The headline here is not a joke, unfortunately. It’s a question you can’t help asking if you’ve followed the war in Yemen.
You probably noticed that on Radio War Nerd we’ve pointed out over and over that some wartime deaths get a whole lot of attention, others very little–or none. But it’s not easy to get a real-life scientific-type test of the relative weight of a Washington Post writer’s death and the deaths of “enemy” civilians.
Well, we’ve got such a test now. I just found it at the BBC News site. This thing is going to be the gold standard of pixels-per-death calculations from now on. It’s Nobel Prize in Media Physics stuff. What’s the molecular weight of a dead Yemeni civilian? It’s an amount so tiny that mere laypeople using crude stone tools could never guess it. But thanks to this BBC story, we can use our advanced math skills to figure it out.
Here’s the story, our Eureka moment, our Rosetta Stone, our electron media microscope: a BBC article headlined “Saudi Arabia: Just how deep are its troubles?”, published on May 13 2020, under the byline of Frank Gardner, “BBC Security Correspondent.”
Gardner identifies many problems for the Kingdom, most of them purely financial: the COVID-19 pandemic, the oil glut and falling prices. He briefly mentions the PR problem suffered by de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS):
Meanwhile the crown prince, while still largely popular at home, remains something of a pariah in the West due to lingering suspicions over his alleged role in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
That’s Gardner’s sixth paragraph, so the PR problem rates below the purely financial problems, but still pretty high.
Paragraph placement in a news story is very important. And like the NFL draft, it’s not so much whether you get drafted or not but where you’re placed. The earlier the better, the more value you have, whether you’re a cornerback or a dead civilian. So being mentioned in the sixth paragraph of a long (50-paragraph) story like this, as Khashoggi is, makes you something like a third-round choice. Khashoggi must be proud, wherever he is now.
The point is that killing Khashoggi is MbS’s ONLY PR problem, as far as the BBC is concerned.
There’s no doubt the killing of Khashoggi, an elite Saudi who’d gone rogue, was not a triumph of professional assassinations. Forget Jean Reno, this was more like hiring the boys from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to do the cleanup operation. MbS’s agents brought their hacksaws to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, killed Khashoggi on the premises, were too stupid to realize Turkish intel had the place bugged up worse than an Ontario cabin in July, and had no cover story ready when the tapes showed up online.
And the Saudis’ attempt at damage management was the most inept of all. The Saudis’ first response was that Khashoggi had left the consulate intact, his limbs a virgin forest untouched by the saw, and only admitted under pressure that he’d been killed and dismembered inside their consulate. No one’s disputing that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi was a bloody mess in every sense.
But the thing is, that wasn’t the bloodiest mess MbS and the Kingdom were involved in. And Khashoggi wasn’t the only maimed body left in the wake of MbS’s “reform” policies.
Not by a loooooong shot. There was this other thing going on: The Saudi-led invasion and blockade of northwest Yemen, the mostly Shia highland provinces of Yemen. That bloody massacre started in March 2015, and it has been killing untold (and I do mean “untold”) hundreds of thousands since then.
How many people have died horrible deaths in Yemen since 2015? The official sources like WaPo and NYT and BBC used to fix on a static figure: 10,000 dead.
Everyone laughed at that one. Every knew it had to be much, much higher, but that just annoyed our news sources of record. So they tried fudging the numbers with the face-saving formula “at least” 10,000, but even buzzards sometimes gag, and people got sick of hearing such an obvious callous lie.
So by now, how many Yemeni Shia nobodies are dead? How many inconvenient corpses, disproportionately children (because they’re always the first to die in a famine) are buried, untold, in that rocky ground?
Nobody even tries very hard to guess anymore, because nobody in the Western media is interested. Especially not the crusaders at the Washington Post. As far as they and their buddies in the NYT and BBC are concerned, those deaths don’t matter. No, that’s wrong: those deaths are actually an annoyance, a distraction. It’s not that the news sites of record can’t be bothered to cover the hundreds of thousands who’ve died in Yemen after years of blockade, air strikes, and artificial famine. It’s not that at all. They care, all right; they’re annoyed.
Because those who died were nobodies, and the wrong-est kind of nobodies. They were Shia, and Shia are all our enemies, as far as Riyadh, D.C., London, and Jerusalem are concerned. When a Shia Yemeni child dies gasping of an easily curable disease like cholera, it’s not just unimportant, it’s enemy propaganda, because the Houthis–or Ansarullah if you prefer, the main Shia militia in Yemen–are officially “Iranian proxies.”
They’re not, of course. The Shia of northwestern Yemen have been fighting against the Najd, home of the Sauds in Central Arabia, for centuries.
Najran was a Yemeni city before the 1930s, when the nouveaux riches Saudis “rented” it from the dirt-poor Yemenis and simply refused to return it when the lease was up. The Saudi response was simply,
Oh, you want us to return Najran? Meet our new friends, the U.S. and UK militaries. We’re paying them for protection now, so if you take one step across the new border, they’ll blow you to bits.
