The True Cost of Empire

The sacrifices of U.S. soldiers represent only an installment on the payments due

The Chronicle's news feature story this week is unusual, both in its particular subject and in the mode of its creation. "Soldier's Heart," by Dan Frosch, takes on a national (and international) subject somewhat broader in scope than our generally local reporting focus. While we often gather spot reporting of national or international news in "Naked City," we don't pretend to have a national staff, and we see our primary role as telling Austin's story as well as we can, from an unapologetically local perspective. But "Soldier's Heart" presented an opportunity to talk about a subject that is increasingly on every citizen's mind, here and elsewhere – the growing human cost of the war against Iraq – as well as a small counterweight to the militarist drumbeating and nationalist eulogies that form the basis of so much mainstream reporting, especially on commercial television. Frosch's piece is a careful attempt to look beneath the veneer of the portraits of returning heroes, and perhaps its publication will help spark further public inquiries into the hidden costs of the war.

The story has a greater chance of doing so because it is being published as part of a coordinated effort by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies ( AAN commissioned freelancer Frosch to do the story at the initiative of Julia Goldberg, editor of the Santa Fe Reporter, and (beginning last week and running into January) several dozen AAN papers across the country will be publishing all or part of the piece, along with local reporting or commentary. Our hope is that the story's impact will be magnified by its widespread dissemination, and the Chronicle is proud to be a part of that larger effort. As it happens, perhaps sparked by the recent confrontation between a U.S. soldier in Iraq and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there has been a brief spate of articles in the mainstream press about the effects of the war on the lives and families of ordinary soldiers.

But Who's Counting?

At the same time, it's important to remember that the burdens of this war that rest on American soldiers and their families, onerous as they are, are secondary at best. Much worse are the burdens resting on the people of Iraq, who have exchanged the tyranny of Saddam Hussein under unrelenting Western sanctions for the even more brutal chaos and devastation of war. From the isolated film and photographs of combat zones like Baghdad and Fallujah, we can guess at the level of destruction, but it is difficult to know just how badly the war has affected ordinary people in their daily lives. The U.S. press coverage has not been much help; increasingly the war reporting has drifted into a pattern made familiar from the restricted perspective we see of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israeli civilian deaths are the subject of massive and emotional reporting, while the much greater number of Palestinian deaths is barely acknowledged except as the inevitable consequence of "retaliation." So it has become for the largely Baghdad-confined reporting from Iraq.

Just before the November election, the British medical journal The Lancet released the results of an on-the-ground survey that produced an extremely rough estimate of as many as 100,000 Iraqis killed since the beginning of the Iraq war, mostly by U.S. military action. In the U.S. press, it was a two- or three-day story, much of that coverage devoted to skepticism about the researchers' methodology. In the Texas press, the estimate didn't merit even that much coverage – no need to debunk the study if you avoid all mention of it. Nothing much has changed since Nov. 3 – the matter of Iraqi deaths, except insofar as they can be directly blamed on insurgents, is presumed to be of little U.S. public interest.

Actions Have Consequences

The international press has not been quite so submissive, and as a result last week a group of prominent British citizens asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to formally investigate the matter of civilian deaths in Iraq. "You have rejected [The Lancet] findings," they wrote to Blair, "but offer no comparable assessment of your own." Blair rejected the request – pointing instead to a very limited assessment of deaths provided by the Iraqi interim government – but at least the question has been raised abroad as a matter of public debate. No doubt poor Tony is aware that to pursue the matter is to invoke the wrath of his Washington sponsors. But here, in the home of the empire and the war, the loyal opposition has lately been preoccupied with counting misplaced ballots in Ohio – if we get that straight, perhaps we can turn our attention to the misplaced targets of our military machine.

As the London Independent oh-so-politely asked of the Blair government, "How on earth is the coalition to persuade the Iraqi people that it has their interests at heart when it appears to care so little about them that it makes no attempt to find out how many of them have died, and obstructs those who try to do so?"

Beyond the human costs – which as borne by physically and emotionally damaged veterans, of course, are already returning to our cities – it's also worth noting that the financial cost of empire continues to climb without much effective notice, even while the Bush administration happily contemplates slashing Social Security and squeezing the states on Medicaid. A handy snapshot of the cost of the war is being calculated by the Massachusetts-based National Priorities Project ( As of Monday, the national price of international hegemony (Iraq division only) is at $151 billion and climbing. The Texas share of that remarkable total is at $11.3 billion (more than the state budget deficit in the current biennium). The cost for Austin is at $384 million and steadily rising – more or less comparable to the city's annual General Fund budget. The NPP site also provides helpful estimates of the better uses all that money might have been put to. Perhaps all those folks who insisted the Austin City Council had no business taking a position on the war will be happy to contribute more than their fair share for the social costs we will be paying for many, many years to come.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Dan Frosch, Iraq War, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Julia Goldberg, The Lancet, Tony Blair, National Priorities Project

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