Parsing “We don’t do body count”

Human Rights International Law Muslims Today Reasoned Comments

For some time, people of the Global South have suspected their humanity does not register in the mind and hearts of the “civilized” Western world. However, recent events, including the West’s response to the pandemic, turned that suspicion into an established fact.

Western leaders’ refusal to acknowledge civilian casualties resulting from wars they initiated, their ban on exporting covid-19 vaccines outside Europe until “their’ people are fully vaccinated, their military and political reaction to the war in Ukraine compared to their military and political reaction to their wars in Muslim countries, including the recent one in Gaza, all speak to patterns of behavior that denigrates the lives and dignity of Muslims and a supremacist elevation of the interests, not just lives, of the people of the West.

To justify providing the Ukrainian government with financial and military aid, US national security spokesperson held back tears while referring the number of civilians killed in “Putin’s war.” Reporting on the start of the war, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata explained why his viewers should care about this war: “[Ukraine] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” To make the point that this US empathy with Ukrainians is not an anomaly, the BBC interviewed a former Ukrainian official, who stated on air: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day.” Instead of challenging the implications of those words, the BBC host commented, “I understand and respect the emotion.” The Ukrainian war was described in terms that made it appear that it was the only “illegal invasion” since the end of the European wars of the first half of the 20th century, ignoring the fact that a Western collation invaded Iraq at the start of this new century under false pretexts.

The illegality of the invasion aside, no Western government or leader was held to account for the outcome of the violence unleashed in the region, and no accounting of the losses was undertaken. After the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003, and when asked about civilian casualties, US General Tommy Frank, who led the invasion of Iraq responded, “we don’t do body count.” This kind of answer, which either ignores or minimizes the death of Muslims as a result of US invasions, bombings, and proxy wars, became policy invoked by subsequent US administrations’ officials. In 2006, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agreed with the commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., that “the news media has exaggerated the number of civilian casualties in the conflict.” President Bush, who ordered the invasion of Iraq, was quoted in the Financial Times (Dec. 12, 2005) that “about 30,000 Iraqis have died.” Independent researchers have determined that nearly 1,000,000 Iraqis were killed in 10 years, an average of 100,000 people per year, 274 persons per day.

In October of 2023, after 18 days of intensive bombardment and missile strikes on Gaza, described by the New York Times as “the Most Intense This Century” and, according to another news outlet, as being equivalent to one-quarter of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. in 1945, Biden was asked if he were concerned about the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, to which he replied, “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.” Here, Biden went beyond the “We don’t do body count” standard to reject any “body count”, even when it is done by others.

The data Biden was contesting was released (October 27, 2023) by the health ministry in Gaza, which included age, sex, and ID number of 6,747 children, women, and men killed due to Israeli Strikes, excluding potential additional victims who might be under the rubble of destroyed buildings, which can be easily seen via satellite imaging.

The rates and levels of destruction and deaths in Gaza can be properly contextualized when considered in comparison to other conflicts–ongoing or recent.

For example, based on third-party figures, not Russian data, Israeli strikes killed in 18 days the same number of civilians killed in “Putin’s war” in 278 days. By the numbers, and according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a total of 9,614 civilian died during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as of September 2023. In just 18 days, Israeli strikes killed 6747 civilians in Gaza.

Other world organizations confirmed the reliability of the data provided by Gaza’s health ministry. An OCHA spokesperson said that “We continue to include their data in our reporting, and it is clearly sourced.” Not only did he confirm the reliability of the numbers, but also went on to estimate that there are more casualties that are still unaccounted for. “We also get these estimates that there are still 1,000 plus people under the rubble which have not been identified yet,” Richard Peeperkorn, WHO Representative for the occupied Palestinian territory, said on October 27, according to Reuters.


In the case of this Gaza war, Western governments’ refusal to acknowledge the data documenting the death of civilians, and especially children, may be driven by their political decision to not stop the war until they achieve whatever objectives they have in mind. However, given the fact that they have refused to acknowledge data of civilian casualties after the end of their previous wars in Muslim-majority countries, even when such data were produced by independent Western NGOs and UN institutions, and given their eagerness to count the civilian casualties of the ongoing war in Ukraine… it is difficult to escape the conclusion that these patterns speak to the supremacist impulse that drives the West’s worldview. That is the only reasonable finding that would explain their callous standard of “we don’t do body count.”

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