Watching the NCAA tournament Friday night at a bar in New York’s West Village, I found myself staring at an American flag pinned to the wall. The World Trade Center, lately rebuilt, loomed about one-and-a-half miles away, its well-lit spire tumescently patriotic at 1,776 feet tall. The flag in the bar was covered in small text—the names of everyone killed in the 9/11 attacks, a plaque noted, adding the obligatory mantra that we shall never forget. On the opposite wall hung a sign advertising one of the bar’s specials: the Bin Laden, or two shots of (American) whiskey and a splash of water.
On the scale of national jingoism, none of this rates very highly. It hardly approaches the fervor of ten years ago, when this form of the American religion was practiced at every gas station and street corner. But there was a painful, tired familiarity about it, a curious sense that no matter what changes in the rest of the world, this Never Forget-ism, now one of our country’s folk beliefs, will always be in vogue. In the long hangover of the global war on terror, we are forever returning to the hair of the dog, with the addict’s justification that this time, we’ll get it right; this time, we know what to do.
That flag, in other words, will be hanging on the bar’s wall for a long time to come. Whether it will be a cautionary artifact or merely a touristic emblem from an alien time is harder to say.
However brutal this journey has been for our country—trillions of dollars spent; tens of thousands of soldiers killed, maimed, and traumatized; the development of the national surveillance state and secret, permanent war—it has been magnitudes worse for anyone caught in our path. A new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) estimates that at least 1.3 million people have died in the U.S.-led war on terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. More than 1 million of those killed were Iraqis. The number is shocking, not least for how far it outstrips the number we’d had in our heads. One 2007 poll, the report notes, found that when asked to estimate how many Iraqi civilians had died in the war, Americans guessed just 10,000 people.
It’s no accident that it is difficult to tabulate casualty statistics through these conflicts. The difficulty is by design. As with our national epidemic of police violence, there are no government-run databases keeping track of the people we kill, which only makes it easier to kill more without the specter of accountability. (This is why, for instance, men of a certain age are always classified in U.S. government reports as potential combatants.) Portions of the PSR report examine past efforts to count deaths, such as the Iraq Body Count and the 2006 Lancet study, as well as the disputed question of who counts as a “casualty.” Is someone who died because the power failed in Baghdad and he wasn’t able to receive dialysis treatment a war casualty? Yes, according to my rubric, but there are, inevitably, thousands of ambiguous cases like this one, many of which may never be known to investigators.
PSR’s study doesn’t include statistics from our secret wars in Somalia and Yemen, which may be just as well. The Obama administration has long touted the latter country as a “model” for counter-terrorism policy, but years of covert drone strikes and military support have done nothing but destabilize the government, terrorize civilians, hobble civil society leaders, and spur the growth of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Now the country is in the midst of a civil war, one that’s united a clutch of Arab autocracies against the Houthis, Yemen’s ascendant Shiite insurgent group, who are believed to receive some support from Iran. In the endless game of musical chairs that is Middle Eastern proxy warfare, the United States is now offering logistical support, including surveillance for bomb targeting, to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s worst human rights abusers and one of our closest allies. Meanwhile, the Houthis themselves are reportedly allied with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who used to be our man in Sana’a, so much so that he imprisoned journalists at our president’s request.
When, or if, the dust settles, it will be time to begin counting the dead again. By then, the thin thread of responsibility linking us to Yemen (or any of these other nations) will have become even more difficult to suss out. For according to the conventional wisdom, Americans are “tired of war,” which means only that we’ve made secret what we can and outsourced the rest. This is why a national draft would do nothing to bring more accountability to these conflicts, much less end them: our new, indefinite wars are strictly clandestine affairs, involving JSOC, CIA drones, and other secret units. Officially, these wars don’t exist, nor do the people fighting them.
But the dead—the dead do exist. Numerous and unknown, their names will never be written on an American flag or pinned to a wall. But at least they must be recognized and counted. Maybe then, “never forget” will sound like something other than a hollow piety.