It may finally be 2009, but in some ways, given
these last years, it might as well be 800 BCE.
From the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, the palace walls of the kings
who ruled the Assyrian Empire were decorated with vast stone friezes, filled
with enough dead bodies to sate any video-game maker and often depicting –
in almost comic strip-style – various bloody royal victories and conquests.
At least one of them shows Assyrian soldiers lopping off the heads of defeated
enemies and piling them into pyramids for an early version of what, in the
VCE (Vietnam Common Era) of the 1960s, Americans came to know as the "body
So I learned recently by wandering through a traveling
exhibit of ancient Assyrian art from the British Museum. On the audio tour
accompanying the show, one expert pointed out that Assyrian scribes, part of
an impressive imperial bureaucracy, carefully counted those heads and recorded
the numbers for the greater glory of the king (as, in earlier centuries, Egyptian
scribes had recorded counts
of severed hands for victorious pharaohs).
Hand it to art museums. Is there anything stranger than wandering through
one and locking eyes with a Vermeer lady, a Van
Eyck portrait, or one of Rembrandt's burghers staring out at you across
the centuries? What a reminder of the common humanity we share with the distant
past. In a darker sense, it's no less a reminder of our kinship across time
to spot a little pyramid of heads on a frieze, imagine an Assyrian scribe making
his count, and – eerily enough – feel at home. What a measure of just how few
miles "the march of civilization" (as my parents' generation once called it)
has actually covered.
Prejudiced Toward War
If you need an epitaph for the Bush administration,
here's one to test out: They tried. They really tried. But they couldn't
help it. They just had to count.
In a sense, George W. Bush did the Assyrians proud. With his secret prisons,
his outsourced torture chambers, his officially approved kidnappings, the murders
committed by his interrogators, the massacres committed by his troops and mercenaries,
and the shock-and-awe slaughter he ordered from the air, it's easy enough to
imagine what those Assyrian scribes would have counted, had they somehow been
teleported into his world. True, his White House didn't have friezes of his
victories (one problem being that there were none to glorify); all it had was
Saddam Hussein's captured pistol proudly
stored in a small study off the Oval Office. Almost 3,000 years later,
however, Bush's "scribes," still traveling with the imperial forces, continued
to count the bodies as they piled ever higher in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani
borderlands, and elsewhere.
Many of those body counts were duly made public. This record of American
"success" was visible to anyone who visited the Pentagon's website and viewed
its upbeat news articles complete with enumerations
of "Taliban fighters" or, in Iraq,
"terrorists," the Air Force's news feed listing
the number of bombs dropped on "anti-Afghan forces," or the U.S. Central Command's
stories of killing "Taliban
On the other hand, history, as we know, doesn't repeat itself and – unlike
the Assyrians – the Bush administration would have preferred not to
count, or at least not to make its body counts public. One of its small but
tellingly unsuccessful struggles, a sign of the depth of its failure on its
own terms, was to avoid the release of those counts.
Its aversion to the body count made some sense. After all, since the 1950s,
body-counting for the U.S. military has invariably signaled not impending victory,
but disaster, and even defeat. In fact, one of the strangest things about the
American empire has been this: Between 1945 and George W. Bush's second term,
the U.S. economy, American corporations, and the dollar have held remarkable
sway over much of the rest of the world. New York City has been the planet's
financial capital and Washington its war capital. (Moscow, even at the height
of the Cold War, always came in a provincial second.)
In the same period, the U.S. military effectively
garrisoned much of the globe from the Horn of Africa to Greenland, from
South Korea to Qatar, while its Navy controlled the seven seas, its Air Force
dominated the global skies, its nuclear command stood ready to unleash the
powers of planetary death, and its space command watched the heavens. In the
wake of the Cold War, its various military commands (including Northcom,
set up by the Bush administration in 2002, and Africom,
set up in 2007) divided the greater part of the planet into what were essentially
military satrapies. And yet, the U.S. military, post-1945, simply could not
win the wars that mattered.
