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The Day the Music Died

Cultural casualties of the war in Iraq

On a recent morning, as nurses dug graves in front of the Al Mansour Hospital, Baghdad University lay in ruins, and the Red Cross warned that the city’s medical system was collapsing, two musicians from this wounded city came to our hotel room.

Majid Al-Ghazali and Hisham Sharaf hoped to call relatives outside Iraq on our satellite phone. Hisham’s home was badly damaged during the war. “One month ago, I was the director of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra,” Hisham said with an ironic smile. “Now what am I?”

As Hisham tinkered with the phone’s solar-powered battery, we joked that he could direct the telephone exchange. I told Majid we had some sheet music and a guitar for him. “What are notes?” he asked. “We don’t even remember.”

Majid has had a particularly rough experience. During the first week of bombing, a neighbor called the secret police and turned him in for visiting with foreigners. He was jailed the next day. After the “fall” of Baghdad, the same neighbor claimed he was actually part of the secret police. Majid is terrified now.

“I think they want my house,” he said. “No place is safe.”

I first met Hisham at the Baghdad School of Folk Music and Ballet last year on one of my visits with Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end sanctions on Iraq and prevent further aggression against the Iraqi people. Hisham and Majid taught at the school during the day and rehearsed with the orchestra at night. As the war approached, I told Hisham how meaningful the song “O Finlandia” has been to many people in the United States. At least 150 families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 had used this peace anthem as part of memorial services. Sibelius composed the melody in the late 19th century. Following World War I, lyrics were created emphasizing the common aspirations and dreams shared by all humanity.

Hisham had chuckled then, and couldn’t resist pointing out the irony that someone from the United States wanted to teach his students a peace song. “OK,” he said, “Sing it for me. We can do this.” Within two days, an entire class was singing an Arabic transliteration of the song.

Now, as they finished with the phone and said goodbye, I wondered if the hopeful, idealistic verses might embitter them today.

The next morning the two returned, shaken and distraught. They had approached U.S. soldiers the previous evening asking for help to protect their school. The soldiers said it was not their job and ordered Hisham and Majid to go away. They went to the entrance of the school hoping they could somehow protect it alone. Five armed men arrived. Majid, Hisham and Hisham’s brother pled with them not to attack the school. The looters argued, “We are simple people. Poor people. Soon there will be no food, no money, and we have no jobs. You are rich people.”

“Please,” Majid said, “we will give you the instruments, give you the furniture, but don’t destroy the music, the records, the history.”

“No,” the armed men said. “Baghdad is finished.” They ransacked the school, broke many instruments, burned the music and the records.

Why do desperate people commit deplorable acts of mindless destruction? I don’t know. But through decades of warfare and sanctions, powerful elites in Iraq, the United States and the United Kingdom have ignored millions of Iraq’s impoverished people, who have suffered tremendously.

“Here,” Hisham said, “listen to this. This is all we have left.” He handed me headphones borrowed from a Norwegian television correspondent. The orchestra was playing “O Finlandia.” Listening to the children craft their music, I softly sang the words:

“This is my song, O God of all the nations/A song of peace for lands afar and mine/This is my home, the country where my heart is/Here are my dreams, my hopes, my holy shrine/But other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as deep and true as mine.”

I stopped. Hisham had begun to cry.

—Kathy Kelly

Pacific News Service contributor Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness and the Iraq Peace Team. She has lived continuously in Iraq since January 2003.

Down for the Count

A small, independent group of researchers are trying to calculate what the major media have ignored: the number of civilian casualties in Iraq

The Pentagon announced recently that it “has no plans” to count civilian casualties. Previously, U.S. officials expressed similar sentiments regarding Iraqi military casualties. “We do not look at combat as a scorecard,” Captain Frank Thorp, chief military spokesman of Central Command, told The New York Times. “We are not going to ask battlefield commanders to make specific reports on enemy casualties.”

While the Iraqi government was uncharacteristically tight-lipped regarding its military casualties, it did release information on civilians. On April 3, it provided its last count: Naji Sabri, the country’s Foreign Minister, told Reuters that 1,250 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the war, and more than 5,000 injured. Given that most of what the Iraqi government was officially proclaiming about the war made Ari Fleischer look like the world’s most candid man, such numbers were generally taken with a sandstorm of salt.

And yet, such contentions weren’t wholly incredible. On April 6, according to the Associated Press, the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed that “the number of casualties in Baghdad [were] so high that hospitals [had] stopped counting the number of people treated.” A declaration like that should have inspired relentless media coverage of Iraqi casualty totals. Instead, media coverage of civilian casualties has actually been so scarce that even that kid from The Sixth Sense probably thinks that only anti-American buildings have perished in the conflict.

