Say Their Names

In the War on Terror, the Pentagon’s decision not to count casualties has robbed the dead of their very names.

Edited by Sam Thielman


Content warning: writing this gave me a panic attack!

SIX MONTHS AFTER 9/11, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured the public that U.S. forces were fighting their last major battle in Afghanistan, a reporter asked Rumsfeld if the Pentagon would officially number the people it had killed. 

Q: Mr. Secretary, on the body count issue, some of the very rough estimates of the numbers killed did come from this podium as well as from Bagram, and they were in quite a contrast to your determination earlier in the campaign to avoid any kind of speculation about that. How -- first of all, how was it that we did begin to hear estimates of enemy kills?

Do you now, in hindsight, feel that was a mistake to make any reference to it? Can you explain that a little bit?

Rumsfeld: Well, you know -- who knows? Different people have different views as to how to handle things. I guess I'm so old I watched the Vietnam War, and the body counting and didn't -- never found it impressive. It -- it is -- I know what I know, and I know what I don't know. And how can I stand up here when I know I don't know how many people were killed? I don't. And I don't think anyone does. But there -- there may be people who are in positions where we can be more comfortable estimating.

This would never really be true. For all the years afterward, in public statements, reporter interviews and internal documents, battlefield commanders regularly reported estimates of people they killed – usually enemy fighters, but sometimes civilians, though the military rarely admitted killing noncombatants. But an official total of the dead, across an open, expansive frontier of global war, would never be made. 

As a matter of routine, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) investigates itself – a process that takes long enough as to exhaust whatever outrage a given strike generates. Then, when a particular strike is all but forgotten, CENTCOM releases a summary in which it reliably finds fewer dead civilians than human-rights groups report, while conceding that “regrettably,” some have died. (“July 15, 2017, near al Badou, Raqqah, Syria, via Airwars report. Coalition aircraft engaged four Daesh defensive fighting positions near the Hospital of Modern Medicine. Regrettably, 13 civilians were unintentionally killed and eight civilians were unintentionally wounded due to their proximity to the target location…”)

Public pressure toward the end of the Obama administration goaded Barack Obama and the CIA into releasing an estimate of just a few of the dead: those noncombatants killed by U.S. drone strikes between 2009 and 2015. The estimate was vastly too low to be credible. When Donald Trump became president, he canceled further casualty estimate releases, prompting outcry, but nothing he released would have carried any more credibility. In the War on Terror, what passes for transparency is usually an alibi. 


EARLY ON in the War on Terror, the military established a line that held surprisingly well: Body counts, the Pentagon declared, were strategically irrelevant. This made a certain intuitive sense – body counts can't measure a war's fortunes – but performed a crucial elision, substituting the interests of the Pentagon for the interests of the truth. “Having been a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam, asking questions from Washington about how many dead today is truly counterproductive,” said Gen. Peter Pace, a future chairman of the Joint Chiefs, at that March 15, 2002 press conference.

So there was no credible, official acknowledgement of the death toll, shifting the burden onto human-rights organizations, epidemiologists, survivors’ associations, and others who tried to estimate casualties. They would always be at a disadvantage. 

For 20 years, government, military and intelligence officials typically either ignored independent body counts or dismissed them as misguided (the response of liberal governments) or malicious (the response of conservative governments). With no available official estimate or methodology to serve as a basis of comparison, nothing stopped government officials from dismissing anyone who dared to count the dead; that, in turn, deterred journalists from delving deeper. That was how you got people like John Brennan saying, for example, that drone strikes hadn’t killed a single civilian during the most intense year of drone-delivered death in Obama’s term. (Trump’s strikes would eclipse even that era.) Who could contradict him? 

A deeper obliteration even than death was at work. Refusing to tally the dead ensured that the work of naming the dead would be minimal, periodic, and incomplete. In what is surely an undercount – for more on this, may I recommend Reign of Terror?– the Cost of War Project at Brown University estimates that the War on Terror has killed 800,000 people. The authors of the estimate, Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz, freely admit that such a tally only counts direct deaths from violence, and excludes the lethal downstream consequences of war like demolished public-health capacity and environmental spoilage. There are higher death-toll estimates out there. Rarely have they received media attention commensurate with their magnitude. In an awful irony, the Clinton administration’s 1998 proposal for a war on al-Qaeda, written by Richard Clarke, nodded at Cato’s bloodthirsty promise to wipe Rome’s hegemonic rival Carthage off the earth: Clarke called it Delenda.

The Black Lives Matter movement demonstrated the importance of the simple, profound act of naming the dead. If you have attended a BLM protest and chanted the endless, haunting litany of names of black people murdered by law enforcement and white vigilantes, I would guess that you have felt it, too. There is a weight to naming people even while recognizing that doing so changes no material reality. The weight comes from recognizing the presence of evil across history. 


WE CANNOT SAY the hundreds of thousands of names of those the War on Terror killed. They died in places most Americans will never see. Even those like me who briefly saw those places will never truly know. The security bureaucracy placed a veil over them. Doing so ensured it could preserve its prerogative to kill continuously. Behind that veil, they died. It has never stopped. America and its proxy forces likely killed more than a million people. We do not know their names.

We can feel the weight of that ignorance when we consider that we recorded, as we ought, the names of every American servicemember who died in these wars. And not only them. The only two people whom Obama expressed “profoun[d] regret” for killing with U.S. drones were the American aid worker Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, both captives of the so-called Islamic State. 

I have interviewed survivors of drone strikes and relatives of those who didn’t survive. They interpret Obama’s refusal to acknowledge them while taking rapid responsibility for Weinstein and Lo Porto as an act of racism. American Exceptionalism is a sorting mechanism to determine whose lives matter.

We must say names we do not know. The absence of the names of the civilian dead, the muteness on our tongues, ought to haunt us. We desecrated their memories by erasing the possibility of any memorial. How different would an actual, physical mass grave be? 

George Orwell once observed in his Tribune column that we don’t know the name of anyone who built the pyramids. “When even so much as the name of a slave survives,” he observed, “it is because he did not obey the injunction ‘resist not evil,’ but raised violent rebellion.” If the War on Terror provides any innovation here, it is to ensure that in the lazy discourse that characterizes the Forever War, the dead are presumed guilty. The U.S. didn’t kill men, women and children. The U.S. killed military aged males or Anti-Iraqi Forces

Those who died in the routine atrocities of the War on Terror became accordingly invisible, an after-non-life with neither face, nor identity, nor experience. Rendering people into statistics would have been dehumanizing enough. But they were not even statistics.