Because the neocons of the Bush administration brushed aside this counterintuitive
fact, they believed themselves faced in 2000 with an unparalleled opportunity
(whose frenetic exploitation would be triggered by the attacks of 9/11, "the
Pearl Harbor" of the new century). With the highest-tech military on the
planet, funded at levels no other set of nations could cumulatively
match, the United States, they were convinced, was uniquely situated to give
the phrase "sole superpower" historically unprecedented meaning. Even the Assyrians
at their height, the Romans in their Pax Romana centuries, the British
in the endless decades when the sun could never set on its empire, would prove
pikers by comparison.
In this sense, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and the various
neocons in the administration were fundamentalist idolaters – and what they
worshipped was the staggering power of the U.S. military. They were believers
in a church whose first tenet was the efficacy
of force above all else. Though few of them had the slightest
military experience, they gave real meaning to the word bellicose. They
were prejudiced toward war.
With awesome military power at their command, they were also convinced that
they could go it alone as the dominating force on the planet. As with true
believers everywhere, they had only contempt for those they couldn't convert
to their worldview. That contempt made "unilateralism" their strategy of choice,
and a global Pax Americana their goal (along with, of course, a Pax
Republicana at home).
If All Else Fails, Count the Bodies
It was in this context that they were not about
to count the enemy dead. In their wars, as these fervent, inside-the-Beltway
utopians saw it, there would be no need to do so. With the "shock and awe"
forces at their command, they would refocus American attention on the real
metric of victory, the taking of territory and of enemy capitals. At the same
time, they were preparing to disarm the only enemy that truly scared them,
the American people, by making none of the mistakes of the Vietnam era, including
– as the president later admitted – counting bodies.
Of course, both the Pax Americana and the Pax Republicana would
prove will-o'-the-wisps. As it turned out, the Bush administration, blind to
the actual world it faced, disastrously miscalculated the nature of American
power – especially military power – and what it was capable of doing. And yet,
had they taken a clear-eyed look at what American military power had actually
achieved in action since 1945, they might have been sobered. In the major wars
(and even some minor actions) the U.S. military fought in those decades, it
had been massively destructive but never victorious, nor even particularly
successful. In many ways, in the classic phrase of Chinese Communist leader
Mao Zedong, it had been a "paper tiger."
Yes, it had "won" largely meaningless victories – in Operation Urgent Fury,
the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983; against the toothless
Panamanian regime of Manuel Noriega in Operation Just Cause in 1989; in Operation
Desert Storm, largely an air campaign against Saddam Hussein's helpless military
in 1990 (in a war that settled nothing); in NATO's Operation Deliberate Force,
an air war against the essentially defenseless Serbian military in 1995 (while
meeting disaster in operations in Iran in 1980 and Somalia in 1993). On the
other hand, in Korea in the early 1950s and in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia
from the 1960s into the early 1970s, it had committed its forces all but atomically,
and yet had met nothing but stalemate, disaster, and defeat against enemies
who, on paper at least, should not have been able to stand up to American power.
It was in the context of defeat and then frustration in Korea that the counting
of enemy bodies began. Once Chinese communist armies had entered that war in
massive numbers in late 1950 and inflicted a terrible series of defeats on
American forces but could not sweep them off the peninsula, that conflict settled
into a "meatgrinder" of a stalemate in which the hope of taking significant
territory faded; yet some measure of success was needed as public frustration
mounted in the United States: thus began the infamous body count of enemy dead.
The body count reappeared quite early in the Vietnam War, again as a shorthand
way of measuring success in a conflict in which the taking of territory was
almost meaningless, the countryside a hostile place, the enemy hard to distinguish
from the general population, and our own in-country allies weak and largely
unable to strengthen themselves. Those tallies of dead bodies, announced daily
by military spokesmen to increasingly dubious reporters in Saigon, were the
public face of American "success" in the Vietnam era. Each body was to be further
evidence of what Gen. William Westmoreland called "the light at the end of
the tunnel." When those dead bodies and any sense of success began to part
ways, however, when, in the terminology of the times, a "credibility gap" opened
between the metrics of victory and reality, the body count morphed into a symbol
of barbarism as well as of defeat. It helped stoke an antiwar movement.
