Jesurgislac’s Journal

June 20, 2008

What’s the value of a human life?

Over the past several months, the US has been “dealing” with the Iraqi resistance in Sadr City, home to 2.5 million people, by firing “Hellfire missiles, tank rounds, satellite-guided missiles and rounds from machine guns”. (The resistance have been firing “rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles and mounted machine guns as well as AK-47 rifles”, according to this recent New York Times article.)

How many Iraqis have been killed as a result? Impossible to say, exactly: as a matter of policy, the US military does not count or try to count Iraqis killed, and of course will claim as a matter of routine that any adult male Iraqi killed was a member of the resistance, and therefore a legitimate target for the occupying army.

But if you think about what would be likely to happen if the FBI were to “deal with” violent crime in New York City, the most populous city in the US, by firing Hellfire missiles at locations where they believe violent criminals live or where they’ve been storing weapons, you might have an idea of what is happening in Sadr City.

The other day on Obsidian Wings, Eric Martin posted what I thought was a fairly uncontentious post: The Going Exchange Rate:

From a distance, the true levels of devastation are hard to appreciate in any deeper sense. Further, the relentless drumbeat of bombings and other incidents leads to a certain level of numbness. It’s impossible to pause and take notice of each. As a result of this continued conflict, the numbers of dead and wounded have reached those hard to comprehend levels where the tragedy of lives lost is blurred by the sterility of statistics. The fact that our media has deliberately chosen to keep images of the carnage from our screens and pages also contributes to the impersonal nature of the math.

One thing that I find myself doing almost reflexively when I read about a bombing such as yesterday’s (perhaps to counteract this tendency), is to try to imagine what such a body count would equal in American terms (something Juan Cole did some time back IIRC). That is, given that Iraq is a much smaller country population wise, what would the corollary be in a country America’s size (this is relevant when trying to measure the impact on a society as a whole from such acts). The conversion rate is actually quite easy due to a certain symmetry in Iraq’s pre-war population (roughly 30 million) and America’s (roughly 300 million) – about ten times the size.

Thus, in order to begin to empathize with Baghdadis, imagine what a bombing that took 630 Americans would feel like. Imagine the outpouring of emotion that would ensue, the sadness, the outrage. And that’s from just one day out of thousands in a war that has seen few, if any, pass without comparable tragedy.

The blogging community at Obsidian Wings – front page posters and regular commentators, a group of perhaps a hundred people – lost one of our number in Iraq this January past: Andy Olmsted, who also posted as G’Kar. Andy touched more lives than most, but for every life lost in Iraq (well over a million since 2003, as two separate counts have confirmed) there was a group of people who felt as we did – friends, family, loved ones. Unlike some others on the blog, Hilzoy or Gary Farber, I wasn’t particularly close to Andy; yet the knowledge of that life wasted, of the loss of all Andy hoped for, still sometimes brings me to tears. I’ve lost close friends and family before: there is a grinding grief you just have to spend time – months, years – working your way through. Mourning.

For each life lost in Iraq, people are feeling that grinding grief. For each one of a million lives, there are family and friends who are still trying to endure the loss, the grinding grief, the mourning.

It’s impossible to comprehend the scale of this tragedy – no one could hold an understanding of that much grief and loss and misery and pain. It’s awfully easy to dismiss the lives lost that we only hear about by the dozens in news reports – thirteen dead here, sixty-three dead here – as not holding that much grief, that much pain, as our individual losses, that we know by name and family and the words they wrote.

But Eric’s point is well made: if Iraqi lives and American lives are considered of equal value, then to measure the impact on the US if an equivalent number of lives were lost, you have to think of ten times the number.

Before the war, there were 30 million people in Iraq. 300 million people in the US. One million Iraqi dead. To understand the scale of that loss, do simple arithmetic: imagine if the scale of the American losses were not four thousand but ten million.

Given ten million American dead, a group the size of the Obsidian Wings network would not have experienced just one loss in five years. Every time someone was offline for a while, the worry would be that (as I think most of us regular readers worried about Riverbend) that something had happened – that they were among the dead, or the injured, or the refugees who had been forced to flee. (As Eric also noted, to consider the scale of the disruption caused by 4 million Iraqi refugees, think 40 million American refugees.)

Only two basics are required to understand the point Eric was making in his post: the basic humanity to know that each Iraqi killed is the same loss as each American killed, and the ability to do basic arithmetic.

What are we to think of the people who aggressively, bitterly resisted Eric’s post, claiming that it was impossible to equate the deaths of Iraqis with the deaths of Americans? It would be generous, I suppose, to blame the American educational system, and believe that they don’t know how to do basic arithmetic.

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