Day the Music Died
casualties of the war in Iraq
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
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.”
Majid said, “we will give you the instruments, give you the
furniture, but don’t destroy the music, the records, the history.”
the armed men said. “Baghdad is finished.” They ransacked
the school, broke many instruments, burned the music and the
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.
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:
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.
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.
for the Count
small, independent group of researchers are trying to calculate
what the major media have ignored: the number of civilian
casualties in Iraq
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.
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
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.
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.
Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.
barcode: Re-code.coms Rico Barco.
at a Cost
site spoofing consumer culture changes tack after drawing
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!”