The Disappeared

Hidden in those shadows are the bodies of millions the US has killed in its single-minded pursuit of revenge. It remains shocking to me that not a single Western journalist or publication of note has, in the last twenty years, produced a significant body of work on the lives of the millions living in the aftermath of America’s wars, their ongoing sufferings, deaths, and dehumanization.

I find it incomprehensible, given the scale of the human suffering inflicted, the societies destroyed, the lives erased, and the violence and brutality instituted under the guise of “democracy,” that Western journalists have ignored those living under US despotism and violence. There are no major documentary films, long-term photography projects, or even long-form journalism that explicitly focuses on the experiences of the victims of US violence.

One of the most egregious erasures in US media history occurred before 9/11. On 6th August 1999, in the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) placed a comprehensive embargo on Iraq. The sanctions remained in place until 22 May 2003, after the US occupation of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Resolution 661 established one of modern history’s most draconian and inhumane sanctions regimes ever imposed. Millions died. [Geneva International Center for Justice, “Razing the Truth About Sanctions Against Iraq,” online here: (last accessed December 2023)].

In his book Invisible War. The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, Joy Gordon, detailed the brutal, inhumane, and barbaric punishment that was inflicted on the people of Iraq. [Joy Gordon, Invisible War. The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, Harvard University Press, 2021.] He recounts the dramatic increase in child mortality, water-borne diseases, and malnutrition as a result of these sanctions. The career UN officials–Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, and Jutta Burghardt–resigned their positions in protest against the sanctions, maintaining that to work for the UN in Iraq, even in a humanitarian capacity, was to participate in an immoral and indefensible policy.

The UN Commission on Human Rights commissioned a study by Belgian jurist Marc Bossuyt on the circumstances in which economic sanctions would violate international human rights law. His report condemned the sanctions and unequivocally declared them a human rights violation.

And yet, all these lives, and all this suffering, were disappeared by American media. For example, between 1996 and 1998, the New York Times ran nearly 650 articles related to the US-backed UN sanctions regime against Iraq but largely ignored that nearly one million Iraqis died from preventable causes as a result of the sanctions regime. Instead, the New York Times writers hewed closely to the US government’s emphasis on alleged Iraqi defiance of the UN and the attendant narrative of monocausal Iraqi blame for the consequences of the sanctions. [Brian Michael Goss, “‘Deeply Concerned about the Welfare of the Iraqi People’: The Sanctions Regime against Iraq in the New York Times–1996–98,” Journalism Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, 2002:83–99].

This disappearance can be subtle. To see and understand how it is constructed by mainstream US media, in collaboration with other agencies like photo agencies, see the Case Study: Continental Drift.

The people–living and dead–of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan have disappeared. Glenn Greenwald called it the “ugliest propaganda tactic of the War on Terror…American and Western victims of violence by Muslims are endlessly mourned, while Muslim victims of American and Western violence have completely disappeared.” [Glenn Greenwald, “The Key War on Terror Propaganda Tool: Only Western Victims Are Acknowledged,” The Intercept, April 24, 2015]. Instead, what we have witnessed is an ongoing whitewashing of US war crimes by hiding them behind heartwarming and emotional stories that center on American trauma. Our wars can only be understood through the experience of the men and women we send to the world to conduct them. Their damaging and destructive impact only matters when related to the lives of the soldiers themselves.

For an example of a practice that has allowed US media to disappear the murdered and center the killers, see Case Study – Killing Them Softly.

Journalists have produced dozens of works from the wars themselves, and others have focused on highlighting the stories of US soldiers suffering from the violence and psychological consequences of combat. These works have helped individualize the war, focusing on individual post-conflict traumas, physical and emotional scars, or the struggles of US families dealing with loss. The stories about suffering US soldiers and American individuals’ traumas have become a means of forgetting the real victims and the crimes committed for patriotism and American exceptionalism.

They have helped distract Americans from their nation’s “democratically” supported acts of warfare, terror, repression, torture, occupation, control, murder, and devastation. They have helped repaint the US as “good” and “noble,” as participating in “defensive” actions against “evil,” and cast the soldiers as honorable men and women who had innocently fallen defending our nation. Journalists claim that such projects are “anti-war” and help us understand the consequences of war. But they are, in fact, just the opposite–they are pro-war. They create a sense of “us” being wronged, posit Americans as innocent victims, and fuel the USA’s “righteous anger” that the government exploits to continue its armed interventions.

These works invert history, allowing Americans to think that they are the “targets” of the Other’s violence, focusing on “evil” intentions while helping them forget that they were the invader, the aggressor, the occupier, and the occupier, the oppressor. They allow Americans to wear the garbs of honor, courage, and dignity while they carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice, and inhumanity. It is how to answer a question Jim Nielson asked about the US and the Vietnam War:

How, against the best efforts of so many, did a war once perceived as a nearly genocidal slaughter to perpetuate American neocolonialism come to be viewed as an American tragedy? [Jim Nielson, Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and The Vietnam War Narrative, quoted in Ammiel Alcalay’s Scrapmetal: Work in Progress, Factory School, 2007].

The US has had a long history of recasting and transforming its wars of aggression and imperial occupations into narratives of American suffering. In a recent piece in the New York Times, veteran Phil Klay spoke about how “suffering in war can be a strange and terrible blessing.” [Klay Phil, “Can the Trauma of War Lead to Growth, Despite the Scars?” New York Times, July 6, 2020]. The piece highlighted the stories of an Iraqi war veteran with PTSD and the trauma of American Vietnam war veterans and Israeli war veterans. We have seen this tactic too often.

In 2014, Eric Fair recast his role as a torturer at Abu Ghraib into a victim of the emotional toll the act of torturing others took on him! [Eric Fair, “I Can’t Be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib,” New York Times, December 9, 2014]. Fair took on the part of sufferer and victim, even claiming that the screams of his victims were his. All this while he lives a comfortable life as a professor and publisher of books.

Claiming PTSD has become the great dodge that allows us to deflect from structural conditions of suffering and death and center the individual subject’s emotionality. There is “a veritable trauma industry comprising experts, lawyers, claimants, and other interested parties; it is a kind of social movement trading on the authority of medical pronouncements,” helping deflect from war crimes and illegal settler violence. [Derek Summerfield, “The Invention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Social Usefulness of a Psychiatric Category,” BMJ (British Medical Journal) Volume 322, January 13, 2001].

The trauma claim is the imperialist’s “moves to innocence.” [Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2012:1-40]. It is how “the soldier as criminal is eclipsed by the soldier as victim.” [Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor, “Damage Control: The Unbearable Whiteness of Drone Work,” Jadalliya, March 16, 2021]. It is how the killed are effaced, and the killers become the story. This, of course, isn’t new. It has long been a tactic of erasure and deflection from the actual victims of US violence. PTSD was used during the Vietnam War to secure disability pensions for returning soldiers and required the creation of “victimhood” as a status to ensure these financial payouts. [David Summerfield, “The Invention of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and The Social Usefulness of a Psychiatric Category,” BMJ (British Medical Journal) 322(7278), pp.95-98].

“In the cumulative historical narrative,” writer Peter Maass argued, “we are relegating to the margins the millions of Iraqis and Afghans who were the primary victims of the wars we chose to fight in their villages and homes. We are appropriating to ourselves alone the roles of victims and heroes.” [Peter Maass, “America’s War Narrative Focuses On Its Soldiers; Afghans and Iraqis Are Brushed Aside,” The Intercept, September 2, 2018].

Journalists, former combatants, and even CIA operatives have published dozens of books about their experiences of US wars in the Middle East, creating a “memory industry” that was erasing crucial truths and preventing us from understanding these wars “as grave crimes that demand a national reckoning.” [Ibid.]  Helen Benedict, a professor of literature at Columbia University, when researching literary works that focused on the experiences of Iraqis living under the US bombardments and occupation, “discovered how difficult it is to find Iraqi literature in translation, at least in America–a fact I consider shameful, given that our war killed some half a million Iraqis and displaced a fifth of the country.” [Helen Benedict, “The Best Contemporary Iraqi Writing About War”, LitHub, October 12, 2017].

