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(DV) Hall: The American Way of Death Casts Its Shadow East







The American Way of Death Casts Its Shadow East
by Lee Hall
May 17, 2005

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Famously 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 business.


Bombs and blasts have plagued Iraq ever since foreigners occupied the country in early 2003. [1] 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 of April. [2]


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 chairs overturned, clothes and shoes scattered over a blood-spattered dirt floor. [3] 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. [4]

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. [5] The bombs exploded; a busy traffic circle was suddenly the frame for mutilated bodies and blood-drenched schoolchildren. [6]

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. [7]  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. [8] 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. [9] 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. [10] 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. [11] 


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. [12] Current demand for burial grounds means the cost of plots has risen ten-fold. [13]  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. [14] 


Burying tens of thousands


The estimates of Iraqis killed vary widely. At the time of this writing, the British-based Iraq Body 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. [15]

A peer-reviewed study, carried out through an international team of public health researchers and published in October 2004 in the British medical journal Lancet, compared 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. [16]  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 conflict.

The 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.” [17] 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.” [18]  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 general count. [19] 


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 not “comfortable.” [20] 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 survey suggested 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.” [21]  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. [22]


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 children killed. [23]  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. [24]  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. [25] 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. [26]


Barbers have been kidnapped, beaten viciously, and even murdered, accused of giving Western-style haircuts. [27] 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 which was
completed at the end of April 2005 and accidentally declassified. [28]  In one week of March 2005, it said, 17 suicide bombs exploded in Iraq -- averaging 23 people killed per detonation.


Grim warehouses

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. [29] 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. [30] 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 apart.”


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 criminal homicides. [31]  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. [32]  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. [33]  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.

Lee Hall has regularly spoken and written about issues pertaining to social control and the war on terror, including for Dissident Voice.


Other Articles by Lee Hall


* We the People, You the Rest… and the Sierra Club, Part Two
* We the People, You the Rest… and the Sierra Club, Part One
* Refocus 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
* People for the Exploitative Treatment of Arabs?
* Fit To Be Tamed



[1] “Coffin Industry Booming in Iraq,” (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.

[2] Caroline Alexander, “Baghdad Suicide Bombing Kills 40, Wounds 16 in Market,” (12 May 2005) (citing Iraq’s Al-Rafidayn newspaper and Al-Jazeera).

[3] Dlovan Brwari and John Ward Anderson, “Suicide Bomber Kills 47 in Mosul,” Washington Post (11 Mar. 2005), at A16.

[4] Alexandra Zavis, “Iraq Blasts Kill 22, Including 2 Americans,” Associated Press (8 May 2005).

[5] John F. Burns, “Iraq to Complete Cabinet With Sunnis in Top Jobs,” New York Times (8 May 2005),

[6] “Iraq Blasts Kill 22, Including 2 Americans” (note 4 above).

[7] Ali al-Khafaji et al., “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death,” Times Online (6 May 2005).

[8] Ibid; see also “Coffin Industry Booming in Iraq” (note 1 above); and Karim Sahib, “Coffin Business Booms in Baghdad,” Middle East Online (25 Apr. 2005).

[9] “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death” (note 7 above).

[10] “Coffin Business Booms in Baghdad” (note 8 above).

[11] “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death” (note 7 above).

[12] “Coffin Industry Booming in Iraq” (note 1 above).

[13] “Coffin Trade Thrives in City of Death” (note 7 above).

[14] Ibid.

[15] 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. 2005).

[16] 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.

[17] 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.”

[18] 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).

[19] 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).

[20] Ian Traynor, “Afghans are Still Dying as Air Strikes Go On. But No One Is Counting,” The Guardian (12 Feb. 2002) (quoting unnamed officials).

[21] Rory McCarthy and Julian Borger, “600 Dead in Besieged Iraqi City -- But Marine Commander Claims Victims Mostly Insurgents,” The Guardian (12 Apr. 2004).

[22] “Fallujah Death Toll for Week More than 600,” USA Today (11 Apr. 2004).

[23] 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).

[24] 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).

[25] 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. 2004).

[26] International News Safety Institute, “Iraq War Toll Rises Inexorably” (3 Nov. 2004).

[27] Patrick Cockburn, “Iraqi Barbers in the Firing Line as Fanatics Target Western Symbols,” The Independent (13 May 2005).

[28] 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.

[29] 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.

[30] Ibid. An Army investigation showed that Habibullah was so badly hurt that even if he survived, both legs would have had to be amputated.

[31] “26 Criminal Homicides in U.S. Military Custody,” The Guardian (16 Mar. 2005).

[32] “Editorial: Abuse in Secret,” Washington Post (5 Mar. 2005) at A18.

[33] 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.