Rescuing Syrian civilians is again a hot topic of discussion among foreign policy elites. In fact, for the nearly two years of the Syrian uprising, the West’s concern over Syria has been largely driven by the human toll, specifically the death toll of non-combatants. And well it should: The numbers of civilians killed in Syria is appalling. A recent, credible estimate puts the death toll at 60,000 in the last two years, and even that is likely an undercount. This tragedy prompts news coverage, along with calls for US military intervention and a war crimes trial for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The contrast to another war is striking. The US war in neighboring Iraq prompted a civil war that took the lives of civilians by the hundreds of thousands, but Americans’ concern for these besieged civilians was noticeably less generous than it is for the Syrians. There were no charities for the million orphaned children of Iraq. Even the death toll was hotly disputed or largely ignored, as if acknowledging the scale of mortality or probing its causes and consequences would itself be a moral failing.
During 2012, according to my research, the major news media documented and discussed the calamity for ordinary Syrians and rebels alike at a rate that was at least four times more frequent compared with coverage of civilian casualties in the Iraq war in 2006, the most violent year. A similar level of focus was the case for the brief war in Gaza last autumn, and the longer, bloodier assault in early 2009. During Lebanon’s summer war of 2006, when Israeli bombers answered Hezbollah’s rockets with 34 days of pounding Shi’ite neighborhoods in Beirut (among other targets), the news coverage was extensive, largely focusing on the damage to civilians. That month of mayhem produced more than 1,000 fatalities in Lebanon — which in that same bloody summer in Iraq would have equaled the death toll for perhaps two or three days. Yet the amount of coverage of these two wars, and the nature of discussion, was profoundly different.
Why this imbalance in attention? The Iraq war trained spotlights on the politics of war-making, the intelligence failure, the desultory results of US actions, and the growing intensity of sectarian and ethnic strife. Political and opinion elites honored the sacrifices of the US armed forces, but the attention to the toll on Iraqi civilians — not just mortality, but displacement and immiseration — was scant. The consequences for the people we were there to liberate were at best an afterthought. They still are. Very little attention is paid now to Iraq, even though US forces were withdrawn only 13 months ago. And a similar pattern is discernible with respect to Afghanistan.
The difference in our apparent concern for war victims stems from a simple calculus: The United States is only tangentially involved in the Syria conflict. It has lots of fingerprints on but no direct role in Israel’s shootouts with its neighbors. In Iraq, the United States was the instigator, prosecutor, and occupier. The same is only slightly less true in Afghanistan, where we began in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden and soon transformed into would-be nation-builders and occupiers.
Because so much of the suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan is attributable to American actions, the pain of acknowledgment from the government and the US public alike is exceptionally high. Even strategic failure is easier to accept than being responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives lost. We want to avert our eyes, feign indifference, and even blame the victims.
But Assad is fair game for our fury over his brutal suppression of the rebellion, in which the main victims have been civilians. The Likud government of Israel, applying its overwhelming military power against tiny Gaza, stirs our anger, as can Hamas’s firing of rockets into civilian areas. The umbrage taken is authentic. But it’s also too easy.
Being exercised by someone else’s moral failing when we ignore our own is like doubling down on a dreadful mistake. We could not — cannot — come to terms with the human ruins we left in Iraq and Afghanistan, so we urge military action in Syria. The situations are not commensurate and the link between the different wars is more complex than this, of course. But until we demand accountability and repair from ourselves, we can scarcely demand it of others.John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, and author of “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.’’