Andrew Mack / Special to The Japan Times – 2005-01-20 13:00:55
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (November 14, 2004) — The stunning revelations that postinvasion Iraqi deaths are three to 10 times higher than any previous estimates will be a major embarrassment for the Bush administration.
The revelations come from the first scientific survey of the postinvasion death toll among Iraqis, which was published last month on the Web site of the influential British medical journal The Lancet. The researchers, led by Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Dr. Les Roberts, surveyed almost 1,000 households in 33 Iraqi neighborhoods across Iraq.
The findings were striking. Roberts’ team estimates that some 98,000 additional people have died since the invasion. And, unlike wars elsewhere, most of the “excess” deaths are from violence, not disease or malnutrition.
By far the largest number of deaths have been in the Fallujah area, which had been subjected to intense aerial bombardment by coalition forces before US Marines moved in to retake the area from insurgents last week. However, the survey team decided that Fallujah was an “outlier” — a case too unrepresentative to be included in the survey results. If the death rate from Fallujah had been included in the calculation, the “excess death” total would be closer to 200,000.
The number of “excess deaths” was calculated by comparing the death rate from various causes in the 15 months before the invasion with that of the 18 months that followed it. More than 4,000 individuals were questioned about causes of any deaths in their households in the two periods.
It is important to note that the huge death toll is not due simply to the war — most violent deaths have occurred since the United States declared victory in April 2003.
The survey also shows that 84 percent of the violent deaths were caused not by rebels, but by coalition forces. And most of these deaths weren’t caused by soldiers fighting on the ground, but by long-range air and artillery strikes. Women and children together made up more than half of the violent deaths, with 38 percent of the total being children.
These findings demonstrate how body-counting exercises based on media reports, no matter how careful, can grossly underestimate the true costs of war. Iraqbodycount.net’s much-cited Web site, for example, lists only 14,000 to 16,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, although it acknowledges that that these are only reported deaths and that “many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media.”
Iraq Body Count’s practice of not including deaths in their tally unless there are two independent media reports guarantees that it will underestimate the true costs of the war. The reality is that many journalists don’t stray far from the safety of the Baghdad’s Green Zone and the few that do cannot possibly cover all of the airstrikes.
The central message of the remarkable Lancet report is clear: High civilian death tolls are inevitable when a modern high-tech army seeks to reduce its own casualties by fighting an urban counterinsurgency campaign remotely via air and long-range artillery strikes.
No matter how precise the weapons and accurate the targeting, using long-range ordinance against densely populated residential urban areas will always cause massive civilian casualties.
The body-count consequences of fighting this way are instructive. For every 100 dead Iraqis (most of them civilians), just one U.S. combatant has been killed. (More than 900 US service personnel have died in action since the fighting started with more killed in accidents.) A 100:1 “kill ratio” is extraordinarily high.
When Israel attacked a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin in 2002, there was a storm of protest at the civilian casualties (estimated at 56). But the Israelis didn’t attempt to strike at their enemies remotely, they went into harm’s way on foot. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers lost their lives. Here the kill ratio was under 3:1 in Israel’s favor.
Deaths in the Israel-Palestine conflict receive huge publicity around the world despite the fact that the death toll for both Palestinians and Israelis is tiny compared with that in Iraq — less than 2 percent of the total.
Had the US fought in Iraq the way that Israel fought in Jenin and suffered a comparable casualty ratio, more than 40,000 US service members would have been shipped home in coffins by now.
It may seem extraordinary that no official attempt has been made to measure civilian casualties. Part of the answer is that the Iraqi Health Ministry is ill-equipped to carry out surveys. But the reality is that neither the US nor the interim government in Baghdad has any interest in publicizing high civilian death tolls. The higher the coalition-caused civilian death toll, the more hollow the US claims that it is doing everything it can to reduce civilian casualties.
The head of Statistics Department in the Iraqi Health Ministry reported last December that the Coalition Provisional Authority didn’t want civilian casualty statistics to be collected. As US Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, put it: “We don’t do body counts.”
The huge, but mostly unreported, Iraqi civilian death toll and the central US role in creating it helps explain why Washington is losing the hearts-and-minds battle in Iraq and just why there is so much Iraqi rage about the occupation.
There are obvious political as well as moral reasons why the coalition forces would want to minimize civilian casualties. But, essentially for political reasons, the US has chosen to pursue a counterinsurgency policy that is almost guaranteed to generate a huge civilian death toll.
In the West there is justifiable outrage at the barbarous beheadings of foreigners in Iraq, but relatively little concern about the tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis whose deaths are the inevitable consequence of a US strategy designed to reduce US casualties.
The Lancet survey indicates just how deadly this strategy has become for ordinary Iraqis. We now have no excuse for ignorance.
Andrew Mack is director of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia. He was formerly director of the strategic planning unit in the executive office of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
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