Ever since the war started, the most consistently updated source of Iraqi casualty information has been provided not by the professional media, but rather by an independent group of researchers who operate the website Iraqbodycount.net. Based in England, the site’s core team of 19 contributors monitors media reports from dozens of newspapers and TV channels to, in its words, “establish an independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq resulting directly from military actions by the USA and its allies in 2003.” As of Tuesday (April 22), the site was reporting a minimum of 1,878 civilian deaths, and a maximum of 2,325.

Perhaps if the site’s creators had thought to publish photographs of precision-dismembered Iraqi civilians on a deck of playing cards, Iraqbodycount.net would have received more attention. As it is, the number of press mentions it has gotten over the course of the war is fairly modest. On its busiest day during the conflict, the Iraq bodycount.net database page generated 74,887 page-views. But as Hamit Dardagan, principal researcher and site manager of Iraqbodycount.net, points out, “That’s just the visitors to our own Web site.” Iraqbodycount.net also created a series of “IBC webcounters” that other web publishers used to display the project’s stats on their sites. “There are 600 websites who notified us that they had installed the counter, but this wasn’t compulsory and we know there were others, probably a majority, who didn’t notify us,” Dardagan says. “How many web users therefore actually saw these counters is another calculation altogether.”

Along with its fans, Iraqbodycount.net has attracted some critics too. In the Weekly Standard, Josh Chafetz writes about “the voodoo science of calculating civilian casualties,” arguing that Iraqbodycount.net’s methodology gives too much credence to Iraqi government sources. For example, if two media outlets simply reported that the Iraqi government had announced the deaths of 300 civilians in a particular incident, that incident would generate entries of “300” in both the “Minimum” and “Maximum” columns of the Iraqbodycount.net database, even if the media outlets stated that they were unable to verify the claims themselves.

“This might have been a serious criticism if the figures provided by the Iraqi government were all we relied upon,” counters Dardagan. “In fact, our figures only very rarely came from such sources alone.”

Chafetz also questions Iraq bodycount.net’s methods regarding incidents like the well-publicized explosions in Baghdad’s marketplaces. “Anyone who reads the papers knows that the U.S. and British governments claim that . . . Iraq—either intentionally or mistakenly—caused those explosions itself,” Chafetz writes. “By refusing to put zero in the minimum column, the Project again privileges Iraqi government sources over Western ones.”

Dardagan’s rebuttal: “If Saddam’s forces had, say, deliberately shot at the civilian population in order to crush a domestic uprising, we would not have counted these as the responsibility of the U.S. or U.K., even if it could be argued that the invasion of Iraq prompted the uprising and the repression.” In contrast, the Project did count civilian deaths that resulted when “Iraqi forces were using the military means at their disposal to defend themselves against [coalition] attacks.”

Of course, this policy still doesn’t solve every he-said/she-said dilemma: If you believe the Iraqis deliberately bombed their own marketplaces, you will dispute some of Iraqbodycount.net numbers. Still, critics who fixate on its purported ideological flaws miss a much more important issue: namely, Iraqbodycount.net’s lack of competition.

“Fools and knaves come up with figures . . . where responsible observers fear to tread, and the media, for lack of good numbers, cite the foolish or downright dishonest ones,” Chafetz concludes in his Weekly Standard piece. If the fearfully responsible U.S. government hadn’t already announced that it has no plans to count Iraqi civilian casualties, perhaps this conclusion wouldn’t seem so dishonest. And if this conclusion didn’t completely let the media off the hook, perhaps it wouldn’t seem so foolish. Or to put it another way: How come CNN, or Fox News, or The New York Times didn’t create their own versions of Iraqbody count.net?

After all, the media knew that the U.S. government wasn’t going to do body counts in Iraq. And with the Bush administration and the Pentagon aggressively marketing a potential war as a precision-guided, trauma-free exercise in liberation, surely a little rigorous fact-checking was in order. Financing their efforts themselves, the Iraq bodycount.net team has been able to conduct a pretty substantial research project—but imagine the resources a world-class news organization could have devoted to such a project, and the exposure it could have given it. A project like Iraqbody count.net was tailor-made for today’s 24-hour, interactive, constantly updated news cycles—and it represented a rare opportunity for news organizations to go beyond constantly recycled newzak and Pentagon ventriloquism. The fact that no professional media outlet attempted to do what a couple dozen volunteers pulled off was not a triumph of journalistic responsibility, but rather an embarrassing example of journalistic complacency.

In contrast, Iraqbodycount.net deserves substantial credit for its efforts—both for its actual work in compiling information about civilian deaths, and more generally for refusing to allow this aspect of the war to be completely buried by endlessly repeated statue-toppling clips. But while Iraq bodycount.net’s work stands as the first word on this subject, hopefully other organizations will eventually address it as well.

