‘Incorporeity’: Increase Your Wartime Vocabulary


This morning’s L.A. Times report that the U.S. and its allies are killing more Afghan civilians than the Taliban are could be just the tip of the coffin.

In Iraq, documents that the ACLU pried from the War Department indicate that the U.S. often rejects claims — even defying judges’ rulings — that its troops have killed innocent civilians. And one of those rejected claims shows that a seldom-used word — “incorporeity” — is creeping into the wartime language.

Judges are granting “incorporeity damages” for civilian deaths, as the document below shows, but U.S. officials often rejected such claims. In the case below, an Iraqi claims that his son was killed by troops as he approached a checkpoint on his way to market. A judge valued the son at $7,500 — $5,000 for “killed my son” and $2,500 for “incorporeity damages” — but U.S. officials said his behavior was “threatening” and refused to pay.

Heretofore not used to describe the death of Iraq civilians, “incorporeity” comes from “incorporeal,” according to my OED, which I guess you could say backs up the U.S. position: The first OED definition of “incorporeal”:

Having no bodily or material structure; not composed of matter; immaterial.

The second definition gets right to it:

Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of immaterial beings.

That’s accurate. As I pointed out in October 2004, General Tommy Franks remarked early on, “We don’t do body counts,” but others were, including Iraq Body Count, which has documented 65,000 violent deaths so far. It used to be that we did most of the killing, but now of course it’s the rebels’ bombs and suicide runs that account for most of it. Nevertheless, IBC noted in a March 2007 rundown:

Coalition-caused deaths.
Coalition forces, principally US as well as some UK, were identified to have killed at least 536 Iraqi civilians in year four (excluding a major incident in Najaf in January which is still under investigation by IBC). This compares with 370 in year three. If 536 seems insignificant in light of the overall total, consider for a moment what it would mean if in your country there were, on average, three incidents a week in which a foreign army killed civilians, including the killing of a 5-yr-old girl and entire families with their children. Would this army be a stabilising influence?

Check out the batch of Iraq death claims yourself at this ACLU page; there’s even a search engine on civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same kind of destabilizing is happening in Afghanistan, where Hamid Karzai‘s government is shakier all the time. This morning’s L.A. Times story notes:

After more than five years of increasingly intense warfare, the conflict in Afghanistan reached a grim milestone in the first half of this year: U.S. troops and their NATO allies killed more civilians than insurgents did, according to several independent tallies. . . .

But the growing toll is causing widespread disillusionment among the Afghan people, eroding support for the government of President Hamid Karzai and exacerbating political rifts among NATO allies about the nature and goals of the mission in Afghanistan.

More than 500 Afghan civilians have been reported killed this year, and the rate has dramatically increased in the last month.

The Times story tries to be fair:

Still, Western military leaders argue that any comparison of casualties caused by Western forces and by the Taliban is fundamentally unfair because there is a clear moral distinction to be made between accidental deaths resulting from combat operations and deliberate killings of innocents by militants.

“No [Western] soldier ever wakes up in the morning with the intention of harming any Afghan citizen,” said Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. “If that does inadvertently happen, it is deeply, deeply regretted.”

Well, it’s not true that no Western soldier wakes up in the morning with the intention of harming a civilian. How about the Abu Ghraib tortures, which my colleague Graham Rayman recently revisited?

A better example is soldier Steven Green, leader of a rape crew that prosecutors say got drunk, put on masks, invaded an apartment, raped a 14-year-old girl and killed her and her whole family.

Green’s now facing the death penalty, so maybe at some point he’ll become incorporeal himself.