major war going and there’s a lot of violence. And I think it’s partly because of the scale of violence that they turn away from it and don’t want to psychologically deal with it.

So it’s not unknowing … they may not know the details, they may not know the extent of civilian versus military deaths, for example. But they certainly are exposed to enough news and analysis that that’s not really an excuse for not knowing or for indifference.

It’s indifference that is, that’s a kind of a psychological defense, if you will, against a, a mission that’s gone very wrong.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

TIRMAN: Well, we go into each one these wars … if you look at Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan … and there are other examples, too, the Philippine’s War at the end of the 19th century, for example … there are high expectations about what we’re doing … about the morality of the mission, the necessity of the mission, the, the … you know, the expansion of American Empire for some … for others a kind of a “rally ‘round the flag” sentiment.

And then in each of those four post-1945 wars there was a pretty quick subsiding of the bubble of enthusiasm. And in … for example, in Iraq, it came after about a year or two if you look at the opinion polls, the people very suddenly got turned off to the war, believing it was a mistake and not paying a great deal of attention to it.

We have less public opinion information about the earlier wars, but there was a very similar pattern … for Vietnam it took a little longer for the public to turn against it. Korea, of course, is known as a “forgotten war” and it’s known as a forgotten war, I think, because people purposefully wanted to turn away from it and not deal with it after about a year, after the retreat from the Yalu.

And each of these wars has this pattern. And it’s partly the, the war itself has gone badly, and that’s one explanation. But it’s also the scale of carnage, I believe, the, the size of, of the emiseration, if you will, of the local populations, the scale of mortality … all due, in fact, to America’s actions. Of course, there were others involved, too, who are also responsible. But largely due to America’s actions. And people don’t really want to, to come to terms with this psychologically.

HEFFNER: You mean the “others” body counts due to Americans’ actions?

TIRMAN: Well, I mean that the … in Korea, for example, the Chinese, the North Koreans obviously were responsible for a lot of killing. It’s not just the United States, obviously that is, that is involved in, in the war in that way.

But in … certainly in Vietnam and in Iraq and Afghanistan these were largely wars of choice for the United States. We didn’t start the Vietnam War, but we certainly escalated it. We did start the Iraq War and we did start the war in Afghanistan, although with some provocations. Nonetheless we were the first ones in.

So we are, you know, we’re responsible … it’s the Pottery Barn rule, that Colin Powell talked about … if you break it, you own it. And we did break these societies to a significant extent. But we haven’t really psychologically come to own them.

HEFFNER: You … before, I think you were saying that your feeling is that we are aware of it as a people, or we have been aware of the dimensions of the body counts. Do you really feel strongly about that because my sense is that we are … awareness is a strange thing. If you were to ask someone where there so many civilians killed or so many more … they might come up with the right answer, but I mean aware.

TIRMAN: Well, in fact … of the civilian casualties Americans have not been very aware of the scale.

HEFFNER: And isn’t that what you’re writing about?

TIRMAN: Yeah. I spent a good deal of time talking about what happens to the civilians in each of these wars, I give a history of each war. And part of that history is about what happens to the local people. And this is what we don’t get, generally, in most accounts. It’s certainly not in popular culture and it’s not much in the popular mind even at the time of the war.

So, in Vietnam, for example, we still don’t know how many people died, but it was probably at least 2 million people … that would include fighters, not just civilians, very hard to separate the two when you’re doing these kinds of calculations.

In Iraq I believe the number is probably close to a million … between a half a million and a million. And this number has been very controversial … not my estimation, but the estimations of some that I’ve been associated with like the Johns Hopkins scientists that did a household survey in 2006 and estimated from that, that there were 650,000 people who had died … Iraqis who had died to that point in the war.

This is … this is a very controversial topic among people who follow it closely. And I think that the reason that it’s controversial is, again, because most people don’t want to, to come to terms with the scale of mayhem that has been begun there.

Many Iraqis … you talk to Iraqis … Iraqi journalists and others … will not deny that they think it’s well into the hundreds of thousands. The popular … the conventional wisdom in the United States, which you hear in the news media all the time is 100,000 civilians died in Iraq. I think that number is low by a factor of at least five.

HEFFNER: How do you trace the history of Americans’ concern for, or lack of concern for civilian deaths?

TIRMAN: Well, it’s a good question. Measuring indifference is a very difficult thing to do unless you are able to do a lot of survey research, which is, of course, expensive to do.

I think it’s interesting that the, the question about civilian casualties in Iraq has hardly ever been asked by pollsters.

There’s very little representation of civilians in, in our popular culture, in novels and films and so on. Where we have some polling data, it tends to reinforce this idea that Americans don’t really care very much.

So, for example … just one example. There was a poll, an AP poll in 2007 … war’s been going on for a while … asking how many American soldiers have died. And the, the median answer was very close to the actual number at that time, about 3,000. And then they asked how many Iraqi civilians had died. And the median answer was, I think, 9,800 at a time when, I believe, it was well into the hundreds of thousands and there’d been a lot of publicity about the, the earlier mortality studies.

