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1 Million Dead in Iraq? 6 Reasons the Media Hide the True Human Toll of War -- And Why We Let Them

Most Americans turn a blind eye to the violent acts being carried out in their name.

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The Korean war is often called the “forgotten war”; it is not literally forgotten, but avoided. The enormous destruction without a clear and satisfying result for America led rapidly to public indifference. That, I think, is what’s occurred in Iraq—a falsely premised war with enormous devastation leads to a vast carelessness. And the civilians, the real victims, are the most disregarded of all.

Contrast the news coverage of Iraq with the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, when Israel bombed neighborhoods in Beirut that resulted in more than 1,000 Lebanese deaths in the 34-day conflict. However laudable the extensive news interest in that toll, such attention was significantly greater than the coverage of civilian killings in Iraq, which approached that figure in any single day that bloody summer. Why attention to one and not the other? A plausible explanation is that the Lebanon war was not a U.S. operation. We were not responsible (directly), and hence discussing the human toll was not out-of-bounds.

“When the  New Republic  ran a column by a private that recounted several instances of bad behavior by U.S. soldiers,” media critic Michael Massing recalled, writing about Iraq, “he and the magazine were viciously attacked by conservative bloggers. Most Americans simply do not want to know too much about the acts being carried out in their name, and this serves as a powerful deterrent to editors and producers.”

And there’s the rub. We  simply don’t want to know : it’s too upsetting, too much to absorb. This is not behavior limited to journalists; many academics and NGOs who should know better do the same thing. Because they generally sympathize with the downtrodden of the third world, their indifference is all the more disquieting.

But the major news media enjoy influence that few institutions possess, and with that have a responsibility to be more comprehensive, more energetic, in getting and presenting the full scope of war. Missing the WMD story before the war has been the focus of press criticism. But the bigger failure—the more consequential failure—is neglecting the fate of the people subjected to the U.S. occupation. And once all the American troops are withdrawn, the season of forgetting will be in full flower. 

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies . His new book, "The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars," was released July 7, 2011 by Oxford Press.

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