This was why, in choosing to take on Saddam Hussein's hapless military in
2003 – the administration was looking for a "cakewalk"
campaign that would "shock and awe" enemies throughout the Middle East – they
officially chose not to release any counts of enemy dead. Gen. Tommy Franks,
commander of the administration's Afghan operation in 2001 and the invasion
of Iraq thereafter, put
the party line succinctly, "We don't do body counts."
As the president finally admitted
in some frustration to a group of conservative columnists in October 2006,
his administration had "made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team."
Not intending to repeat the 1960s experience, he and his advisers had planned
out an opposites war on the home front – anything done in Vietnam would not
be done this time around – and that meant not offering official counts of the
dead which might stoke an antiwar movement… until, as in Korea and Vietnam,
frustration truly set in.
When the taking of Baghdad in April 2003 proved no more of a capstone on
American victory than the taking of Kabul in November 2001, when everything
began to go disastrously wrong and the carefully enumerated count of the American
dead in Iraq rose precipitously, when "victory" (a word the president still
invoked 15 times in a single speech in November 2005) adamantly refused
to make an appearance, the moment for the body count had arrived. Despite all
the planning, they just couldn't stop themselves. A frustrated president expressed
it this way: "We don't get to say that – a thousand of the enemy killed, or
whatever the number was. It's happening. You just don't know it."
Soon enough the Pentagon was regularly releasing such figures in reports
on its operations and, in December 2006, the president, too, first
slipped such a tally into a press
briefing. ("Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive
operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents
and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October,
November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly
5,900 of the enemy.")
It wasn't, of course, that no one had been counting. The president, as we
know from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, had long been keeping
"'his own personal scorecard for the [global] war [on terror]' in the form
of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged
to be the world's most dangerous terrorists – each ready to be crossed out
by the president as his forces took them down." And the military had been counting
bodies as well, but as the possibility of victory disappeared into the charnel
houses of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the president finally gave
in. While this did not stoke an antiwar movement, it represented a tacit admission
of policy collapse, a kind of surrender. It was as close as an administration
that never owned up to error could come to admitting that two more disastrous
wars had been added to a string of military failures in the truncated American
That implicit admission, however, took years to arrive, and in the meantime,
Iraqis and Afghans – civilians, insurgents, terrorists, police, and military
men – were dying in prodigious numbers.
The Global War on Terror as a Ponzi Scheme
As it happened, others were also counting. Among
the earliest of them, a Web site, Iraq
Body Count, carefully toted up Iraqi civilian deaths as documented in reputable
media outlets. Their estimate has, by now, almost reached 100,000 – and, circumscribed
by those words "documented" and "civilian," doesn't begin to get at the full
scope of Iraqi deaths.
Various groups of scholars and pollsters also took up the task, using sophisticated
sampling techniques (including door-to-door interviews under exceedingly dangerous
conditions) to arrive at reasonable approximations of the Iraqi dead. They
have come up with figures ranging from the hundreds
of thousands to a
million or more
in a country with a prewar population of perhaps 26 million. United Nations
representatives have similarly attempted, under difficult circumstances, to
keep a count
of Iraqis fleeing into exile – exile being, after a fashion, a form of living
death – and have estimated that more
than 2 million Iraqis fled their country, while another 2.7 million, having
fled their homes, remained "internally displaced."
Similar attempts have been made for Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has,
for instance, done its best to tally civilian
deaths from air strikes in that country (while even TomDispatch has attempted
to keep a modest count
of wedding parties obliterated by U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq).
But, of course, the real body count in either country will never be known.
One thing is certain, however: it is an obscenity of the present moment that
Iraq, still a charnel
house, still in a state of near total disrepair, still on the edge of a
whole host of potential conflicts, should increasingly be
portrayed here as a limited Bush administration "surge" success. Only a
country – or a punditry or a military – incapable of facing the depths of destruction
that the Bush administration let loose could reach such a conclusion.
