Thursday, January 9, 2020

Whose Lives Matter in an International Conflict or Crisis

The US-Iran crisis reminds us that, well, not all lives matter the same:
Should we be surprised at how irrelevant the casualties suffered by the Iraqis might be?  No.  Appalled? Always.  This led me to think about how various kinds of people and their suffering varies in the eyes of the media, in the calculations of governments, and in public opinion.  To be sure, there is variation across outlets and countries, but the patterns below seem to be fairly robust.

First, one's own soldiers/sailors/aviators matter much, much more than anyone else.  At least, that is what I have gleaned from both US and Canadian media.  Incidents involving one's own troops get covered, discussed, etc, usually pretty extensively.

Second, one's allies matter a smidge.  Their efforts, their suffering get a bit of coverage, some mention in the overall totals, but far less.  The exception may be that other countries may cover when Americans get hit for the simple reason that if the Americans get hit hard, two things may happen--they may escalate or they may leave.  In either case, their reactions affect both the vulnerability of one's own troops and the viability of the mission.

Third, the locals--Afghans, Iraqis, Vietnamese--their suffering hardly matters.  The idea that the Iranian response was no biggie since it didn't hit Americans even if it hit Iraqis (it didn't turn out that way, I think, but that is what folks seemed to say at first) typifies this attitude.  I am not saying the allied troops do not care about minimizing civilian casualties (although the allies vary in how concerned they are about collateral damage), but that in the media coverage, we tend not to be given the numbers, and in the calculations of leadership about whether to deploy or to engage in a specific operation, these numbers matter far less, if at all.

Fourth, private contractors count for more and less than the locals.  Less in that concern about collateral damage does arise, whereas I have yet to see politicians even utter any concern about the costs paid by private contractors in these wars.  The big exception, of course, is that when one or two or four get very visibly killed.  Then that can trigger a bigtime response--Fallujah in 2004, recent events in Iran.  Private contractors fall into the Stalin logic: one death is a tragedy, thousands are a statistic (see here for a discussion of the origins of what I am paraphrasing). 

Of course, this gets to a key dimension--how visible are the deaths of the troops?  Are the bodies dragged through streets or hung versus just left where they died?  Emotive reactions matter here greatly. 

Which gets to the other key dynamic: killed in action versus wounded.  Most media folks know the total number of their country's troops killed in theatre or a ballpark number.  Same for politicians.  But wounded?  Even if we forget for a second of those suffering non-visible wounds (brain trauma due to concusion, PTSD), the visibly wounded are still largely invisible.  One of the key hidden dynamics of recent wars has been the dramatic improvement in medical care.  This has changed the ratios of wounded and killed.  And it is partly a product of policy--that in Afghanistan, a case I know best, troops were not allowed to operate more than an hour from a major allied medical facility.  Why? Because chances of surviving are greatly enhanced by being treated within the golden hour.  What happens when there are not enough helicopters available to guarantee a less than hour flight back to base?  Either no operations or operations within an hour's drive, which means the mission is covering far less territory.

The point here is that we tend to be quite callous in our coverage and our conversations because not all lives and not all suffering seems to matter.  It is important to remember that there are other folks in harm's way besides one's own troops.  That the use of force can implicate not only one's own troops but others as well, and one might want to care a bit about this.  And no, this is not a subtweet of Trump's inability to remember that he put both allies and locals in harm's way when he decides to whack an Iranian officer in Iraq.  But that too.

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