The empathy gap: from the Iraq war to drone warfare

It is an odd coincidence, the sudden bright spotlight on drones at the same time as the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, but it raises at least one common question: what is our attitude toward the innocent victims of war? The answer trends toward utter indifference.

The human costs of the Iraq War have been scarcely mentioned in this anniversary season, but they weren’t discussed much during the U.S. involvement in Iraq either. When they are mentioned—the dead, the missing, the widows and orphans, the displaced—the numbers are almost always wrong. The news media routinely uses the lowest mortality estimates, which are low by several factors. Journalists and policy professionals do not take the time to understand how these estimates are made, and their tendency to use conservative figures wins out. The lower figures are derived from counting published names in English-language newspapers, which yield the oft-heard number of 100,000 civilians dying in Iraq violence. The method favored by scientists—randomized, household surveys—yields a much higher figure, around a half million by 2006, a point from which unabated sectarian violence continued to roil Iraq for another year or two. I expect that actual war-related mortality is about 800,000, not an unusually high toll for a long war in a country of 25-30 million.

What’s striking about this languid approach to the human toll is the apparent and sustained indifference to the colossal scale of suffering Iraqis have endured as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation. Very little attention is paid to the displaced (still more than three million people) or the health effects of war (a spike in birth defects, for example). Google “health effects of Iraq war” and you will see predominantly the health effects for U.S. soldiers—PTSD, suicides, respiratory problems from “burn pits”— a perfect reflection of how American society reacts to all its wars. American soldiers are valorized and the native populations are forgotten, sometimes even blamed for the misfortunes besetting the U.S. intervention.

Keep in mind that these are populations—Iraqi, Afghan, Vietnamese, Korean—which we went in to ‘save’ in some fashion or another. Yet once there, once the grueling experience of combat has taken its toll on public enthusiasm, the American public is quickly ready to turn away from the whole mess. There are few, if any charities for Iraqi orphans or widows, no television documentaries about Iraqis and the war, no films or novels ingrained into the American consciousness. President Obama, speaking at the end of U.S. military deployments in Iraq in late 2011, did not mention the cost of war to Iraqis, their sacrifices or their misery. More importantly, virtually no one pointed out his lack of sympathy. That is indifference.

To the extent the news media in the United States and Britain commemorate the beginning of the war in Iraq, such attention will almost certainly be lavished on the decisions to go to war, the cooked intelligence, and the deaths of U.S. and British soldiers in the conflict. In many respects, this focus is precisely the same as that trained on the controversies attending drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). As is now widely appreciated, drones fly by remote control, can stay aloft for dozens of hours, and are inexpensive compared with an F-16 fighter jet. They are used for surveillance and can kill with Hellfire missiles. They have been used primarily in Pakistan to target al Qaeda militants; as many as 3,000 people are believed to have been killed by drones, an unknown number of them civilians, surely in the low hundreds at least.

For several months now, the Obama administration’s use of drones has been questioned by a few critics, remarkably few given how many issues they raise. Obama has barely acknowledged they are being used, his new CIA director John Brennan previously claimed that no civilians had ever been killed by drones, and the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere is deeply resented in those countries.  

New attention was raised earlier this month when the quirky Rand Paul, U.S. Senator from Kentucky, filibustered the confirmation of Brennan to head the CIA because he wanted assurances from the Obama administration that drones would not be used to kill American citizens on American soil. It was a peculiar way to raise the manifold issues related to drones (since the police or national guard can and do kill U.S. citizens on American soil), but it did at least force the matter onto the national stage.

What is striking to me about the drone debate and the consideration of civilian casualties in Iraq is the pattern of attention. The infamous line of General Tommie Franks, “we don’t do body counts” (regarding, in that instance, Afghanistan, but equally applicable to Iraq), signaled a stubborn resistance on the part of the military to provide an account of the human cost of the war. The U.S. government was opaque, not only with regard to individual incidents, like the Haditha massacre, but about the overall picture of human insecurity in Iraq. When violence against civilians was discussed, it was typically attributed to Iraqis themselves, a 'blaming-the-victim' convenience. No statistical account was pursued by the government. The same has been true of drones, in which the program remains unacknowledged or at least not discussed officially, civilian “collateral damage” denied, and an implicit attribution of blame to the ‘terrorists' being targeted.

A rationale for drones that’s often trotted out is that it saves lives compared with a larger, conventional ‘boots on the ground’ military operation. That may be true if a larger operation is the only available alternative, but discussion of such tradeoffs is impossible with so little known about drone policy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were also justified in part on the claim that U.S. actions would yield significantly better results for local populations, a claim that would be disputed by many Iraqis and Afghans. Of course, all U.S. wars are justified mainly as crusades to save an innocent population from a tyrant (Kim Il-Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, etc.), even though the civilian population is victimized by the same action and largely forgotten along the way. In the course of the war, the high rate of civilian casualties in Iraq produced and perhaps initiated the sizable Sunni insurgency; in the case of drones, it may also produce ‘blowback’, particularly in the attitudes of Pakistanis and others, including recruitment to violent groups.

At present, the enthusiasm for drones seems solid among the American public, but polls do not typically probe on questions of the human rights of targeted populations. (This is another similarity to the Iraq war’s civilian victims—questions of concern about their welfare were never asked in public polling.) Because the information regarding civilian casualties from drones is scant and contested, and because U.S. military personnel are not at risk, the public is unlikely to turn against their use the way it turned against other wars in the region. But indifference to the civilian toll is likely to be prominent.

Teju Cole’s comment (given to Mother Jones) that the use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan and other faraway places has revealed an “empathy gap” among the American people is striking; it’s an excellent, shorthand way of describing this repeated phenomenon of not caring about people on whom we are spending billions of dollars to save or liberate or make into good consumers. It does not explain the why of the empathy gap, this vast carelessness and callousness, but it does at least point it out. I explain the empathy gap as a combination of racism, American exceptionalism, and the instinct to turn away from unpleasant truths. Drone warfare fits these categories neatly.

But indifference has its price. In the case of the Iraq War, the downplaying or neglect of civilian mortality allows the pro-war hustlers to say a few tens of thousands of deaths were worth it to get rid of Saddam. The implications for Iran and whatever other conjured foe are unmistakable. Indifference has another wrinkle in the case of the UAVs. What’s most worrisome about the adventures of the drone is that the absence of an unpopular war that creates pressure on political leaders to withdraw may mean we continue in a kind of perpetual killing spree, far from inquiring eyes or sympathetic protest. That seems to be what Obama is seeking—insulation from scrutiny or opprobrium—and that is, so far, what he’s largely getting.  

About the author

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies. He is author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford).