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How to Ignore 4.5 Million Deaths
A review of Norman Solomon’s War Made Invisible
Brown University’s Costs of War project released a study this year estimating that US-led wars since 9/11 have contributed directly and indirectly to 4.5 million deaths in the targeted countries. Those countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Syria—have also seen an estimated 40–60 million people displaced from their homes. This refugee crisis is as destructive as any war, and marks the largest number of refugees since the end of World War II. By all accounts, the US-led Global War on Terror has been a disaster for tens of millions of people.
When the study was released in May, there was only one report (Washington Post, 5/15/23) in all of America’s top newspapers that brought attention to the staggering figure. The Hill (5/16/23) and a few smaller outlets (NY1, 5/17/23; UPI, 5/16/23) published pieces on the topic, but the bulk of corporate media did not deem it worthy of any coverage at all.
No solemn reflections about the war machine, no policy pieces about how we might avoid such devastation in the future, and certainly no op-eds calling for the wars’ architects to stand trial for their crimes.
How does our media environment so easily dismiss carnage of this scale? Norman Solomon’s new book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its War Machine (New Press), offers a deep look at the media system that enables a monstrous war machine to extract such a heavy toll on the world with impunity.
Solomon's book attempts to show how our institutions came to be so casual about burying the costs of US wars. He challenges the traditional myth of the American “free press” as a check on power, and instead shows how the media act as “a fourth branch of government.” This book serves as a survey of media malfeasance in recent history, but also as a meditation on the role of our media system in manufacturing consent for a brutal foreign policy for the entire world.
Solomon takes aim at the common, unchallenged assumptions that often shape how media portray conflicts. Persistent tropes, like the constant appeal for America to “lead the world,” and dangerously common euphemisms like “defense spending” contribute to a culture that worships a mythical version of America, while the empire’s true nature remains hidden.
FAIR.org (3/18/22): In the Ukraine War, US corporate media discovered a "newfound ability to cover the impact on civilians—when those civilians are white and under attack by an official US enemy, rather than by the US itself."
One key aspect of that myth-building is the selective way US media cover civilian victims. Some are covered extensively, eliciting calls for revenge, while others are ignored entirely—depending on who the aggressor is. Solomon recalls a critical moment just a few weeks into the US invasion of Afghanistan—at a time when, as the Washington Post (10/31/01) reported, “more errant US bombs have landed in residential areas, causing damage to such places as a Red Cross warehouse and senior citizens' center.” Images of these atrocities had sparked “criticism of the American war effort.”
At CNN, chair Walter Isaacson declared in a memo to staff that it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan." When the network did cover the toll on civilians, Isaacson told the Washington Post (10/31/01), "You want to make sure people understand…it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States." John Moody, the vice president of Fox News at the time, called the directive “not at all a bad thing," because "Americans need to remember what started this.” The coverage was designed to reinforce the US government line of a noble cause, to shield viewers from the toll on civilians, and justify them if they were shown.
The media's expedient treatment of civilian suffering has continued to this day. In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where civilian casualties supported rather than hindered the message the media wanted to send, the coverage was reversed (FAIR.org, 3/18/22). “By any consistent standard,” Solomon writes, "the horrors that the US military had brought to so many civilians since the autumn of 2001 were no less terrible for the victims than what Russia was doing in Ukraine.” Despite that, the media coverage of Ukraine was “vastly more immediate, graphic, extensive and outraged about Russia’s slaughter than America’s slaughter.”
During April 2022, the New York Times published 14 front-page stories on civilian casualties from Russia's military offensive. During a comparable period after the US invasion of Iraq, there was only one front-page story about civilian victims of the US attack (FAIR.org, 6/9/22).
Looming over any current discussion of news media is their abysmal reporting of the Global War on Terror. Solomon uses the case of Iraq to demonstrate the boundaries of our media system, both top-down and self-imposed.
Through social filtering, the journalists who end up covering wars for elite institutions often have internalized the assumptions that justify the empire. Journalist Reese Erlich (Target Iraq, Solomon and Erlich) recounted that he “didn't meet a single foreign reporter in Iraq who disagreed with the notion that the US and Britain have the right to overthrow the Iraqi government by force.” This selection bias was clearly reflected in the West’s acquiescent coverage of the war.
Ashleigh Banfield (4/24/03): "There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story."
