Kember's heroism scorned

It was disgusting in a predictable sort of way that Britain's General “Sir” Mike Jackson had an obnoxious pop at hostage Norman Kember after his release.


Sir” Mike Jackson had an obnoxious pop at hostage Norman Kember after his release. After all, it was just a variation on the more typical colonial contempt and/or bewilderment at the ingratitude of the natives. Don't they see all we've done for them?

The quiet Kember, in his own way, was perhaps being a sensibly sceptical news consumer, not buying into the initial dramatic hype about his “rescue” until all the information emerged. Certainly Americans and Iraqis were jockeying with Britons for the credit.

The media's disgusting treatment of Kember was another, less predictable story, as they followed Jackson's lead by distilling an old man's months of captivity, after a deeply courageous bearing-witness to a cruel and unjust war and occupation, into a story about whether he said Thanks to the lads.

And would that it were only Britain's Tory rags. (On Sunday, the Times, Telegraph, Express and News of the World all attacked Kember for his “grudging” gratitude to the SAS.) RTÉ bulletins over the weekend also took the Jackson/Murdoch line as the main Kember story.

 That story was typical of most media outlets' inability to look squarely at what has been happening in Iraq, even as they professed to do precisely that on the third anniversary of the invasion. The Irish Times, for example, forgot to mark the occasion with an editorial until 24 March, and when it appeared that was a boringly, coldly cruel piece of work, without so much as a nod in its 500 words at the suffering of Iraq's people.

How many Iraqi dead?

This was by no means unique to the Irish Times. Most of the recent anniversary commentary focused familiarly on “America's dilemma”, or on “the threat of civil war”, rather than the humanitarian catastrophe, comparable to the Asian tsunami, that was unleashed on an already-devastated Iraq by the US/British invasion.

Part of the problem is journalists' willful ignorance of the best scientific estimate of the war's death-toll. This column did a web search for news references to the Lancet research on the numbers killed in Iraq, and found only one mention in major Western media around the time of the anniversary, and that was an inaccurate one buried in a wire-service story on the London anti-war march: “Protesters stopped to look at 1,000 sheets of paper, each with 100 red splodges, pinned to the ground in the centre of Parliament Square. The artist who designed the display, David Gentleman said that each of the 100,000 spots represented the death of someone in Iraq – a toll estimated by medical magazine Lancet earlier this year.”

In fact, the Lancet's cautious, conservative estimate of 98,000 dead Iraqis as a consequence of the invasion is not from “earlier this year”; it is already nearly a year-and-a-half old. Reputable statistical analysis and extrapolation from their survey data yield up-to-date figures that are multiples of that number, perhaps as much as half-a-million dead. (See

Yet on the odd occasion when our media mention a death-toll, as Morning Ireland did for the anniversary, they tend to follow George Bush's advice and turn to the website of Iraq Body Count (IBC), a toll based on direct accounts of incidents resulting in civilian deaths that have appeared in Western news outlets. Nowadays this gets you a figure of about 35,000, perhaps less than ten per cent of the likely true total number – not a surprising discrepancy given the paucity of Western media on the ground in Iraq, given IBC's limitation to non-combatant deaths, and given that only some of the victims of war die directly from bombs and bullets.

Dangerous sense of proportion

Anyone with any sense knows this. Our knowledge of the death-tolls in, say, Rwanda or Kosovo comes from random survey data on “excess deaths” like the Lancet's, not from “body counts”. But when it comes to Iraq, even anti-war pundits fight it hard to face the terrible truth about what Bush and Blair have wrought. (Ironically, the laudable IBC started as an anti-war truth-telling mission, but with some small help from its own immodesty it has now provided cover for the warmongers.)

If the media routinely told us that the Iraq invasion had cost as many as half-a-million lives in three years, it might be a little harder for journalists to refer to the likes of ETA's members as “devils incarnate”, as a contributor to RTÉ radio's This Week told us most Spaniards believe them to be.

The difference between the damage done to humanity by insurgent guerrilla campaigns and that done by calculated imperialist slaughter is not one that the establishment often wants us to consider, though it may be evoked here in coming weeks in relation to the terrorists/freedom-fighters of 1916.