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the Gauntlet

Adding up the important numbers

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As the possibility of war draws ever nearer, the inhumane look at potential casualty numbers is becoming simply astonishing. As the military experts prophesize the death tolls of wars on Iraq or North Korea, the ease in which they operate seems frightening to me.

On a recent episode of Dateline, one analyst predicted that a war with North Korea could see anywhere from half a million to two million casualties between the North and South Koreans. Two million dead people? Apparently so, if the nuclear arsenal is unleashed.

The numbers in a war against Iraq are substantially lower, probably because there won't be the need to resort to nuclear arms. However, one number that always stands out in my mind is the result of a United Nations study that found that half a million people have already died in Iraq as a result of the sanctions against the country since the end of the Gulf War. Killing people during a war is not enough; they must be used as pawns, dealing with a dictator who doesn't really seem to care about them in the first place.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes increasingly clear that the last ten years have been littered with high casualty numbers from around the world. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, bloody wars in Somalia, fighting in Chechnya, and the seemingly never-ending fighting in Israel have all yielded extraordinarily high numbers of deaths.

None of these numbers, however, come close to the massacres of Rwanda where it is estimated that one million people died as the result of tribal fighting.

With all of this raw evidence of the bloody impact of wars, experts still seem unfazed by the prospect of dishing up new numbers for the public to consider. Inexplicably, many people just seem to eat these numbers up and don't seem to worry about the possibility of mass casualties. I don't mean to suggest that the public is becoming heartless--in fact, the opposite is true. But the numbers don't affect people, because they lack a direct relationship to the victims.

It wasn't a million westerners that died in Africa, thousands of miles away. Just like it wasn't millions of westerners in danger of nuclear attacks when Pakistani President Musharraf admitted that he came within an eyelash of unleashing these weapons against India. However, it was three thousand Americans that died on September 11.

The Bush Administration is planning to avenge these deaths with another war that would, most likely, provoke the continuation of a cycle of violence.

Would the American movement toward war be so popular if they had first-hand experience of mass casualties? I doubt it. If this is true, it seems that an increased awareness of the unfathomably large numbers of war-related deaths would prove very beneficial. If people could truly attempt to contemplate the idea that millions of people have died in the last 20 years in different wars, they might not be so quick to send in the army. When such an understanding can take place on a large scale, diplomatic means will bring about peaceful ends as the routine killing of political enemies ceases worldwide.

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