Monday, April 09, 2007

the Iraqi death toll and who's to blame

another cynically gratuitous image of the horror necessitated by war

Not long ago, listening to the RN news, I was struck by two items alongside each other. One was the apparent decision of David Hicks to plead guilty to a minor-sounding terrorism charge, the other was a claim that the much-derided study published in the Lancet last October, which found that more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the US-led invasion, had the backing of more than one insider from the governments responsible for the bloodshed.

It’s a massive figure – more than 200 times the number of people killed in the September 11 attacks that supposedly changed the world [they certainly changed the world for all those dead Iraqis, whatever their number]. So how reliable are the various contradictory figures being bandied about?

The British-based Iraq Body Count currently has figures of between 60,000 and 66,000 dead, though even they admit that this is a conservative figure. The study published in the Lancet was conducted by Johns Hopkins University, and a week or so ago it was revealed that high-ranking British government officials thought highly of it, in spite of the predictable dismissals from the top in Britain and America. In December 2005 George Bush spoke of 30,000 Iraqi dead [civilian and military], but I’ve no idea how he arrived at those figures, nor have I been able to locate any analysis behind the claim.

Accusations of right-wing and left-wing bias create a dense fog around many of these figures. For example, a website calling itself Logic Times, which makes a claim to rationalism but is in fact a highly conservative operation, backs the IBC website in terms of its overall methodology, but notes that some 81% of these casualties, as of November 2005, were male, and that 90% were adult. They question how this could be possible for civilian casualties, when 44.5% of the population, according to their figures, are under 18.

This sounds plausible, but Logic Times fails to mention that each and every ‘kill’ is documented on the website, which breaks them down in terms of time, location, target and weapons used. Even a quick look at this breakdown helps to explain the situation – that a disproportionate number of the dead include the civilian police and security [all male], kidnap victims [almost entirely male], factory workers [almost entirely male] and prominent political figures [more or less all male]. Even when the target has been an open market place, it’s hardly surprising that, in such violent and dangerous times and areas, women and children would be encouraged to remain at home more often than usual, and this would be reflected in the figures. I would imagine too, though I have no evidence to back this conjecture, that when a particular area becomes targeted, as happened with Fallujah, the evacuation and protection of women and children would be a priority for the Iraqis.

However, instead of trying to explain the documented data, Logic Times simply makes the general but in fact unsubstantiated [and, in the case of this invasion, false] claim that ‘’Collateral damage does not differentiate between male and female, between child and adult.’’ On the basis of this generalization, and without any regard to IBC’s documented evidence, the website proceeds to play with the demographic figures, complete with various laughable colour-coded charts, to come up with an ‘’amended’’ figure amounting to less than a third of that of IBC. If this is logic, we’re in real trouble, but it isn’t, so there’s no point in mounting an argument for solid empirical evidence in opposition to logic.

Another point that needs to be made in rebuttal of this s[h]ite is the attempt to compare the death-rate after the US-led invasion of Iraq with the death rate under Saddam Hussein. According to the website’s doctored statistics, the civilian death-rate is well down on the death-rate under Saddam, averaged over twenty-four years. This is thoroughly disingenuous, even if we were to take the website’s statistics as accurate – which we would be very ill-advised to do, because the death toll in the last years of Saddam’s rule had reduced substantially. Of course, there is much controversy about the number of deaths – particularly infant deaths – occurring under the sanctions regime of the nineties, and who was responsible [see this piece for analysis of the issue] but there is surely no doubt that the more vicious tendencies of Saddam were being kept in check by a system of containment and surveillance. Saddam was nasty but not stupid, and he well knew that the Americans were seeking any excuse to invade and oust him.

The IBC website has pointed out, in a press release marking the fourth anniversary of the occupation, that year four was by far the worst for violent civilian death. Clearly there has been a massive increase in internecine, sectarian violence, and some will argue that the occupation is not directly responsible for the current carnage.

The Johns Hopkins study, which comes up with a figure ten times that of IBC, tries to resolve this controversy by stating ‘’that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred’’. Of course the amount of people who would have died without the invasion must remain speculative, but it can be projected with reasonable accuracy if the pre-invasion policy of containment and surveillance had been continued. The study used the method of cluster sampling, looking at death rates in a cluster of 1850 households, and extrapolating from the sample. The vast majority of these reported deaths were verified by death certificates. There are some obvious issues here – such as the locations of the sampled households [the death toll in Baghdad being much higher than in regional areas], but the methodology is apparently tried and true and has long been used to measure death tolls from famine and natural disasters. Moreover, this study backed up a previous study in 2004, largely replicating the findings for the 2003-2004 period of the invasion and occupation.

It’s hardly surprising that a study employing such a vastly different methodology from that of the IBC team would come up with vastly different figures, but on the face of it, the Johns Hopkins study seems more reliable than one which relies only on confirmed reports and actually witnessed bodies, given the difficulties of locating and reporting the dead in such a violent scenario. Exactly how reliable it is is hard to say, and we should I think heed the words of Human Rights watch spokesperson Sarah Whitson, who said

We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy of the survey. I expect that people will be surprised by these figures. I think it is very important that, rather than questioning them, people realize there is very, very little reliable data coming out of Iraq.

