8 October 2005

Reading between the numbers

Tonight I watched Hotel Rwanda. The film's very moving and does a good job of showing the tragedy. I especially like the way that it depicts the surreal aspect of war--for example, the scene of people peeking out from a wealthy home as their neighbors get massacred. War, as depicted in films, often occurs on battlefields (in other words, as seen from the perspective of the troops fighting the war). But from the standpoint of the civilian population, war is never so neat. If you're a civilian, the war's happening in your garden or kitchen.

Our view of war and history seems to be very biased towards our national interests as defined by our politicians and culture. The other day, I looked down the stats listed on the site Death Tolls of Wars and noticed that some of the conflicts that produced the largest number of casualties in the 20th century weren't even familiar to me. Around 8 million are said to have died in the Congo Free State (1886-1908), for example (a good portion after 1900) but who would know anything about this?

If you go down the list and look at U.S. interventions, American policy seems to have been largely unaffected (one way or another) by concerns over mass-murders. Chiang Kai-shek's armies are estimated to have killed over 10 million people; yet he received U.S. support before and after fleeing to Taiwan. Saddam Hussein is said to have killed around a quarter of a million of his own people--probably most of these killings were done while the U.S. supported him. Then Iraq killed about a million people in the Iran-Iraq war in which Saddam received direct U.S. support. I mention this not because I think U.S. policy has been immoral but rather because it has been amoral. What bothers me the most about this, I guess, is that it can be amoral.

I don't think the average American is so callous as to simply not care. The problem, I think, is that our information is filtered through fixed outlets that give the information a particular shape. There are, I'm sure, a lot of people who still think that the U.S. interest in Iraq has been primarily to save the Iraqi people from the butcher of Baghdad. But if we think about it, a tiny fraction of the troops needed for Iraq could have probably stopped the Rwanda genocide at a mere fraction of the cost and commitment required for Iraq.

1 comment:

Rudolph said...

Numbers seem to be so .. well, subjective. One death here is by no means equivalent to one death there. For every American soldier dying in Iraq, there are about 25 Iraqis dying. If a child dies here, all hell breaks loose. But nobody talks about the 34,000 children dying every day elsewhere in the world (www.napsoc.org, accessed 12/2003).