A million tragedies
Stalin is supposed to have said “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Like much said by that master of lies, it is a half-truth. A million deaths is a statistic, but it’s also a million individual tragedies.
The death of David Pearce, the first Australian soldier to die in Afghanistan is a tragedy for him and his family. So were the deaths of Marany Awanees and Jeniva Jalal, shot by security guards from Unity Resources Group, an Australian-run security company in Baghdad last week. And so have been all of the deaths in Iraq (as many as a million since 2003) and Afghanistan in the wars and violence that have afflicted both countries for decades.
As someone who supported the war in Afghanistan, as a necessary act of self-defence and as an intervention that seemed likely to have positive effects, I have to accept some share of the responsibility for the deaths it has caused, including that of David Pearce. I can make the point in mitigation that, if the Afghanistan war had not been so shamefully mismanaged, most obviously the diversion of most of the required resources to the Iraq venture, it might well have reached a successful conclusion by now.
But even after that mismanagement, I still, reluctantly, support the view that it is better to try and salvage the situation in Afghanistan by committing more resources, rather than pulling out and leaving the Afghans to sort it out themselves. I draw that conclusion because I think there would be even more bloodshed after a withdrawal, and that there’s a reasonable prospect that a democratic government and a largely free society can survive in Afghanistan with our help. And, even after all the mismanagement, i think most Afghans are better off now than they would have been with a continuation of Taliban rule and civil war.
The opposite is true in Iraq. Most Iraqis say they are worse off now than under Saddam, and of course the millions who have been killed or have fled the country could not be asked for their views. While it once seemed plausible to suggest that even if the war had been a tragic mistake, the consequences of withdrawing the occupation forces would be even worse, it’s hard to sustain that view any longer. Occupation by foreign armies has done as much to fan the flames of insurgency and civil war as to impose stability. And the tens of thousands of armed mercenaries, like Blackwater and Unity Resources, are no better than any of the other militias that claim to be protecting somebody or other, and shoot anyone who gets in their way.
All of us whose governments have contributed to this disaster, and particularly those who have supported the war, need to acknowledge these disasters and accept their share of moral responsibility for them. It’s distressing, in this context, that the average American woefully underestimates the toll of civilian casualties in Iraq, by a factor of at least ten and probably more like 100. It’s even worse that supporters of the war have done their best to encourage this misperception, in all sorts of ways, from quibbling about statistics to an obsessive attacks on trivial side-issues that allow them to ignore their moral responsibility for the consequences of the policies they have pushed with such vigour and, in many cases, venom.