Point Austin: Counting the Dead

Whatever their number, the Iraqi casualties lie at our feet

Point Austin
"We estimate that as of July 2006, there have been 654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war, which corresponds to 2.5% of population. ... Of post-invasion deaths, 601,027 were due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire." – from "Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq," The Lancet, Oct. 11

In the diminishing afterglow of the recent election, it's worth an immediate reminder that the overriding motivation of the voters – revulsion against the U.S. war on Iraq – will take considerable doing to satisfy, whatever the political coloration of Congress. Although some suddenly more influential Democrats are now reported to be "pressing" for steps toward U.S. withdrawal, and the Bush White House is going through the motions of considering alternative approaches (with Mr. Fixit James Baker and his Dem counterpart, Lee Hamilton, waiting in the wings), the people literally under the gun – Iraqi citizens – are still being slaughtered apace. The most recent scientific survey of the estimated casualties, reported Oct. 11 in the British medical journal

The Lancet, delivered the staggering estimate of roughly 650,000 war deaths, fully 600,000 due to gunfire.

It's an imposing and dismaying number and roughly six times the estimate the U.S./Iraqi researchers found for their first study, published in November of 2004. That 100,000 median estimate was dismissed by most of the U.S. press (those who bothered to report it at all), which then comfortably settled on either the 50,000 or so doubly confirmed from published accounts by IraqBodyCount.net or even on the 30,000 arbitrarily plucked out of the air by President Bush in response to a question from a Philadelphian (not a reporter) in an otherwise handpicked Bush audience. Since that time, the conflict has gotten much more bloody, much more devastating, and the distinction between "combatants" and "civilians" has largely disappeared – one of the grislier consequences of an outright civil war.

The latest estimate has received slightly more coverage, even in Texas papers, partly because a White House reporter finally asked the president about it, and he responded, "I don't consider it a credible report." Since Dubya's own credibility has just suffered a withering rebuke from the voters, perhaps the press corps will eventually find the cojones to do more than ritually chase the Republican National Committee media line of the day.

The Daily Toll

Last week, the Iraqi health minister grudgingly estimated the actual death toll to be 150,000 – still three times the previously acknowledged official estimates. (The Lancet study, based on extrapolations from 1,849 randomly selected, personal household surveys across the country, gives a minimum range of 390,000.) That raised the numbers issue briefly again – although the question of culpability for all those deaths, whatever the enormous number, is never quite central. It's considered enough to attribute it, abstractly, to the consequences of "terrorism."

This week I asked Statesman Managing Editor Fred Zipp about the daily's coverage of The Lancet report – a single Oct. 12 Associated Press story by Malcolm Ritter following the president's dismissal, with some useful comments from statisticians, and a passing reference in the story on the health minister's estimate. More specifically, I asked him if the Iraqi casualties should not receive consistent coverage at least commensurate with the ongoing coverage of U.S. military casualties, enumerated daily in the mainstream media.

Zipp responded, "We have published accounts of various estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq back to 1994. On Oct. 12, we published a story [the Ritter AP piece] on the Johns Hopkins study that was published in Lancet. The deaths themselves are an important story that we approach daily in the same way we approach American deaths: with wire service reports on what happened in that news cycle and the occasional step-back piece looking at the larger picture. Either way, for both sides, the carnage is ugly."

Which Side Are You On?

I'll let Zipp's words speak for themselves. Regular daily readers can judge whether they indeed recognize, in his description, the Statesman's actual approach – and more broadly the actual reporting approach of the mainstream U.S. media – to the relative weight of U.S. and Iraqi casualties.

For the moment I'm more interested in this morally slippery notion of "both sides." This is not a subject on which any of us, as U.S. citizens, can afford to be self-righteous. In our names, the U.S. government, following a decade of brutal economic sanctions and undeclared air war on Iraq public infrastructure of all kinds, led a massive, dishonest, and fundamentally illegal invasion of that country, whose citizens had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. That invasion and occupation has led to at least 150,000 casualties, with a much more likely estimate of at least a half million deaths (plus untold numbers of devastating injuries). In both moral logic and international law – under the Geneva Conventions, as well as UN declarations to which the U.S. is a signatory – the armies of the invaders are responsible for every single one of those casualties, without exception, even though our military can't be bothered even to attempt an accurate count. Reflexive protests about "enemy combatants" will simply not answer – since when is it an offense to resist an illegal invasion and occupation?

Having conceived and carried out such a monstrous project, the U.S. government (in all its factions) is now virtually paralyzed over how to extricate itself, with expansion of the war elsewhere (e.g., Iran or Syria) perhaps equally likely as a staged withdrawal. As citizens move forward in our attempts to tip that balance toward peace, we need to be painfully aware that our "side" is on the ordinary ground in Iraq – where civilians and soldiers of every stripe have been placed in deadly jeopardy, and slaughtered by the hundred thousands, as a direct result of the arrogance, recklessness, and even moral turpitude, of our elected leaders. end story

For more Iraq war commentary, see "The Hightower Report."

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Iraq war, The Lancet, Fred Zipp, Austin-American Statesman

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