What's the Story Behind 30,000 Iraqi Deaths?

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By Sarah Sewall
Sunday, December 18, 2005

On Monday, President Bush directly answered a question about the total Iraqi death toll, including civilians, without issuing the familiar brusque dismissal. Instead, he offered his own estimate of "Iraqi citizens" killed since the invasion: "30,000, more or less." While the president did not parse that figure, he was clearly acknowledging that the number of civilians killed in Iraq matters. The president's response should liberate Americans to consider the number's meaning.

Granted, the source of the number remains a mystery. A White House spokesman says it didn't come from inside the government. But if it is not the U.S. government's job to make such a count, whose job is it?

Civilian casualty numbers can be hot potatoes. The newly liberated Iraqi ministry of health reported civilian deaths until the number appeared to become a political liability. Then, as the insurgency increasingly terrorized civilians, the Iraqi government resumed releasing civilian death tolls, but only of those deaths blamed on insurgents. A host of other actors -- the Red Cross, Iraqi hospitals, nongovernmental organizations, private contractors, reporters and medical researchers -- compile their own records of civilian deaths, though their methods, purposes and results vary enormously.

Of the publicly issued totals, Bush's "30,000, more or less" most closely tracks the numbers kept by the Iraq Body Count (IBC). This private group compiles reports from major international news outlets, the Red Cross and other sources. As of Friday, the group's Web site was reporting that between 27,383 and 30,892 civilians had been killed since the start of the war.

When IBC's figures were the most extravagant ones circulating, during the first year of the war, many in the U.S. military dismissed them as propaganda emanating from an antiwar group. Then the respected British medical journal the Lancet published an epidemiological study in November 2004, which concluded that perhaps 100,000 civilians had died since the invasion. That finding provoked much dispute. But suddenly, the IBC's numbers looked reasonable.

The Lancet study relied on a door-to-door survey of Iraqi households in 33 neighborhoods. The surveyors asked for details of deaths in the months before and after the invasion and found a significantly higher death rate after. But the approach was flawed. War is not like a pandemic; it comes in pockets. And the study itself qualified its conclusions, acknowledging that the figure could range enormously between 8,000 and 194,000.

IBC's methodology is imperfect, too. Media reports vary in flavor and rigor (IBC's sources range from al-Jazeera to Fox News), and even the best reporters in Iraq are working in difficult circumstances. IBC can't check anything independently. Therefore its numbers, and particularly its claims regarding the specific causes of the civilian deaths, remain suspect. Ironically, though, for all its antiwar bias, the IBC analysis suggests that fewer than 40 percent of all killings resulted from U.S. military actions -- including the major combat period. Maybe the number isn't so overwhelming after all?

Certainly, the number matters. First, it can help keep us honest about the costs of the wars we wage. In the Western thinking about just war we demand that a military intervention yield a good that outweighs war's inevitable harms. Civilian deaths alone cannot invalidate a war, but they aren't irrelevant either. They inform individual and national deliberations about the Iraq war -- particularly now that the invasion's rationale, stripped of all other explanations, hinges on the good it brings the Iraqi people. Imagine America being liberated from dictatorship by a foreign intervention that kills, say, 300,000 U.S. civilians. A sobering price, but one we might consider worth paying.

The number of civilian deaths also belongs in historical context. Considering that millions of innocents died in the world wars, hundreds of thousands in Vietnam and Korea, and tens and even hundreds of thousands in contemporary civil wars, Operation Iraqi Freedom looks astonishingly humane. The rest of the world may see us as trigger-happy cowboys, but the numbers suggest a different character.

The U.S. government ably quantifies many costs of war -- service members killed or wounded, financial burdens on taxpayers, strain on our military's equipment and readiness, Iraqi enemy fighters killed, impact on Iraq's infrastructure, and even civilians the insurgents kill. To refuse to acknowledge the full spectrum of civilian harm, including Iraqis mistakenly killed by their liberators or protectors, is to deny accountability.

By putting a number to civilian deaths, the president gives the military permission to learn from it. In modern war, civilian casualties have become almost as important as military results. U.S. forces have developed some novel ways of mitigating "collateral damage," spurred by the potential strategic impact of killing innocents as much as by humanitarian principles. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bush said the United States would make every effort to minimize civilian casualties, and military leaders stress their intent to spare Iraqi civilians. Given this emphasis, you'd assume that the military and its civilian overseers would want to know how well they're succeeding. You'd be wrong.

Some peace activists believe that the military keeps a secret tally of civilian deaths, but this would actually be progress. The Pentagon swears it doesn't do non-U.S. body counts, yet it often produces them to describe battlefield successes. Military leaders argue that their priority should be fighting, not taking an inventory. Yet wartime commanders rely heavily on battle damage assessment -- inventory-taking in its highest art form -- to guide future operations. But those assessments focus on military effects -- enemy fighters killed, weapons captured, things blown up. Civilian casualties are recorded sporadically, if at all.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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