Photojournalists have done no better and, at times, played to the US imperial gallery with even greater aplomb. Several photographers have produced works highlighting the post-war psychological scars and physical injuries of US soldiers. [Some works of note include Nina Berman’s “Purple Hearts,” Eugene Richards’ “War is Personal,” Ashley Gilbertson’s “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” and James Nachtwey’s “The Sacrifice.”]. Other Western photojournalists turned things on their heads, claiming their own PTSD from their experiences documenting the death, destruction, dismemberment, and suffering of others. [Adam McCauley, “Overexposed: A Photographer’s War With PTSD,” The Atlantic, December 20, 2012].

A photojournalism grant-giving organization announced funds specifically for supporting such inwardly focused projects. [Conor Risch, “Aftermath Project Launches $20k Grant for Conflict Photogs,” PDNPulse, June 27, 2011]. Choosing to enter the suffering of others, submitting these works for major international awards, displaying them in galleries or as published books, reaping financial and personal benefits, and exercising the option to leave the war zone and return to a safe and comfortable home is apparently “traumatic” work.

In a bizarre act of political and psychological parallelism, Western journalists become, much like the “injured” US soldiers they write about and photograph, “innocent” victims. They become “the true self, the self that must be protected,” as Lauren Berlant has argued. This traumatized self becomes “the essential index of value for personhood and thus for society.” [Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics,” In Elisabeth Bronfen and Misha Kavka, (Eds), Feminist Consequences: Theory For The New Century, Columbia University Press, 2001:131]. It helps deflect the issues from material, political, and structural questions. It individualizes the political, distracts from the structural, and deflects from the criminal.

The Israelis have used this tactic well, for example, in the well-received animated film Waltz with Bashir, which centers on an Israeli soldier suffering from PTSD while ignoring the massacres and thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese murdered by Israeli forces during the invasion of Lebanon. The murdering self becomes the victim; the victim becomes an afterthought.

“The relatable, humanized soldier,” Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor argue, “is a particularly problematic lens through which to understand global violence.” [Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor, “Damage Control: The Unbearable Whiteness of Drone Work,” Jadalliya, March 16, 2021]. It becomes a “surprising lens through which to understand…material conditions created by forever war” and how “under this therapeutic label, the soldier and the civilian [and photographer] merge as ‘victim.’” [Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Ghumkhor, “Damage Control: The Unbearable Whiteness of Drone Work,” Jadalliya, March 16, 2021.]

PTSD may be real, but my point is that its uses and applications are always social, political, and historical. [Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Princeton University Press, 1995; Didier Fassin, Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, Princeton University Press, 2009]. It has long been used to erasure political and material conditions for war, death, and mayhem and to focus instead on the individual, personalizing the horrors of political calculations and military machinations and deflecting from the causes and consequences of slaughters and murders. Paul Kagame’s government in Rwanda has made frequent use of trauma as a means to silence an investigation into the realities of the Rwandan genocide, his role in it, and, in particular, the political aftermath that helped bring him to power. [Suchitra Viyayan, “Rwanda and the New York Times,” Africa Is A Country, April 25, 2014].

Although many describe these photography projects about post-conflict physical and emotional scars of soldiers as anti-war, they do quite the opposite; they create a sense of the USA wronged and Americans as victims. They feed US determination to avenge our “fallen.” They invert the situation, allowing us to think that the US is the target of violence, the focus of “evil” intentions, while helping us forget that the US is the aggressor, the occupier, and the oppressor.

These projects rely on emotions and a sense of pity for the sufferer to help us wear the garbs of honor, courage, and dignity while we carry out acts of dishonor, cowardice, and inhumanity.