exposing the avarice of the U.S. funeral industry, Jessica Mitford’s book
The American Way of Death (1963) confronted
death and its attendant
rituals, removing the shroud of taboo.
For today’s military managers, talk of death is taboo once again. Military
funerals and coffins have, for as long as possible, been kept out of
public view. Even less has come to light about the grief of Afghanistan
and Iraq, where ordinary people deal with death as part of their everyday
Bombs and blasts have plagued
Iraq ever since foreigners occupied the country in early 2003.
And during the recent
weeks of haggling over the formation of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s
government, the death toll has been especially grim. At least 400 people,
many of them civilians, have died violent deaths across Iraq since the
National Assembly approved a partial cabinet list on the 28th
In news reports,
the checkpoints and sniper fire and car bombs and suicide bombs begin to
blur. In March, a bomb killed 47 at a funeral; photos showed white plastic
overturned, clothes and shoes scattered over a blood-spattered dirt floor. In April, scores of bodies were pulled from
the Tigris; and the bodies of more than a dozen Sunni farmers, who had
come to Baghdad to sell produce, have been unearthed at a rubbish dump.
Then came May. Two suicide bombers drove into a convoy of sport utility
vehicles, the latter apparently owned by the Blackwater security company
and headed for a U.S. command compound. The bombs exploded; a busy traffic circle was
suddenly the frame for mutilated bodies and blood-drenched schoolchildren.
In Martyrs’ Square in central Baghdad,
reports the London Times, a gun shop displays pistols and leather
holsters, a coffin-maker’s shop is flourishing, and “the
funeral business has never had it so good.” In a city where U.S. snipers keep watch from
the rooftops, it’s the rare day that passes with no one falling victim to
violence, so burial grounds have spread across the country. At the Wadi al-Salaam (“Valley of Peace”)
cemetery in Najaf, where hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims are
buried in raised tombs and sunken crypts, gravediggers now work all day to
cope with the influx of bodies.
Muslim dead are taken to cemeteries in coffins, but their bodies are then
taken out and buried, in a shroud, directly in the ground; many of the
used coffins are then
recycled. Before the U.S. invasion, the workers would
bury about 60 a day. The current work load is reaching 200 bodies a day
-- many with signs of torture.
The price of burying a body
ranges between 25,000 to 40,000 dinars (18 to 35 dollars),but could rise for deaths by
assassination or bombing.
Current demand for
burial grounds means the cost of plots has risen ten-fold. Even the price of a simple coffin can be
prohibitive: It’s risen from under $6
before the invasion to about $47, which is a
fortune for many Iraqis; so philanthropists order coffins in bulk and
donate them to mosques.
Burying tens of
The estimates of
Iraqis killed vary widely. At the time of this writing, the British-based
Count, a Web site that tallies official
death reports, puts the toll from March 2003 between 21,523 and
24,415. John Sloboda, a professor of psychology at Keele University and a
co-founder of the site, acknowledges the count is smaller than the true
number because not every death is reported in the news media.
peer-reviewed study, carried out through an international team of public
health researchers and published in October 2004 in the British medical
civilian death rates before and after the U.S. invasion, and concluded
that about 100,000 Iraqis may have died due to its direct violence or from
its offshoots: chaos
leading to lack of sanitation
and medical care.
The researchers admitted that many of the dead might have been combatants.
And that’s fair enough. Health is health; death is death. The idea that
males of a certain age are destined to fight and die, and that somehow
their numbers don’t count, is part of the fatalistic thinking that has,
for so long, kept human societies spinning in destructive cycles of
Lancet findings were ignored by the U.S. government -- a government
that offers no findings at all. In 2002,
in an interview broadcast by CBS News
after U.S. warplanes dropped more than
2,500 bombs and flattened two Afghan
villages, Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “I don’t do body counts.” General
Tommy Franks, who has commanded U.S. troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq,
echoed the remark, saying: “You know we don’t do body counts.” Professor
Richard Kohn, a
military historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
says that for the Bush administration, it’s “politically advantageous not
to count and not to know.” But Kohn suspects the U.S. military keeps a
A stream of speculations
emerged from Afghanistan in the season of the “body count” remarks;
officials in Kabul wouldn’t talk because the issue was too “political” or
But it was known that most injuries and deaths resulted from aerial
bombing, a feature of modern U.S. military action that can reduce villages
to rubble yet keep troops relatively safe. The Lancet
a similar pattern, tracing many violent deaths to air strikes, and finding
many victims under the age of 15. The full death toll was unknown: After
Marines killed hundreds of Iraqis in the siege of Fallujah, the city’s
General Hospital director, Rafie al-Issawi, told of “an unknown number of
dead being buried in people’s homes without coming to the clinics.” Athletic fields turned into cemeteries. At
one ball field, an Associated Press reporter saw rows of freshly dug
graves with wooden planks for headstones, some with markings indicating
the dead were children.