Other times, boundaries can be rigidly and publicly reinforced, as in the case of the young journalist Ashleigh Banfield. Banfield was a journalist who ascended the heights of cable news. A rising star, Banfield’s career at NBC hit a wall after she made a speech in April 2003 deeply critical of how the media obscured the harsh realities of the Iraq War. She told an audience at Kansas State University:
What didn’t you see? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed… There are horrors that were completely left out of this war.
Television coverage of the war, Banfield said, was “a glorious wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited.”
NBC announced that it was “deeply disappointed and troubled by her remarks.” Her punishment was swift and harsh:
I was officeless for ten months. No phone, no computer.... Eventually after ten months of this, I was given an office that was a tape closet.... The message was crystal clear.
The message wasn’t just for Banfield. Journalists could not help but pay close attention to this destruction of one of their own. If they stray outside the unspoken bounds set by corporate media's owners, they could share Banfield’s fate or worse.
Accepting forever wars
Even war critics give the US military credit for being "more humane" (New York Times, 9/3/21).
As of 2021, the last soldiers exited Afghanistan, solidifying a new era of US warfare dubbed “over the horizon.” This is a reference to the constant high-tech, "lower intensity" slaughter emanating from the hundreds of military bases the US still has across the world.
US drone warfare has been a persistent source of horror for millions. But, as Solomon notes, “the systems of remote killing get major help from reporters, producers and editors who detour around the carnage at the other end of US weaponry.” One clear way they help is by endorsing and repeating the idea that America’s campaign of air assassinations is a new form of “humane war.”
Even some of the more thoughtful critics of this kind of war fall into linguistic traps that minimize its true toll. In a New York Times op-ed (9/3/21) that described the trend as "disturbing," Yale historian Samuel Moyn wrote that “America’s bequest to the world...over the last 20 years” was an “endless and humane” form of “counterterrorist belligerency," one in which "Human Rights Watch examined for violations of the law of war and...military lawyers helped pick targets." Moyn is concerned that "more humane war became a companion to an increasingly interventionist foreign policy"—but seems to miss the irony of calling a strategy “humane” that kills innocents by the millions.
Moyn seems partially aware that the "humane" war is more rebranding than restraint, but insists that the "improved humanity of our wars" is both "ostensible and real." References to “humane” war should ring just as hollow as Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation in 1966 about soldiers on the way to Vietnam: “No American army in all of our long history has been so compassionate.”
The risk of truth-telling
Jacobin (8/21) notes that "the Espionage Act makes no distinction between spies who steal information for hostile foreign governments and government employees who share information of public interest with the press, journalists, or even members of the public."
As a sharp contrast to the media who shield the empire from any reckoning, Solomon highlights the people who take a risk to bring the world the truth about this detached, mechanized warfare. He talks to Cian Westmoreland, who “spoke sadly of the commendations he received for helping to kill more than 200 people with drone strikes.” Brandon Bryant lamented that the entire system was designed “so that no one has taken responsibility for what happens.” There was Heather Linebaugh, who recounted how she and her colleagues “always wonder if we killed the right people.”
One of these heroes was Daniel Hale, who remains in prison today for leaking information that showed that over a five-month period in 2012, 90% of the people killed in Afghanistan drone strikes were not the intended target. Solomon quotes Hale’s touching letter explaining that he leaked the information so that “I might someday humbly ask forgiveness.”
Other whistleblowers have suffered immensely for their acts of bravery. In 2010, army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning leaked the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, showing US forces using an Apache helicopter to gun down a dozen civilians in Iraq. The dead included two Reuters employees. For leaking the video and other documents, Manning spent seven years in prison, much of that in solitary confinement. In 2019, Manning spent another year in prison for refusing to testify against the publisher of her documents, Julian Assange—who is himself incarcerated in Britain, facing extradition to the United States to face charges related to exposing US war crimes.
These whistleblowers and truth-tellers only exist on the margins in public discourse. When the 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan was bookended by yet another “unintentional” drone strike on ten civilians, the words of these whistleblowers had long left the public mind. Media shrugged when the Pentagon cleared itself of any wrongdoing, as they have done countless times before. In this so-called free press, Solomon writes, “outliers can’t compete with drumbeats.”
It really is no surprise that US media had so little to say when Brown University's Cost of War Project released its estimates for the death toll of the US's post-9/11 wars. They ensured America’s 4.5 million victims barely registered in the public consciousness, as they diverted audiences' attention to another noble US cause in Ukraine. War Made Invisible lays bare the very heart of the system that allows the US war machine to grind onward, with minimal resistance from a confused and misled public.
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