Nick McDonell’s striking new book about America’s forever war, The Bodies in Person, is a call to contain or minimize one kind of outrageous violence: the killing of civilians in America’s contemporary wars, fought since 9/11 across an astonishing span of the earth ... The Bodies in Person works through a series of narrative set pieces: McDonell witnesses the violence itself and studies its various aftermaths, like a seismologist traveling to assess the damage of an earthquake at various ranges from the epicenter. He movingly narrates the death of 'Sara,' a young Iraqi girl from Tikrit who has been recuperating after a lifesaving operation, only to be killed by a bomb meant for the ISIS stronghold across the street ... But through these stories, McDonell is preparing a very specific moral inquiry: How much should Americans contain their violence?
Civilians are always hurt and killed in war, collectively deemed 'collateral damage' with all due regret. As McDonell writes, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and other American theaters of operation, many of them have become 'excess mortality,' a grim and Orwellian term that would seem to mean those killed beyond the actuarial numbers that enter into the calculus of 'acceptable' death: If a sniper is on a roof and 100 civilians are slated to die in the bombardment required to eliminate that threat, then the 101st gets a whole new category. By any measure, according to a well-quoted epidemiological study, 'at least 650,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the first three years of the war'—a figure, notes the author, that George W. Bush dismissed, saying that it was 'only' 30,000 ... Grim indeed and sometimes gruesome—and a brave work of investigation.
Political theorist and novelist McDonell brings investigative research and a strong narrative voice to this harrowing search for an accurate understanding of civilian casualties in the United States’ recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Receiving limited access to U.S. personnel, McDonell seeks out firsthand accounts of military actions that resulted in noncombatant injury or death ... By introducing the human stories behind anonymous and apparently often inaccurate casualty reporting, McDonnell casts a much-needed light on a significant and too often downplayed aspect of war.