Iraq stops counting
In October 2004, Iraq’s Health Ministry, which had routinely provided
figures to the media, stopped releasing totals of Iraqi adults and
The same month, the New York Times
discussed a weeklong effort to count the Iraqi dead, who included
restaurant workers and fighters, politicians and journalists, a young
photographer who had contributed pictures to the Associated Press, a
judge, a medic, workers in a palm
grove, and members of a family
attempting to check on their home. The dead included Dina Mohammed Hassan, a
reporter for the Kurdish television network Al-Huriya, shot in the back
and face by three men who called her a collaborator. Hassan’s death, according to the
International News Safety Institute, followed the deaths of at least 57
journalists in Iraq since the spring of 2003.
Barbers have been kidnapped,
beaten viciously, and even murdered, accused of giving Western-style
Early this year, six children
saw U.S. troops shoot their parents right in front of their eyes
when their car failed to slow down
for a roadblock.
“The U.S. considers all of Iraq a combat zone,” says a Pentagon report
completed at the end of April
2005 and accidentally declassified. In one week of March 2005, it said, 17
suicide bombs exploded in Iraq -- averaging 23 people killed per
People are also dying in U.S. custody. At an Article 32 hearing for Willie
Brand, who’s accused of killing a detainee at Bagram Air Base in
Afghanistan, soldiers recounted learning to administer “compliance blows”
in an Army course covering tactics for handling “combative” detainees. Willie Brand, who works as a private
security guard in civilian life, admitted battering a detainee who was
chained to the ceiling. Another soldier reportedly bragged of hitting the
detainee, Habibullah, with at least 50 knee jabs “and he deserved every
one.” It took the brother of a former Taliban commander “a few hours” to
lose consciousness before dying shortly after midnight on the 4th
of December 2002.
The next day, Dilawar, a taxi driver, was also brought to the Bagram
Collection Point and also battered to death. Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, the
pathologist, would testify that that Dilawar’s leg tissue had been so
damaged by repeated blows that “it was essentially crumbling and falling
The Pentagon acknowledges that
U.S. forces have held more than 50,000 detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan
over the past three years, and at least 26 of them have died in U.S.
custody in what military investigators have concluded or suspect were
This count excludes detainees deemed to have died of natural causes, and
deaths caused by soldiers suppressing detainee riots.
In clandestine prisons in
Afghanistan, in Egypt, and elsewhere, the United States holds an
unspecified number of detainees without any legal process, outside review,
family notification or monitoring by human rights groups. Earlier this year, the Washington Post
reported a previously unpublicized case of a young Afghan, held in secret
in an abandoned warehouse, code-named
the Salt Pit, just north of Kabul. In late 2002, after a Central Intelligence
officer allegedly ordered Afghan guards to strip him and chain him
overnight to a concrete floor, he froze to death. The CIA officer
-- described by colleagues as “bright and eager” and “full of
energy” -- has since been promoted. The detainee was buried, with no
notice to his family, in an unmarked grave.
Other Articles by Lee
People, You the Rest… and the Sierra Club, Part Two
* We the
People, You the Rest… and the Sierra Club, Part One
Seal Intervention Where It Belongs: Government Subsidies
Globalizing Homeland Security Part II: Before and After Tuesday
Globalizing Homeland Security (Part One): Doing Time for the Towers
* Blood on
the Campaign Trail
Bringing Social Justice to the Table
for the Exploitative Treatment of Arabs?
* Fit To Be
NOTES AND REFERENCES
Industry Booming in Iraq,” IslamOnline.net (7 May 2005);
see also Norimitsu Onishi, “How Many Iraqis Are Dying? By One Count,
208 in a Week,” New York Times (19 Oct. 2004), at A1.
 Caroline Alexander, “Baghdad
Suicide Bombing Kills 40, Wounds 16 in Market,” Bloomberg.com
(12 May 2005) (citing Iraq’s Al-Rafidayn newspaper and
 Dlovan Brwari and John Ward Anderson, “Suicide
Bomber Kills 47 in Mosul,” Washington Post (11 Mar. 2005),
 Alexandra Zavis, “Iraq
Blasts Kill 22, Including 2 Americans,” Associated Press (8
 John F. Burns, “Iraq
to Complete Cabinet With Sunnis in Top Jobs,” New York Times
(8 May 2005),
 “Iraq Blasts Kill 22, Including 2 Americans” (note 4 above).
 Ali al-Khafaji et al., “Coffin
Trade Thrives in City of Death,” Times Online (6 May 2005).
 Ibid; see also “Coffin Industry Booming in Iraq” (note 1 above);
and Karim Sahib, “Coffin
Business Booms in Baghdad,” Middle East Online (25 Apr.
 “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death” (note 7 above).
