Neither the Iraqi government nor the coalition forces have deemed Iraqi lives lost worthy enough to be counted accurately.
Truth is the first casualty of war, they say. One of the ways in which this is true is in relation to the casualty statistics themselves. As part of the time-tested war propaganda, each side minimises its own casualties and exaggerates estimates of the damage inflicted on the enemy forces, strategic-industrial targets, and public morale. The estimates of costs and timelines for victory are similarly downsized.
All of this has been evident with respect to the Iraq War. Much as Senator John McCain might want to trumpet his support for the successful surge (itself an Orwellian euphemism for escalation), the United States press has largely given him a free pass on his statements in the lead-up to the war in which he bought into the neocons’ fantasies of how short the war would be, how few the casualties, and how little it would cost the American taxpayer. On the economic costs, people like Paul Krugman in his New York Times column and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz have done much to highlight the magnitude of the true figures.
With respect to the numbers of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded in the aftermath of the 2003 war and the ensuing insurgency, however, the Bush administration has largely got away with little or no international accountability. The American public has been left dazed and confused with a maze of claims, counter-claims and disinformation campaigns where often if the statistics are damning, the methodology is criticised and the motives of the scientists are questioned. Some of the tactics to discredit the studies’ findings and their authors are lifted straight from the old (and enduringly relevant) ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’ television series.
The first point to note is the moral bankruptcy of an administration and a coalition that would wage a war of aggression retroactively in response to humanitarian atrocities committed by the Saddam Hussein regime, yet, as a matter of deliberate policy, refuse to collect statistics on how many civilians were being killed as a consequence and in the wake of the war. Where is the outrage in the U.S. press and public at this gross immorality?
Others stepped in, in an effort to fill the statistical breach. For the 18-month period after the war, a U.S. medical team calculated the civilian casualty based on a scientific household survey and came up with the stunning figure of 98,000 deaths, without counting Fallujah (because it had been the scene of the fiercest and most prolonged fighting, Fallujah was categorised as an outlier). Moreover, 84 per cent of the casualties were attributable to coalition air strikes, not rebels, and women and children made up more than half the total killed. The results were published in the highly regarded medical journal Lancet in October 2004.
The team (Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, and Gilbert Burnham) was from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and was assisted by doctors from al-Mustansiriya University Medical School in Baghdad. Coalition governments disputed the findings but failed to provide numbers of civilian casualties themselves whose accuracy can be assessed against the Lancet article’s. Because the study attracted great international coverage but was criticised for its methodology in many U.S. circles, it is worth a comment.
The methodology the team employed is called clustered sampling, which is the rule in public health studies, for example of epidemics. The alternative technique, called passive-surveillance systems, relies on waiting for reports of deaths to come in, rather than reporters going out randomly into the field to see if anyone has been killed in a violent attack. For this reason, it tends seriously to undercount mortality, in epidemics as in violence.
The Iraq study team picked out 33 towns in Iraq at random, then within each town, picked out 33 neighbourhoods — clusters — at random, and then visited the nearest 30 households. A total of 7,868 people in 988 households were interviewed in all about births and deaths that had occurred since January 1, 2002. Based on these interviews, the team calculated the number of deaths caused by the war by comparing the aggregate death rates before and after March 18, 2003, and attributing some 60 per cent of the excess deaths directly to the violence (from both sides), with the remaining being due to accidents, disease and infant mortality.
Because of the variable distribution of deaths in a war, violence can be highly localised. From that point of view, 33 clusters is a relatively small sample size, perhaps too small to be representative. In fact the decision to exclude Fallujah reflected precisely the study team’s concerns that its violence was far too unrepresentative. The rather large range of possible death numbers, from 8,000 to 194,000, reflects the small sample size for a study of this type.
Nevertheless, the figure of 98,000 is the most likely number in that huge range. This does not mean, therefore, that any number in that range is just as probable as any other number. The further away we move from 98,000, in either direction, the lower the probability of that number, so that the lowest estimate of 8,000 is just as (un)likely as the highest estimate of 194,000. Experts consulted by the Economist (November 6, 2004) — not one’s average leftwing anti-war propaganda tract — confirmed that the study had been carried out to the standard professional level. Epidemiologists and public health experts I spoke to in Australia confirmed that the methodology used for the Lancet study is a standard practice in the profession and was correctly followed by the Johns Hopkins team.
Unfortunately, because the study was published on the eve of the last U.S. presidential election, it became an easy target for suspect political motives rather than the quest for scientific truth. While the public database, Iraqi Body Count, estimated the Iraqi civilian toll at around 25,000 deaths, the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva re-examined the Lancet study to conclude that the more accurate estimate should be around 40,000 deaths.Repeat exercise
A second Johns Hopkins team (Burnham, Lafta and Roberts from the first team plus Shannon Doocy and Elizabeth Dzeng) went back and replicated the study, using a 12,801-person sample drawn from 1849 households, and published their second round of findings in Lancet as well (October 2006). The repeat exercise broadly confirmed the large numbers of excess deaths compared to pre-2003 levels. Their revised total of the “excess” number of people killed was 655,000 in the three-year period from March 2003 to March 2006. Of these, they estimated that 601,000 were due to violent causes.
Since then, the widely watched website Iraq Body Count has revised its figures to between 80,000 and 88,000 killed by 2008. But a survey conducted by the U.K.-based, non-government-funded Opinion Research Business (ORB), published early this year (Reuters, Jan. 30), concluded that more than a million Iraqis have died as a result of the conflict caused by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. It conducted face-to-face interviews with 2,414 adults and found that around 20 per cent had experienced at least one death in their household as a result of the conflict. The last complete census in Iraq (1997) had established that there were 4.05 million households in Iraq. Extrapolating from this, the ORB calculated that about 1.03 million Iraqis had perished as a result of the war. They gave their margin of error as 1.7 per cent, meaning that the likely range of the true figure was 946,000 to 1.2 million.
Readers, like governments, will no doubt tend towards the casualty figures that best suit their views and opinions on the war. The basic sad fact remains that very large numbers of Iraqi civilians have been killed, many through direct violence of sectarian and revenge killings, and many through the structural violence of disruptions to critical health services, medical supplies and nutritional requirements. The still sadder fact is that neither the Iraqi government nor the coalition forces have deemed Iraqi lives lost worthy enough to be counted accurately. Dignity in death is clearly not a human right for Iraqis.
And no one will be called to account in national or international criminal justice forums.
(Ramesh Thakur is Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and author, among other works, of War in Our Time: Reflections on Iraq, Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2007)