Since then the alliance between Riyadh, Washington, and London has only deepened. Arab leftists have been wiped out in Yemen, Oman, and Saudi itself. It’s corrupt Islamists/Royalists all the way down these days.
And this is just fine with the staff at WaPo/NYT/BBC. They have never had ANY problem with all that. They had no problem at all backing the Saudi “coalition’s” blockade of medicines and food directed against northwestern Yemen; no problem with the videos of kids dying of medieval diseases; no problem with Saudi bombing of Hodeidah, the one port serving northwestern Yemen; and no problem with the US Navy doing patrols to enforce the Saudi blockade on food and medicine reaching the Shia provinces.
Remember, when Jamal Khashoggi was killed in 2018, this artificial blockade and famine had been going on for almost three years. No one knows exactly how many Shia Yemeni died in those years, because no one who matters wants to know. I’m using “not want to know” as a transitive verb here; it’s not that they “failed” to find out but that their policy was outright boycott on Yemen horror stories, even as they were hyping mostly BS horror stories from Syria, which happened to align with the interests of the DC/Riyadh/London cartel (and, annoyingly but not very importantly, a lot of woke-left idiots who never noticed that they were doing fine PR work for the cartel).
So we’re ready to set our experiment in motion. Jamal Khashoggi is mentioned in Paragraph Six of this story. How about the hundreds of thousands of dead nobodies in Yemen?
They are mentioned a total of three times in this 50-paragraph story. Always very briefly, “in passing” as suave reporters like to say, and using terms like “a spat” to describe the kerfuffle, as if it was a snarly moment on a cooking show.
Here’s the first of the three mentions. This one–the first one, remember!–is in the eighth paragraph, two paragraphs after Jamal Khashoggi’s death–in NFL draft terms, a fourth- or fifth-round choice. Note also the phrasing here:
Then the war in neighbouring Yemen has bled Saudi coffers for more than five years now with no tangible gains, and a spat with Qatar has wrecked the surface unity of the six-nation Gulf Arab Cooperation Council (GCC).
There is nothing on how many have died, or how many of the dead were civilians, or how many (MANY) of the famine dead were children. Nothing at all about that. Ah, but there is something about blood! “…[T]he war in neighboring Yemen has bled Saudi coffers for five years now…” Huh, there’s a medical novelty. Some hippie said “only women bleed,” but it turns out here that only “coffers” bleed. “Only money bleeds,” as it were. Yemenis, no; “coffers,” yes.
And you know the worst about that fiscal bloodletting? It was all for “no tangible gains.” A bad investment, a far worse sin, apparently, than several hundred thousand dead.
Now here’s the second mention of Yemen. This one comes far down, about the 32nd paragraph (out of 50 paragraphs, remember)–which makes it like an eighth-round draft choice in NFL terms.
This one is very brief, very dodgy in every sense:
The Yemen War, prosecuted in part from the air by Saudi warplanes supplied by the U.S. and Britain, has seen alleged war crimes committed by all sides.
This one kind of makes me sick (and I once did a survey of British journalism during the Great Famine of the late 1840s, so I have a tough gut.) You’ll note that it was “prosecuted” by the Saudis, a nice way of saying “They invaded Yemen.” Furthermore, they were only responsible “in part” for this prosecution (though their “Coalition of the Willing” was even more reluctant and useless than ours in Iraq).
And just to put an extra coat of whitewash on this squeamish, quick allusion to a genocide, Gardner tops off the paragraph with “war crimes committed by all sides.” Yeah Frank, one’s as bad as the other, right? Even if one side, the ones with the money, have all the weapons, all the offensive firepower, and all the lapdog media on their side. It’s an old trick, this “one’s as bad as the other,” but it works all too often.
Ah, but Gardner does go on to admit there have been problems due to the genocide in Yemen. What kind of problems? PR problems, of course! He says in the next paragraph that KSA”s “prosecution” of a war has led, for reasons which seem to be wholly incomprehensible to our friends at the BBC, to some bad press.
But the civilian death toll caused by those air strikes has led to mounting criticism in Washington and elsewhere.
It’s that first word, “But…” that gets me. “But”? Why “but”? Read it aloud with the “but” and then without. You’ll see that with the “but” in the beginning the sentence implies that the air strikes, the artificial famine, all of it, is not a problem in itself; the problem is “But…” these perfectly valid policies have, alas, led to “mounting criticism in Washington and elsewhere.”
We’d better move on, to the third and final mention of Yemen, before I spew on the monitor. So here it is, in a mere photo caption just below the 39th paragraph of the story (in NFL terms, a UDFA):
“Five years of war in Yemen have cost Saudi Arabia dearly” [photo caption]
Or rather, here it was — because, in the time since I first read the article, the BBC has changed the caption so that it now reads “Five years of war in Yemen have achieved little.”
Ah, those sly dogs at the BBC copy desk! They think they’ve thwarted our rhetorical analysis but they are mistaken. Because now we can compare the original caption and the revision as if they were lines from a poem.
Here they are, Exhibits A (the original) and B (the new version):
A: “Five years of war have cost Saudi Arabia dearly”
B: “Five years of war in Yemen have achieved little”
This is a very revealing change. Exhibit A made the emphasis on money a little too clear when it said that the war has “cost Saudi Arabia dearly.” That’s the author’s real priority, of course, but somebody–a reader or an editor, a paid empath or something–flinched at it, decided to blur the raw indifference to those who’ve suffered by talking about what’s been “achieved” rather than what the war cost Riyadh. So now we get the nice, bland predicate “…have achieved little.”
So now, the article isn’t saying outright that the war was too expensive for KSA, but that it was wasted carnage, carnage that doesn’t “achieve” anything. It’s dizzying to try to find a meaning in that; what would a successful “achievement” be? The annihilation of NW Yemen? The crushing of all Shia resistance in Yemen? Saudi hegemony over the whole country?
But I’m quibbling. Readers won’t ask questions like that. They’ll glean something vague and well-meaning on the lines of “War, what is it good for?” and let the BBC off the hook. See? The Beeb isn’t totally obsessed with Saudi finances!
But the new caption is balanced, in that winsome NYT/WaPo/BBC manner, because it doesn’t go too far by mentioning dead Yemenis. It’s still looking solely at the Saudi perspective.
From the Yemeni perspective, this war has “achieved” quite a bit, in a grim sense: killing hundreds of thousands, crippling the next generation (because no child ever really recovers from protracted starvation in childhood, as studies have shown).
In fact, you could argue, if you were Satan, that this was an “achievement” for the KSA: by stunting the mental and physical development on a generation of Yemeni Shia, KSA has hit, in military jargon, the “second echelon,” the upcoming generation of potential enemies.
Now, thinking rhetorically, guess what the next photograph gracing the story might be. Remember, this is a news-site of record from the Anglo/Saudi consensus. So what would remind readers that after all, MbS is a reformer, a maker of omelettes, despite all the broken and bloody eggs he splattered over the landscape. What would show his progressive side?
Yup, a shot of a rich elite Saudi woman driving a car. And that is indeed the next photograph:
So see, folks, there’s good coming out of MbS’s tough love after all.
And really, the story tells us, his only real mistake was killing Khashoggi, a real human being, a Made Man in the global mafia. That death mattered. The dead Yemenis? They were Shia; they were “pro-Iranian”; they were, above all, dirt poor.
But us, we’re scientists here. We have to figure out the ratio: how many dead Shia poor people does it take to equal one Khashoggi?
Which means we have to come up with some estimate of how many untold deaths have happened in Yemen. Keep in mind, very few of the dead were killed in the air strikes that get the publicity, brutal as those no doubt were.
The real killer in Yemen has been famine and a blockade on essential medicines. That technique kills or cripples a whole population, starting with young children (as the BBC should know better than anyone).
But “untold” means “untold, right? How can we even guess? It’s not easy, because people-of-record don’t want you to think about it. But we have had a few brave people willing to name some sums. The representative for one NGO trying to work in Yemen estimated that,
…an estimated 1,000 children are dying every week from preventable killers like diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections.
That was back in 2016. So if you do the math: 52 weeks a year for five years, that’s roughly a quarter of a million dead children.
Most Western news sources of the respectable sort won’t do the math. They’ll stick to that comically absurd “10 thousand dead” figure. I swear I’ll never understand those people. They’re so very moral–except when it doesn’t suit them. They take me back to the respectable press in 1847 Britain, and that’s the last place I want to be.
They even retain the habit of not counting those who die in an artificial famine, as if blockading a country that was always heavily dependent on food imports and medical supply flights was an Act of God. They sometimes count Yemeni civilians dead in direct “Coalition” air strikes on markets and funerals, but even then there are dark hints that those might have been “pro-Iranian” weddings, “pro-Iranian” funerals, “pro-Iranian” food markets. You know, the suspect kind where they sell pro-Iranian onions.
The Iranian link to the Shia of Yemen is, let me repeat, BS. There’s a very, very powerful link between Iran and Hezbollah, as both sides will tell you with pride; there’s a somewhat more fraught link between Iran and Syria; but Yemen has always fought the push from Saudi Arabia, and would do so if Iran ceased to exist tomorrow. The people telling that lie must know better, but…well, who knows how a weasel thinks? Proud to say I don’t.
And Lord knows that’s a depressing topic.
But let’s go back to the original question up top and do the math as best we can. Drum roll, while we reveal the answer to the big Q:
How many dirt-poor, wrong-sect, non-English-speaking nobodies does it take to equal one made man in the Cartel’s media elite like Jamal Khasoggi?
Answer (after the necessary wonk-ish qualifiers, e.g. “We can’t set an exact figure here…”) The answer is roughly…
A quarter of a million. And that’s a conservative estimate, not (by any means) a neoliberal one.
Yup, that’s the ratio: One dead WaPo contributor weighs as much, news-wise, as a quarter-million nobodies from the wrong side of the sectarian tracks.
That’s how these virtuous people think. Makes me gladder than ever I’m not virtuous.
Gary Brecher is John Dolan is the War Nerd. He is the host of Radio War Nerd and the author of “The War Nerd Iliad” and “Pleasant Hell.”