 “Coffin Business Booms in Baghdad” (note 8 above).
 “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death” (note 7 above).
 “Coffin Industry Booming in Iraq”
(note 1 above).
 “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death” (note 7 above).
 Lila Guterman, “Researchers
Who Rushed Into Print a Study of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Now Wonder Why
It Was Ignored,” Chronicle of Higher Education (27 Jan.
 The project was designed by researchers at the Center for
International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at the Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; at Columbia University; and
at Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University College of Medicine.
Researchers excluded deaths in Fallujah, the scene of particularly
intense violence, to avoid an exaggerated extrapolation. Moreover, Dr.
Michael J. Toole, head of the Centre for International Health at
Australia’s Burnet Institute, observed that “the deaths may have been
higher because what they are unable to do is survey families where
everyone has died.” See ibid.
 Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “A Nation Challenged: Body Count;
Taliban and Qaeda Death Toll In Mountain Battle Is a Mystery,” New
York Times (14 Mar. 2002) at A1. “Still,” the Times report
added, “the estimates exist, despite the assertions of Pentagon
officials that they are not in the body-count business.”
 Dexter Filkins with James Dao, “A Nation Challenged: The
Fighting; Afghan Battle Declared Over And Successful," New York
Times (19 Mar. 2002), at A1 (quoting comment made by Franks after
Special Forces troops attacked a convoy carrying suspected Al-Qaeda
fighters, while Afghan commanders who took part in the battle claimed
that numerous Al-Qaeda fighters got away).
 Jack Epstein and Matthew B. Stannard, “Tally
of Civilian Deaths Depends on Who’s Counting: Definitive Estimates
Difficult to Obtain,” S.F. Chronicle (12 May 2005).
 Ian Traynor, “Afghans
are Still Dying as Air Strikes Go On. But No One Is Counting,”
The Guardian (12 Feb. 2002) (quoting unnamed officials).
 Rory McCarthy and Julian Borger, “600
Dead in Besieged Iraqi City -- But Marine Commander Claims Victims
Mostly Insurgents,” The Guardian (12 Apr. 2004).
Death Toll for Week More than 600,” USA Today (11 Apr. 2004).
 Under a new policy, only the Secretariat of the Council of
Ministers would be allowed to do so. “It’s a political issue,” stated
a senior Health Ministry official. See “How Many Iraqis Are Dying? By
One Count, 208 in a Week” (note 1 above).
 Ibid.; see also “UNESCO
Condemns Assassination of Iraqi TV Journalist Dina Mohammed Hassan and
News Photographer Karam Hussein,” UNESCO Press Release No.2004-94
(19 Oct. 2004).
 Photo of the coffin of Dina Mohammed Hassan, killed in Baghdad on
14 Oct. 2004: “Guerre
Coloniale en Irak: Les églises de Bagdad visées par des attentats, 4
nouveaux morts américains,” Agence France-Presse (17 Oct.
 International News Safety Institute, “Iraq
War Toll Rises Inexorably” (3 Nov. 2004).
 Patrick Cockburn, “Iraqi
Barbers in the Firing Line as Fanatics Target Western Symbols,”
The Independent (13 May 2005).
 The report was directed by Lt. Gen. John R. Vines to answer
questions about the night of 4 March 2005, when U.S. troops at a
roadblock opened fire on a car, wounding Giuliana Sgrena and killing
Nicola Calipari. Christopher Dickey, “Body
Counts,” Newsweek (Web exclusive; 13 May 2005). From July
2004 to late March 2005, the document reports 15,527 attacks against
U.S.-led forces throughout Iraq. From 1 November 2004 to 12 March
2005, it adds, there were 3306 attacks in the Baghdad area, out of
which 2400 targeted U.S.-led forces. Ibid.
 Elise Ackerman, “Blows
that Led to Detainee’s Death Were Common Practice, Reservist Says,”
Knight Ridder (25 Mar. 2005). Brand’s platoon commander said
the unit had received training in knee jabs during a course at Fort
Dix, New Jersey, before they were deployed to Afghanistan. Ibid. Human
rights groups have charged that the Bush administration’s position
that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to members of Al-Qaeda or
Taliban fighters have led to pervasive mistreatment of people held
without charges throughout the world.
 Ibid. An Army investigation showed that Habibullah was so badly
hurt that even if he survived, both legs would have had to be
Criminal Homicides in U.S. Military Custody,” The Guardian
(16 Mar. 2005).
Abuse in Secret,” Washington Post (5 Mar. 2005) at A18.
 Dana Priest, “CIA Avoids Scrutiny of Detainee Treatment: Afghan’s
Death Took Two Years to Come to Light; Agency Says Abuse Claims Are
Probed Fully,” Washington Post (3 Mar. 2005), at A1. "He was
probably associated with people who were associated with Al-Qaeda,"
one U.S. government official said. Ibid.