In the end, Iraqbodycount.net is based entirely on news reports, and news reports—especially breaking news reports—are certainly not infallible. So perhaps in Iraq there have been fewer than the 1,878 to 2,325 civilian deaths that Iraqbody count.net is currently reporting. At the same time, because Iraqbodycount.net depends only on media reports, and the media haven’t been there to witness every death, perhaps there are more.

Some pundits look at the relatively low death totals, compare them to the dire, prewar predictions of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, and conclude that the war went very, very well. Where are all the poor dead innocent Iraqis, they ask, conveniently forgetting their similarly hyped phantasmagorical counterparts, the innocent Americans killed by Saddam-equipped terrorists who will remain hypothetical forever as well. To ensure that those hypothetical dead Americans remained safely abstract, real Iraqi civilians (along with real American, English, and Iraqi soldiers) paid with their lives.

We know exactly how many innocent citizens died on Sept. 11, and we’ll never forget them. We should also never forget the innocent citizens who died in Iraq. First, however, we have to determine who they were and how many they numbered.

—G. Beato

G. Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.


Peaceloving barcode: Re-code.com’s Rico Barco.

Satire at a Cost

Web site spoofing consumer culture changes tack after drawing Wal-Mart’s ire

Little more than a week after its Webmasters agreed to Wal-Mart’s demand to cease operation of Re-code.com, the satirical Web site is up and running again, documenting the international media buzz it created.

In its original incarnation, Re-code.com provided visitors access to a product information database where they could enter data about specific merchandise, seek out and produce a more apt price for a product, and “re-code” the original item to reflect the goods “true” cost. The site operators, anonymous graduate students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, maintain that Re-code.com was an online spoof on consumer culture and product pricing using existing advertising campaigns, but the corporations the site satirized felt the humor encouraged theft.

On April 2, counsel for Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, sent a letter to the site’s Internet service provider, Domains By Proxy, ordering it to cease and desist its operation of Re-code.com.

“The site encourages the public to participate in a modern-day version of the old scam in which a customer takes a sticker from a cheaper item and puts it on a more expensive item before handing it to the checkout person,” stated a letter from Wal-Mart counsel.

Fearing the wrath of Wal-Mart’s legal team, the site’s operator decided to remove Re-code.com’s perceived illegality: a database of printable UPC labels, allowing shoppers to “re-code” their own prices.

“Anything that is going to affect the bottom line, like removing products from stores without paying the proper amount, we’re going to pay attention to that,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams.

But according to one of the site’s operators, a man who asked to be referred to as Tyler, the UPC database on Re-code.com was a spoof on Priceline.com’s “Name Your Own Price” advertising campaign, not an encouragement to shoplift goods.

“The site was a piece of Web art, an alternative form of protest to raise discussion about the true costs of items sold at stores,” Tyler said. “The site attempts to refer to the actual cost of goods, the sacrifices made to market the item, the labor costs, the environmental costs. If we’re talking about a case of oil, the price should reflect, say, the costs of war. Places like Wal-Mart use sweatshops to get the costs low—that is what we were talking about, not people stealing things.”

Tyler said some of the downloadable labels could be used to alter the way certain goods would be recognized at the register for affect. For example, when purchasing a U.S. flag, Tyler said a UPC could be switched so the cash register would recognize the product as a Masters of the Universe toy.

But Wal-Mart took offense to a how-to video featured on the old site showing anonymous shoppers recoding generic cereal prices on the boxes of name brands, which also drew attention from Kellogg’s.

All of this came as quite a shock to Tyler, who said the site went over well on its test audiences: crowds at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, a media-arts festival in Philadelphia and a college radio conference in Virginia.

“When we showed the site to these audiences, they got the satire and appreciated it and thought it was funny,” Tyler said. “But when the mainstream media picked up on it we started to get the hate mail. When all of the articles came out in the news media, we thought our original idea was getting lost, and we decided to take it down.”

After an initial story on the site and Wal-Mart’s letter ran at Salon.com earlier in the month, a reporter with the Associated Press picked up the story, and it ran in dozens of newspapers nationwide. In the week that followed, Re-code.com’s Webmasters were called for interviews from a number of television and radio stations across the states and the Atlantic; the BBC World Service, the Strait News of Singapore, and other international news outlets reported the story.

At the height of the media frenzy, the all-too-real scare of a near-legal battle with a giant corporation became surreal for Tyler when the profit-seekers came calling.

“A solutions company in New York called about discussing business opportunities,” Tyler said. “People were starting to think that we were making money off the site—we actually lost some money—they thought the site was offering people a service, they didn’t understand it wasn’t a real business.”

Re-code.com currently exists as a site dedicated to explaining the satire and documenting all that surrounded the former site and its run-in with Wal-Mart. The new Re-code.com has an oft-visited message board and links to the numerous news sightings. The site also includes a video documentary hosted by Rico Barco, the site’s official corporate spokesman, with his message to the world: “Lighten up folks! It’s a joke!”

—Travis Durfee


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