The 70th anniversary of the United States' atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a reminder that when the United States' enemies commit crimes, they are crimes. But when the United States commits crimes, they did not happen.
In 1928, Arthur Ponsonby, a British politician, said: “When war is declared, the first casualty is the truth”. But he never specified what the distorted “truth” might be. If one were to examine all wars the US has engaged in, however, one might conclude the casualty to be civilian death counts.
The US government and its ever-reliable mainstream media cheerleaders rarely, if ever, discuss, debate, or dwell on civilian casualties. To do so would be to acknowledge its sins. To acknowledge such sins would be to acknowledge the US is as barbaric and uncivilised as those the US pretends pose an existential threat.
“When enemies commit crimes, they’re crimes,” says US author and activist Noam Chomsky in an interview featured in Imperial Ambitions: Conversations in a Post-9/11 World. “In fact, we can exaggerate and lie about them with complete impunity. When we commit crimes, they didn’t happen.”
The US has a history of underreporting civilian casualties at best, and pro-actively concealing at worst.
In 2004, the New York Times ran a piece about the tapes that recorded conversations in 1969 between then-president Richard Nixon and then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger. In one exchange, Kissinger says he wants to sweep the 1969 My Lai massacre - where US Marines mass murdered as many as 500 civilians - “under the rug”.
As the air campaign against North Vietnam and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Army continued to fail, Nixon angrily expressed his frustration. “They're not only not imaginative but they are just running these things - bombing jungles,” Nixon said. “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in.
“I want them to hit everything. I want them to use the big planes, the small planes, everything they can that will help out there, and let's start giving them a little shock.”
Kissinger immediately relayed the order to the Pentagon: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”
Chomsky says this is the “most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record”.
So how many civilians did the US kill in both Vietnam and Cambodia? It depends who you ask.
If you ask the US government, “official records” indicate the answer is about 2 million. If, however, you ask NGOs that track civilian casualties, you get to a number closer to 4 million.
There is a big difference between 2 and 4 million. There is an even bigger discrepancy between 4 million and the number of civilian casualties the average American believes were killed in Vietnam by US military actions.
In The Gulf War: A Study of the Media, Public Opinion, and Public Knowledge, the authors conducted a poll in which Americans were asked to estimate the number of Vietnamese killed in the war. The mean answer was 100,000, which represents 5% of official US estimates.
Of course, none of the figures include the estimated 500,000 who died slow and painful deaths over the course of the post-war decades from exposure to chemical weapons, such as Agent Orange and other dioxins.
More recently, the story of the 2003–2010 US invasion and occupation of Iraq is a story of Bush administration officials fudging the numbers on Iraqi casualties.
In a 2005 press conference, then-president George Bush was asked about the Iraqi death toll. With what became his typical befuddled and dismissive manner, Bush declared that only “30,000 Iraqi citizens” had been killed in the conflict thus far.
Lancet, a highly regarded British medical journal, however, published an “epidemiological study” in November 2004 that concluded more than 100,000 Iraqis had been killed in “violent actions” since the invasion. In 2006, two household surveys – considered to be the most accurate methodology for calculating casualties – put the Iraqi death toll at somewhere between 400,000 to 650,000, making a mockery of Bush’s “30,000.”
“This inattention to civilian deaths in America’s wars isn’t unique to Iraq,” observes John Tirman, author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in American Wars. “There’s little evidence that the American public gives much thought to the people who live in the nations where our military interventions take place.”
America’s indifference to civilian casualties is partly rooted in racism via what cultural historian Richard Slotkin calls “the myth of the Frontier”. This myth sees the US as always trying to subdue a “savage enemy” and it drives the way Americans see themselves and the world around them.
Indifference to foreign “savages” and suffering is even codified into the US public education system. Susan Fujita, an assistant professor of US modern history, carried out a study of US history textbooks that were “published in the United States between 1949 and 2010”.
Of 58 textbooks that mentioned the atomic bomb, only 42 mentioned the civilian death toll of Hiroshima and only 18 mentioned the civilian death toll of Nagasaki.
For Hiroshima, 35 of the textbooks gave a lower figure than official United Nations estimates. For Nagasaki, nearly all gave a lower figure than official United Nations estimates.
So what were the United Nations estimates? For Hiroshima, 140,000 killed. For Nagasaki, 70,000 killed.
Now compare these estimates to official US estimates, which were carried out by the US Strategic Bombing Survey, which had the civilian death toll at 70,000 and 35,000, respectively.
Late philosopher Bertrand Russell said: “It is in the nature of imperialism that citizens of imperial power are always among the last to know – or care – about circumstances in the colonies.”
Chomsky says this is down to “massive propaganda campaigns”, noting that “when you’re silent about your own crimes, that’s propaganda, too”.
[Abridged from Middle East Eye.]