President Bush’s statement acknowledging 30,000 civilian casualties in the war in Iraq has been, predictably, getting a great deal of play in the blogosphere today. I’m not a regular reader of US political blogs, so my apologies if I’m making a connection that’s been made elsewhere.
30,000 civilian casualties seems like a very low number. It’s close to the number being offered by the website Iraq Body Count, which takes reports from the press, the US military and the Red Cross, adds them up and reports the numbers. While this sounds like a reasonable way to count war dead, it’s a really, really bad method for getting a comprehensive count of people dead as a result of the US invasion of Iraq.
Basically, the IBC number is the “reported dead”. According to their methodology page, the staff of the Iraq Body Count project take reports of civilian dead in the mainstream press, check to ensure the reports appear in two media sources, and record the numbers of dead reported.
But not every death in a war zone gets reported. If a bomb hits a building and people die, but journalists don’t see it, there’s a good chance those deaths don’t get added to the totals. And these numbers don’t include civilian deaths from less direct causes – an increased number of murders in a post-Saddam Iraq, deaths from illnesses caused by disrupted food and water supplies, etc.
The way you get a comprehensive death toll from a war is to do an epidemeological survey, choosing households at random and interviewing them to see who died in a period before the war and in a period after the war, and what the causes were. Dr. Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins University used this method to count war dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and came up with the stunning figure of 1.7 million deaths in two years, only 200,000 from violence. This figure was widely reported and cited as evidence that the bloodiest war since World War Two had been largely ignored outside of Africa.
As it turns out, Dr. Roberts also conducted the same sort of study in Iraq, in the summer of 2004. Surveying 988 Iraqi households (7,868 people in 33 neighborhoods around the country) carefully chosen to provide a statistically significant random sample, Dr. Roberts and his team came up with the stunning news that the death rate in Iraq shot up from 5% before the war to 7.9% in the eighteen months after the war. This rise in death rate implied roughly 100,000 civilian casualties in the war in Iraq.
The respected British medical journal, The Lancet, reported the results of the study, which were picked up by a few US newspapers, but largely didn’t enter the national debate. The timing of the announcement was fairly poor – the numbers were released just before the US presidential election and it’s hard to avoid the perception that Dr. Roberts wanted his results to affect the outcome of the 2004 elections. Right-wing pundits seized on the small sample size of the survey and the long error bars (because the survey relies on statistical extrapolation, the figure of 98,000 dead is the top of a bell-curve distribution of possible accurate figures). Worried the study was partisan and biased, Rob Stein, reporting on the story for the Washington Post, called a military expert at Human Rights Watch, Marc E. Garlasco, who declared, “These numbers seem to be inflated.”
“This American Life” ran an excellent hour-long radio show on the Iraq extrapolation a few weeks back, where they interviewed Garlasco, who admitted that, when asked for comment by Stein, he hadn’t read the study and was giving a “snap reaction” to the figure of 98,000 dead. Since reading the study, Garlasco admits that Roberts methods appear to be sound.
Why does it matter whether there are 30,000 dead or 98,000 dead?
Or 196,000 dead? When Dr. Roberts released his study, estimating 98,000 deaths, the Iraq Body Count site estimated 15,000 dead – using a crude extrapolation forwards, perhaps Roberts’ study, conducted today, would show a doubling in body count.
It’s not just a matter of justice or respect – it’s also a matter of how policy gets shaped in the future. As the US looks into strategies of pulling out of Iraq, it’s possible that, as reported by Sy Hersh in the New Yorker, US troops will be replaced with an increased use of air power.
While I’d be very glad to see our troops come home, increased air power has a price. According to the Lancet study, 84% of violent deaths were due to actions of coalition forces – 95% of those deaths were the result of airstrikes, missles or helicopter gunships. In other words, when we fight the Iraq war from the air, civilians die, and we don’t hear about all those deaths. And if we don’t hear about them, we don’t make plans for troop pull-out with those future deaths in mind.
My friend David Weinberger wants to know why we don’t want to know how many died in Iraq. Part of what’s so moving about the This American Life radio piece is that Garlasco (the guy who trashed Roberts’ study before reading it) joined Human Rights Watch precisely so he could ask the Pentagon that question. His previous job? He was the guy who identified precision bombing targets for the Pentagon. In other words, he had to calculate whether a target could be bombed with a minimum of civilian casualities, which is hard to do when the military doesn’t try to count casualties after a bombing.
It’s hard to have a debate about what to do about the morass we face in Iraq. But it’s lots harder to have it if the numbers we’re working with may be low by a factor of six.