If all roads once led to Rome, all acts of the Bush administration have led
to destruction, and remarkably regularly to piles of dead or tortured bodies,
counted or not. In fact, it's reasonable to say that every Bush administration
foreign policy dream, including its first term fantasy about a pacified "Greater
Middle East" and its late second term vision of a facilitated "peace process"
between the Israelis and Palestinians, has ended
in piles of bodies and in failure. Consider this a count all its own.
Looked at another way, the Bush administration's Global War on Terror and
its subsidiary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have, in effect, been a giant Ponzi
scheme. At a cost of nearly one
trillion taxpayer dollars to date (but sure to be in the multi-trillions
when all is said and done), Bush's mad "global war" simply sucked needed money
out of our world at levels that made Bernie
Madoff seem like a small fry.
Madoff, by his own accounting, squandered perhaps $50 billion of other people's
money. The Bush administration took a trillion dollars of ours and handed it
out to its crony corporate
buddies and to the Pentagon as down payments on disaster – and that's without
even figuring into the mix the staggering sums still needed to care for American
soldiers maimed, impaired, or nearly destroyed by Bush's wars.
With Bush's "commander-in-chief" presidency only days from its end, the price
tag on his "war" continues to soar as dollars grow scarce, new investors refuse
to pay in, and the scheme crumbles. Unfortunately, the American people, typical
suckers in such a con game, will be left with a mile-high stack of IOUs. In
any Ponzi scheme comparison with Madoff, however, one difference (other than
size) stands out. Sooner or later, Madoff, like Charles
Ponzi himself, will end up behind bars, while George, Dick, & Co. will
be writing their memoirs and living off the fat of the land.
Eight years of bodies, dead, broken, mutilated, abused; eight years of ruined
lives down countless drains; eight years of massive destruction to places from
Baghdad to New Orleans where nothing of significance was ever rebuilt: all
this was brought to us by a president, now leaving office without apology,
who said the following in his first
inaugural address: "I will live and lead by these principles: to advance
my convictions with civility… to call for responsibility and try to live it
He lived, however, by quite a different code. Destruction without responsibility,
that's Bush's legacy, but who's counting now that the destruction mounts and
the bodies begin to pile up here in the "homeland," in our own body-count nation?
The laid off, the pensionless, the homeless, the
suicides – imagine what that trillion dollars might have meant to them.
It's clear enough in these last days of the Bush administration that its model
was Iraq, dismantled and devastated. The world, had he succeeded, might have
become George W. Bush's Iraq.
Yes, he came up short, but, given the global economic situation, how much
short we don't yet know. Perhaps, in the future, historians will call him a
Caesar – of destruction.
Veni, vidi, vastavi… [I came, I saw, I devastated…]
[Note: I rely on many wonderful sources and Web sites in putting together
TomDispatch.com, but as 2009 starts, I would feel remiss if I didn't credit
three in particular: Antiwar.com, Juan
Cole's Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward's
The War in Context. Each is invaluable
in its own way; each made my task of trying to make some sense of George W.
Bush's world so much easier. A deep bow of thanks to all three. Finally, I
can't help wondering about one missing Iraqi who remains on my mind: a young
Sunni woman living in Baghdad in 2003, who adopted the pseudonym Riverbend.
She began her "girlblog from Iraq," Baghdad Burning, with this epigraph: "…I'll
meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend…"
For several years, she provided a vivid citizen's reportage on Bush's disaster
that should have put most journalists to shame. As I
wrote in 2006, hers was "an unparalleled record of the American war on,
and occupation of, Iraq (and Riverbend writes like an angel). [It represents]
simply the best contemporary account we are likely to have any time soon of
the hell into which we've plunged that country." Her last report from Syria
– she had just arrived as a refugee – was posted
on Oct. 22, 2007. Since then, as far as I know, she has not been heard from.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt