Photo: A Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. © European Union 2016 – European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A new report released by Brown University’s Costs of War project is shedding new light on the full scale destruction unleashed by the U.S.-led post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. While the report notes that the number of casualties in these wars falls somewhere between 4.5 and 4.6 million total people, it finds that an overwhelming majority — estimated at 3.6 to 3.7 million — died not as a result of fighting, but were “indirect deaths” due to reverberating effects of the wars.
While it’s commonplace to assess civilian casualties as those who died as a direct result of fighting or bombing, this paints an incomplete picture. Taking into consideration “indirect deaths” gives us a fuller understanding of the destruction brought by U.S. imperialist wars. These indirect deaths can be attributed to phenomena that spring up as consequences of war, such as collapse of infrastructure, the spread of disease, economic collapse, poverty, the destruction of public services, food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition, environmental contamination, and violence due to war-related PTSD and trauma.
For example, indirect deaths can be caused by lack of medical infrastructure to treat diseases due to bombing of hospitals, or health care workers fleeing the country because of war. Or they can be caused by the spread of diseases such as cholera, hepatitis A, and typhoid as a consequence of water treatment facilities being bombed, or due to war-related fuel shortages resulting in sanitation plants being shut down entirely. Or they can be caused by starvation and diseases of malnutrition, as war disrupts food supply and distribution.
And unlike mortality rates that are attributed to direct fighting, the number of such indirect deaths grows in scale over time and are much more difficult to record and quantify. As the report states, “Unlike in combat, these deaths do not necessarily occur immediately or in the close aftermath of the battles which many observers focus on. A death from hunger mostly occurs at some distance from this attention to spectacle and it may happen months or years after war disrupts access to food. Often, people affected by war are displaced and transient, making them hard to track.”
Shredding the fabric of society
The report paints a grim picture. The researchers speak with 43-year-old Iraqi Yasin Omar, who tells them that nearly every family in Iraq has a member stricken with cancer due to environmental contamination from the U.S. invasion. Refugee camps are filled with children born with birth defects, or who have acquired physical disabilities or abnormalities, often from unexploded munitions. Miscarriages are common. The report also notes that children subjected to high levels of violence are much more likely to develop chronic illnesses.
The report emphasizes that it’s women and children who bear the brunt of war’s lingering impact. Lingering trauma from wars manifest as interpersonal violence, often gender-based against women. Rape and sexual violence of women are now much more commonplace than before. Lacking mental health services to help them cope with their trauma and PTSD, men often physically abuse their wives and children.
“I hit my child, and she doesn’t do anything wrong, hopefully Allah will forgive me,” an Afghan interlocutor laments to the researchers. The researchers note that those they spoke to felt remorse for their actions, “but in the face of their PTSD, they felt hopeless to stop their own violence against their family members.”
PTSD has also triggered widespread drug abuse — many Afghans have turned to heroin amid the trauma of having lived through decades of war.
Wars of U.S. imperialism
The report is a critically important study, but we need to take the next step and identify the root issue: U.S. imperialism. It is U.S. capitalism’s drive to generate profit for weapons manufacturers and military contractors, its underdevelopment and plundering of sovereign nations for the purposes of resource extraction and uninterrupted flow of these resources to the global market, and its constant maneuvering to gain geopolitical advantage over the entire world that drives these wars to begin with.
War is not a natural inevitability, but the product of an economic system which must expand beyond its own national borders to deliver more and more profit to its capitalist class. We must demand reparations, and we must also demand an end to the U.S. war machine itself.