The Price of a Life

The Price of a Life

Sure, the US government values the lives of innocents killed in combat. Just how much depends on whether they died in New York, Afghanistan or Iraq.


Editors Note: This story originally appeared on TomDispatch.

What value has a human life?

We usually think of this in terms of sentiment–of memories, grief, love, longing, of everything, in short, that is too deep and valuable to put a price upon. Then again, is anything in our world truly priceless?

As anyone who has ever taken out a life insurance policy knows, we humans are quite capable of putting a price on life–and death. In her book Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana Zelizer reminds us that, starting in the 1870s in the United States, in that era before child labor laws, the business of insuring working-class children, who were then quite valuable to poor families, achieved enormous success. For a few pennies a week, ten dollars in all, you could, for instance, insure your 1-year-old against the future loss to the family of his or her earning power.

The courts weighed in, assessing the literal value of an earning child to a family. In those days, poor urban children died regularly in staggering numbers under horse’s hooves, the wheels of street cars, and trains. In an 1893 editorial, the New York Times referred to this as “child slaughter,” and juries reacted accordingly. When Ettie Pressman, just 7 years old, died under a team of horses in 1893, while crossing New York’s Ludlow Street with her 9-year-old sister, a court granted her father $1,000 to compensate him for “his daughter’s services and earnings.” (“Yes,” her father testified, with “what I earn and what the children earn used together we have enough. They earn three dollars each week.”)

This came to mind recently, thanks to a New York Times report on another kind of “child slaughter”–in this case by US Marines, who, in early March, went on a killing rampage near Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Sorry, in Pentagon parlance, this is referred to as “using excessive force.” A platoon of elite Marine Special Operations troops in a convoy of Humvees were ambushed by a suicide bomber in a mini-van and one of them was wounded. Initially, it was reported that as “many as 10 people were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made a frenzied escape, and injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.” The Americans quickly blamed some of these casualties on “militant gunfire.” (“Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said gunmen may have fired on US forces at multiple points during the escape.”)

Later, it was admitted that the Marines had wielded that “excessive force” remarkably excessively and long after the ambush had ended, laying down a deadly field of fire at six spots, at least, along a ten-mile stretch of road. Their targets, according to a draft report of the US military investigation of the incident (which the Washington Post got its hands on) were Afghans, on foot and in vehicles who were “exclusively civilian in nature” and had engaged in “no kind of provocative or threatening behavior.”

In the process, the Marines were reported to have murdered “12 people–including a 4-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy and three elderly villagers”–and wounded thirty-four. According to a report by Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, a “16-year-old newly married girl was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse…. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.” (US troops at the time took the camera of an Afghan Associated Press photographer who happened to come upon the scene and “deleted” photographs from it, including ones “of a four-wheel drive vehicle where three Afghans had been shot to death inside.”)

Last Tuesday, after much protest in Afghanistan, according to David S. Cloud of the New York Times, Col. John Nicholson, a brigade commander, met with the families of the (now) nineteen Afghans who had been killed and the fifty who had been wounded by the Marines. He offered this official apology: “I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people.” And then he paid approximately $2,000 per death to family members. The military calls these “condolence payments” and makes similar ones, for deaths judged wrongful, in Iraq.

Recently, through a Freedom of Information Act request, the ACLU pried loose some of the requests for compensation payments submitted by Iraqis and Afghans (and the military’s decisions on them, including denials of payment). They make grim reading. Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher offered this description: “What price (when we do pay) do we place on the life of a 9-year-old boy, shot by one of our soldiers who mistook his book bag for a bomb satchel? Would you believe $500? And when we shoot an Iraqi journalist on a bridge we shell out $2,500 to his widow–but why not the measly $5,000 she had requested?”

Back in 2005, Iraqi payments already seemed to average about $2,500 for a wrongful death. That, for instance, is what the families of two dozen innocent Iraqis slaughtered in another Marines-run-amok moment at Haditha, also after an attack on a convoy of Humvees that wounded a Marine, received. (“They ranged from little babies to adult males and females,” said Ryan Briones, a Marine witness to the event. “I’ll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood.”)

This practice is not new to George Bush’s wars. During the Vietnam War, as part of the American pacification program, US officials made what were called “solatium payments” for wrongful deaths caused by American forces. Back then, the US valued Vietnamese adults at about $35 (US), while children’s lives were worth about $15.

We don’t know who exactly decided on the value in US dollars of the life of a 16-year-old Afghan girl, slaughtered while carrying a bundle of grass to her family farmhouse, or on the basis of what formula for pricing life the decision was made. We know a good deal more about how the US government evaluated the worth of the lives of slaughtered American innocents. For that, however, you have to think back to the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The family or spouse of a loved one murdered on that day was also given a monetary value by the US government–on average $1.8 million, thanks to the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, created by an act of Congress, signed into law by President Bush thirteen days after the attacks, and put into operation thanks to thirty-three months of careful, pro bono evaluation of the worth of an innocent American life by Special Master of the fund Kenneth Feinberg. (Small numbers of illegal immigrants who worked in the World Trade Center were also given these payments, as were larger numbers of foreigners who worked there.) Even here, however, the monetary value of a human life varied greatly, being computed, just as Ettie Pressman’s once was, at the mandate of Congress, on the basis of the victim’s estimated lost lifetime earnings.

Despite the relatively small amounts paid out in Iraq, total official payments for wrongful deaths, as well as for injury and collateral property damage, caused by American troops, had reached $20 million by the end of 2005. The figure now stands minimally at $32 million, according to Editor & Publisher’s Mitchell–and that figure is considered low because similar payments are made unofficially “at a unit commander’s discretion.” (For purposes of comparison, the total September 11th payout figure was in the range of $7 billion.)

We don’t know the actual average amount paid out in Iraq today, but if you were to take an obviously high figure like $5,000 and divide it into $32 million, the low total figure we have for such “consolation payments,” you would have some 6,400 “incidents” (not all deaths, although some payments are made for multiple deaths). It’s a striking figure, especially when you consider that these are just for cases in which an Iraqi actually applied to the American occupation forces and was accepted for compensation. It gives you some crude indication of just how high the death toll has really been in Iraq. That $32 million for officially recorded “consolation payments,” by the way, would add up to just under eighteen average payments for deaths (or injuries) at the World Trade Center.

So there we have it. In the modern version of “child slaughter,” the US government has indeed offered the world an evaluation of what price slaughter should exact in the deaths of innocents everywhere:

The value of an innocent civilian slaughtered by Al Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001 to his or her family: $1.8 million.

The value of an innocent civilian slaughtered at Haditha, Iraq, by US Marines: $2,500.

The value of an innocent civilian slaughtered by US Marines near Jalalabad, Afghanistan: $2,000.

Never say that the US government is incapable of putting a price on the deaths of innocents.

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