I think that … there … the little indications of that in the polling data … I asked a research librarian at Yaddo where I spent part of one summer to write this book … and I asked her “Could you use your network of research librarians to find accounts of Vietnamese” … I was writing a chapter on Vietnam at that point … of Vietnamese voices about the war … just accounts by the Vietnamese of what happened to them during the war.

And she sent out this bulletin to research librarians all over the world and in English there was virtually nothing. There was virtually nothing about … from the Vietnamese … about what happened in this very important event. A long war in which there was tremendous destruction.

So, you know, that’s just another little indicator that there’s so little that we know how these people lived through a war … what are they thinking, why do they leave? In Iraq there are five million people who are displaced by the war, why did they, why did they leave their homes? We don’t know. We don’t know the answers. And I think that’s another sign of indifference.

HEFFNER: Question. I don’t even know how quite to put it, because as I’m about to phrase it, I think “That’s a damn stupid question, Heffner”, but … do you think it would make terribly much difference if we did know the counts … if the body counts had been made of civilians in these various wars as well as our own?

TIRMAN: Well, I think it’s a very good question actually. And it’s one that I do try to come to terms with a little bit … it’s speculative.

My argument runs as follows … I think that there is a difference between believing that 100,000 people died in Iraq and a million people died in Iraq. I think most Americans would acknowledge that difference and be much more horrified by the larger figure.

And how it makes a difference is not about Iraq, which after all, is now finished for Americans, but the next war. In fact I have read some, some comments by, mostly conservative politicians and blogs and things like that, saying “Oh, well we got rid of Saddam and only 100,000 people died.” So it was a victory, we should declare this a victory, not be ashamed of what we did in Iraq.

And what worries me is … not to necessarily engage that argument, but the next war. There will be a call for a next war … there is a call for a next war, in Iran and possibly other places … Korea. And if we’re not mindful of the destruction of the last war, not only the million, perhaps who died … 5,000,000 displaced, but the virtual destruction of, of the society, then it’s much easier to say, “Yeah, let’s, let’s go bomb Teheran”. And I think that’s the real danger. That, that’s the risk of not coming to terms with what really happened in Iraq.

HEFFNER: It’s strange. I find, you’ll forgive me … myself so unconvinced by that point of view or of that point of view. But then your point is certainly well made that we didn’t know. Well, at least I think that you would concede that really the press did not emphasize the nature of civilian casualties. Those who are the “others”, they don’t really count, do they?

TIRMAN: Well, that’s part of it … is that we’re … you know, it’s not a coincidence that these wars that I’m talking about are all taking place in Asia and we’ve tended to have dismissive attitudes very often about these particular “others”.

But I am … I, I think that there are very dimensions to this that need more exploring. I think that what I’ve tried to do in this book, is really start an argument. Let’s pay attention to these civilians. Let’s pay attention to what really happens on the ground with these wars. And then let’s, let’s, let’s tease out what the implications of this are. Not only for our own souls, so to speak, but also for what American policy should be in these situations.

HEFFNER: But, but let’s broaden the horizon here. We certainly know that the question of civilian damage in the Second World War was very important. How do you account for what we did there? Participating in the Dresden bombings …

TIRMAN: Well, the …

HEFFNER: Hiroshima …

TIRMAN: Right.

HEFFNER: Nagasaki.

TIRMAN: I had a short chapter on strategic …


TIRMAN: … bombing. In part because it was very important as a precursor to the Korean War … it was a great deal of bombing … most of the casualties in Korea were really from the strategic bombing carried out by the US Air Force.

The, the bombing in Germany and Japan was called “terror” bombing by Roosevelt and Churchill when they met at Casablanca in 1943, they endorsed this policy of essentially terrorizing, demoralizing the civilian population in the belief that this would help end the war more quickly … also going after steel plants and other infrastructure. That’s what strategic bombing was and there were 60 cities in Germany and 60 cities in Japan.

The Japanese bombing took place later because we were close enough until 1944 to start that bombing. 1943 in Germany. The results were, were pretty horrific … you remember Tokyo .. the bombing of Tokyo …


TIRMAN: 180,000 people killed in one night in the fire bombing. Fire bombing. Napalm in Tokyo. So, yeah, we have some experience with this before, with a popular war. In a war in which this was considered necessary and, of course, the nuclear … the atomic attacks as well.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t that mean, though, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but doesn’t that mean that from that point on our concern is not going to be with “others” body counts.

TIRMAN: I don’t disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that. I’m not … I’m not arguing that there … that, that somehow we’ve misplaced our, our moral compass, to use a common term.

I’m arguing that perhaps we never had that moral compass as far as “the others” are concerned. And this is something we should, we should discuss. We should come to terms with. Now, I’m not sure that we’re any worse than any other major power … this is a question that’s often asked of France, Britain, the Soviets, whomever. But I’m an American and this is what I want to talk about.

HEFFNER: Would you entertain the notion that in a sense the opposite is true. It is, or had been so difficult for us to go to war. That once in war, we do everything to bring it to a rapid … as rapid as possible and successful conclusion.

TIRMAN: There’s certainly circumstances in which a doctrine of annihilation, which was really the US military’s doctrine in, in the Second World War might make sense. I mean I’m not going to argue against that especially when facing Hitler or Tojo.

But what my concern is about is … really these, these latter wars in which they were considered to be limited wars on the one hand, fought under somewhat, at least debatable, contestable rationales … right.

I mean going into Vietnam under the Gulf of Tonkin resolution … certainly going into Iraq … the hot pursuit of Bin Laden in Afghanistan … all of these really had problems with the rationale of the war.

So the morality of a doctrine of annihilation is suspect because of the causes of the war to begin with. And then how the wars are actually conducted and what we say we’re doing versus what we’re actually doing. There, there was very much a disconnect … as we’ve seen in this Haditha massacre decision that came down recently.

You know 24 civilians killed, innocent civilians … nobody claimed that they were insurgents after the fact. The Marines lied about it until an enterprising reporter uncovered it. And then basically everybody gets off … the, the ones that were prosecuted.

That seems to me to be emblematic of, of what happened more broadly in the war … that is that we simply won’t take responsibility for the destruction that we’re wrecking on those societies.

HEFFNER: War is hell. We’ve heard that before. How much do you need to hold on to that notion? You go to war … you’re in hell … seriously. Not distinguishing between this human being and that human being … this human being is a civilian … this is a soldier … war is hell … we’re destroying life.

TIRMAN: Right.

HEFFNER: Isn’t there something “off-putting” a bit about distinguishing in this way?

TIRMAN: Well, we’ve traditionally tried to distinguish and this is deep in, you know, sort of the Judeo-Christian ethic … but I, I don’t think that the question is simply that war is hell and we need to accept everything that comes with that. The man who said “War is hell” which was General William Tecumseh Sherman … also …

HEFFNER: Made it hell.

TIRMAN: (Laugh) He did make it hell. He also said, that civilian casualties and the destruction of war is … what he called the epistemology of war … it’s a way of knowing what war is. And I use that phrase …

HEFFNER: Yes, you do …

TIRMAN: … and I think it really encapsulates in some ways what I’m after here. Because we need to have a system of knowledge about war … that’s what an epistemology is … a system of knowledge … we need to know more about what we’re doing in these places.

One of the reasons is … even if you look at it from the standpoint of the war makers and this was part of what my New York Times piece was about is that if the military doesn’t really appreciate what is happening on the ground … forget for a moment their moral culpability about civilians … they just don’t know how many civilians are dying, for example, or why people are moving out of the area in large numbers … they’re not going to be able to fight the war efficiently.

Many, many, many people who have been captured in Iraq, in Afghanistan … treated more or less as terrorists or insurgents, say that they’re defending their communities … that’s what they think they’re doing.

And what does that tell us about how we’re conducting the war. These kinds of questions aren’t really being asked.

I think they are being asked, actually, inside the military, but it’s not a part of a public discourse that I think we have to have.

HEFFNER: You suggest that it is being conducted inside the military.

TIRMAN: Well, certainly Petraeus came …


TIRMAN: … came to this realization that we were creating more enemies than we were killing because, because of the way we’re conducting the war … too harsh, too many house to house searches that didn’t honor people’s privacy and, and so on … their customs. Too many detentions. The Abu Ghraib … not just Abu Ghraib … but lots of other things. A long list of things that we didn’t do well. And that that was creating more, more resistance inside Iraq and I think the same could be said of Afghanistan.

Petraeus, and others realize this. I don’t think they had a particularly good answer for it because you need a huge number of troops, very well trained to be able to carry out counter-insurgency the way that it’s designed, in theory.

But I think they did recognize this phenomenon … what was going on and that’s part of what my concern is frankly.

I mean I’m not a pacifist … I think wars sometimes are necessary. And … but you need to conduct them in ways that are not only … that not only honor the rules of war, but also is efficient from every standpoint. And that includes treating civilians well.

HEFFNER: Efficient death?

TIRMAN: Well, hmmm … this is, this is getting down in the weeds and I’m not quite sure if it’s easily answered, but I think that the attitudes going in … you look at the training, you look at the attitudes of the troops who do not have, what I would call, enlightened beliefs about civilians … a lot to them believe civilians were all terrorists in Iraq … as a country we’re supposedly liberating. Many of them did not know about the Geneva Conventions and so on. These things we could improve upon that, at least. There’s some baby steps we could take that would improve the situation.

HEFFNER: Well, one major step is for people to read The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars … and John Tirman thank you for joining me today.

TIRMAN: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s