By Donella Meadows
–February 28, 1991–
A weeping Iraqi man approached a BBC reporter outside the bombed bunker in Baghdad and handed him six identity cards. “My wife and children were in there,” he said. The reporter looked at the cards — a 32-year-old woman, five children under the age of eight. Each card had a picture, except the newest, that of a baby four months old. “Look at their faces. Write down their names,” the man insisted. “Tell the world they were not just numbers.”
In war even more than in peace we turn people into numbers. We do a grim calculus of relative deaths. Which is worse? Our bombs killing 300 huddling women and children in an air raid shelter? Or Saddam Hussein aiming a Scud missile into Dhahran and killing 28 American soldiers? Is that question answerable by comparing numbers?
We justify some deaths with the claim that they prevent others. We say the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 150,000 immediately and more after long agony, prevented the loss of millions of soldiers in an invasion of Japan. That logic would be compelling, if civilians could be weighed against soldiers and Japanese against Americans, and if those had indeed been our only choices.
To engage in the obscene mathematics of death, we twist our language to hide from ourselves the reality behind the computations. We inflict “casualties” on “troops.” We “take out assets.” General Schwarzkopf scrunches his face and says, “I’m sorry to say we have 11 KIAs.”
We don’t say “death” as we inflict it at a distance, at the push of a button. We don’t ask about the names, the faces, the grieving families. Therefore we can calculate how many deaths are “acceptable” to humiliate Saddam Hussein. We can believe those deaths are “necessary.”
In peace, too, we reduce lives and deaths to numbers, some of which count more than others. One child caught in a well captures our hearts because we know her name is Jessica. On the same day 35,000 children whose names we don’t know die from hunger without a single headline.
Here are some numbers of deaths, in war and in peace, to be compared, if deaths are comparable.
Deaths in Chernobyl after the 1986 nuclear accident — 31 immediate, perhaps thousands more over the long term.
Deaths in the Vietnamese village of My Lai from an unprovoked massacre by U.S. soldiers — 300.
Deaths in the Kurdish village of Halabja from poison gas authorized by Saddam Hussein — 5000.
Deaths in Bhopal after the explosion of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984 — 3500, plus 200,000 injured, out of a city population of 800,000.
Iraqi citizens killed in the first month of Allied bombing (as reported by the Iraq government) — 20,000.
Deaths from motor vehicle accidents — roughly 45,000 per year in the U.S., 250,000 worldwide.
U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam — 57,900.
Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed in that war — 2.2 million. (Their Vietnam Memorial, if they had one, would stretch almost 40 times as long as ours.)
Annual U.S. deaths from use of alcohol and tobacco — 500,000.
Deaths in the U.S. Civil War — Union 480,000; Confederacy 134,000.
Women dying from illegal abortions, worldwide — 200,000 per year.
Deaths in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war — somewhere between 420,000 and 1 million.
Annual U.S. cancer deaths — 500,000.
World Health Organization estimate of AIDS deaths worldwide over the next ten years — 5 to 30 million.
Deaths in World War I — Russia 1.7 million, Germany 1.7 million, France 1.3 million, Austria-Hungary 1.2 million, Britain 908,000, U.S. 116,000.
Deaths in World War II — Battle deaths: Russia 6 million, Germany 3.2 million, China 1.3 million, Japan 1.3 million, U.S. 407,000 — many more from other countries. Plus civilians, plus 6 million in concentration camps. Perhaps 30 million deaths altogether
Deaths from hunger and hunger-related causes — about 13 million a year worldwide, most of them children.
All with names, faces, hopes, dreams, unfulfilled potentials, and people who love them.
In the world as a whole from all causes there will be about 52 million deaths this year (and 145 million births). When we step back that far, when the numbers are that big, each single birth, life, and death is negligible. You and I can find reasons to discount some of them — to say THOSE are less important than THESE. But when we look up close, at a death that comes to one we love, we know that each death is shattering. An Iraqi death is no more nor less than an American death. A soldier’s death is as much a tragedy as a civilian’s. One human death inflicted by our intent or neglect, no matter how hidden in large numbers or slogans or a refusal to look closely, is one too many.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991