So many

SamarTrue costs of Iraq War whitewashed by fuzzy maths

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, Apr 5, 2013


‘So many’, wrote TS Eliot, reflecting on the waste land left by the First World  War. “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

This notion is unlikely to cross the minds of those surveying the devastation  left by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The most frequently quoted fatality figure –  about 115,000 Iraqis killed – is shocking. But compared to major conflicts of  the past century, it is a relatively modest toll. The 1916 battle of the Somme  alone killed three times as many. More than that were killed by a single atomic  bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War.

Former British prime minster Tony Blair, and then-US vice president Dick  Cheney, were perhaps conscious of this when they expressed “no regrets” on the  10th anniversary of the war last month.

That the perpetrators of an aggressive war should accept the lowest costs for  their folly is unsurprising. What is less explicable is why so many supposed  critics of the war are crediting the same estimate. Brown University’s Costs of  War project and the Centre for American Progress’s Iraq War Ledger use it as  their main source.

This is particularly puzzling when there are two peer-reviewed  epidemiological surveys that give a far more comprehensive accounting of the  war’s human cost. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Survey  published in the Lancet, and the Iraq Public Health Survey published in the New  England Journal of Medicine, gave figures of 655,000 and 400,000 excess deaths  respectively. (Both were concluded in June 2006, a month before the violence  peaked, suggesting the actual toll is even higher).

It is odder still that when epidemiological surveys have come to be accepted  as the standard method for estimating conflict fatalities – the method has been  used without controversy in Congo, Bosnia and Darfur – an exception is made in  the case of Iraq.

The method involves a household survey to establish current mortality rates  and comparing them with pre-war ones. The difference, extrapolated for the whole  population, yields an estimate of the number of people who would still be alive  had the war not happened.

By comparison, the most commonly cited source, the UK-based online initiative  Iraq Body Count (IBC), uses a passive surveillance method to estimate what it  calls “violent civilian deaths”, relying mainly on media reports, initially only  in the English language. Current total: between 111,842 and 122,326.

Distinguishing a civilian from a combatant in an urban war zone is itself a  fraught business. But the IBC methodology makes two further assumptions that  raise questions: that war kills only by violence, and that the media records  every death in every part of the country.

If we accept the first assumption, then we would also have to revise our  estimates of history’s other major atrocities. Those who died of exhaustion or  starvation during the Nazi death marches cannot be considered casualties of war  using IBC criteria since they did not die of violence. One would also have to  omit those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising since, by virtue of taking up  arms, they forfeited their right to be counted.

War in most cases means collapse of state institutions and health care  systems; it means social disintegration, food shortages and lawlessness. It  kills by starvation, scarcity, contamination, shock, abandonment – and a host of  other causes that don’t involve bullets. There was a four-fold increase in  traffic accidents alone in the years following the invasion of Iraq. IBC’s  methods make no allowances for such consequences.

The second assumption appears to ignore both Iraqi reality and media  practices. No journalist made a commitment to report every death in Iraq. Most  were based in politically significant locations. During the most violent period,  all but a few were confined to Baghdad’s Green Zone. There is no reason to  assume that every violent death, let alone every war-related death, was being  reported.

Despite such limitations, IBC has become the primary, if not the only,  reference for Iraqi deaths. It speaks to the political serviceability of its  numbers. It also speaks to a lack of seriousness among its user about  establishing the actual costs of war. The manner in which the Lancet study has  been buried attests to this.

It is telling that the critics of the Lancet study are mainly journalists,  politicians and bureaucrats. On the other hand, the study was endorsed by  scientists, statisticians, epidemiologists and, in internal discussions, even  some government officials.

The soundness of the method and the rigour of the Lancet’s research were  acknowledged by Sir Roy Anderson, the British Ministry of Defence’s chief  scientific adviser. In an internal memo obtained by the BBC, Mr Anderson wrote:  “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to  ‘best practice’.”

One can understand the appeal of IBC for the credulous, the conformist, the  cowardly or the plain ignorant. But there is no excuse for those who have  allowed Iraq’s dead to be erased rather than buried.

The solemnity of even a single headstone can be a poignant warning against  the folly of war. But there can’t be an epitaph on a grave that does not exist.  Every Iraq dead must be counted.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Glasgow-based sociologist and the author of a  forthcoming book on the Iraq war. He edits or


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