The whole issue of body counts is controversial and often used for political points-scoring of course. Consider this comment by one Brendan O’Neill in an article called ‘When Body Counts Kill’:

In truth, the death-obsession of anti-war activists is motivated by cynicism and opportunism, and it represents a gobsmacking abdication of responsibility for coming up with a convincing political argument against the war. In place of a hard debate about new forms of Western intervention and why they're a problem - and debates about whether the West should have the right to interfere in other state's affairs, or whether a people can ever be liberated from without - we get shock-horror snapshots of dead kids and blown-up body parts and weeping mums and dads virtually having nervous breakdowns on the manicured lawns of the White House, in an effort to blackmail us emotionally into being concerned about the war. They hope that gore will make people anti-war, where their own political arguments may have failed to.

The use of ‘they’ in the last sentence here is typical of the tedious polarization of these debates. How O’Neill has been able to determine the motivations of anti-war activists remains a mystery. In fact, O’Neill’s description of the anti-war movement throughout his essay is a gross caricature. As to the political arguments against the war, they have been repeated time and time again, it seems to me. The first and foremost is that it has substantially hardened opinion against the USA and its allies in the Middle East generally, and made the world a considerably less safe place. Another argument – well-put by philosopher A C Grayling - is that America’s attempt to impose democracy in a far-flung outpost of the Middle East needs to be scrutinized in terms of its own domestic democratic credentials, or lack thereof, and its highly undemocratic, if not always successful, coercion of the UN and its security council. The foreign policy of any country is essentially self-serving, that of the US no more and no less than any other, and the people of Iraq and the Middle East are well aware of this, and understandably wary. This is why the self-styled police need to be policed.

The war itself, and the mess that Iraq now finds itself in, is also a powerful argument for the anti-war activists. The previous policy, though far from perfect, was more effective in safeguarding lives, and the hoped-for outcome, after the inevitable shedding of blood, of a more democratic [and biddable] Iraq, seems in hindsight to have been naive. I would have preferred, in the past and for the future to see more dialogue between the west and nations like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The Bush administration’s policy of self-righteous isolation and negative rhetoric has inevitably increased tensions wherever it has been practiced, and like many others I look forward to its demise.

No matter how ‘degraded’ the debate may be over the body count, it’s obviously an important matter. This US administration chose to turn its attention to Iraq after what it considered [wrongly] an easy victory in Afghanistan, it lied persistently to the international community about WMDs, it tried to coerce the UN and its weapons inspectors, and it tried, with the most cynical dishonesty, to connect Iraq, in any way it could, to the events of September 11 2001. Few intelligent people were completely taken in, though some of us hoped that some good would come out of the overthrow of a brutal dictator, in spite of the self-serving rhetoric and bullying antics of the Bush administration. In other words, we hoped life would be a great deal better for the Iraqi people at the end of it all. The huge death toll as a result of the occupation, and the internecine strife currently convulsing the country, has put paid to that hope for the foreseeable future, but there were warning signs from the beginning. Whether or not the continued occupation is exacerbating the situation is not for me to say of course, nor do I wish to blame the invaders entirely for the sectarian violence, but the fact remains that this was a monumental disaster, and we all had a right to expect better.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post the David Hicks affair, a minor matter in the grand scheme of things perhaps, but surely symptomatic of the arrogance of a state that has no brake upon it apart from the censure of its own citizenry. The scene was set for these sorts of abuses by Bush’s infamous speech claiming that ‘you’re either with us, or with the terrorists’. Amongst other things, this gave the green light for Afghanis and Iraqis who, unsurprisingly, resisted the invasions of their respective countries, to be rounded up, branded as terrorists, tortured and held at the US government’s pleasure without rights or recourse. Hicks, clearly a naïve adventurer, was caught up in this nightmare, and after the first months of horrific treatment, suffered the misfortune of being a citizen of a nation whose government – to our eternal shame – claimed, contrary to every other concerned nation, to find nothing wrong with the flagrant disregard of basic human rights being practiced by the US administration in its Guantanamo Bay facility. The guilty plea of Hicks is, to my mind, completely meaningless in terms of his real guilt or innocence [of what?]. Some of us would have liked him to push the US government to come up with credible evidence, but none of us should begrudge him the right to take any steps possible to remove himself from a profoundly corrupt and unregenerate regime.

Brendan O’Neill has claimed that the invasion of Iraq, which he at least admits was a political disaster, was motivated by ‘America's and Britain's search for some sense of mission and purpose where they have none at home’. While this may be partly true of Britain’s involvement, I suspect that America’s motives were rather different. The victim of a nasty punch from a force which it could only unsatisfactorily label as ‘terrorism’, the administration sought revenge, or if not revenge, at least the satisfaction of showing everyone it was still the toughest kid on the block. It bullied Afghanistan into submission, but that was all too easy, so it went for Iraq, an unpopular little runt who’d been showing plenty of cheek in the past. Others could protest about the bullying as much as they wanted, it was important to show who the boss kid was.

This might seem overly simplistic – and of course there are always going to be more nuanced voices within any administration – but I think it’s far closer to the money than claims about America’s struggle for an international role. It’s up to the international community, and America’s own citizenry, to show some solidarity in muzzling this sort of brutality.



At 11:01 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

worth reading.

the numbers are worth knowing, if they can be known, because some apologists say the war brought a measure of personal safety to iraqis. one would hope this argument is seen through by now.

there was no just cause for this war. the neocon cabal fronted by g w bush appear to be simply effecting an adolescent power fantasy, shaping nations, assuring oil supplies, adding to their personal wealth, and teaching the generals how to conduct modern war.

then reality rudely broke through.

i wonder if there is any useful lesson here. i suspect not. although they are educated and experienced men, the iraq cabal were not driven by intellect and experience, but by arrogance, vanity and greed.

there is a lesson for the electorate, about letting such people have power. however,the electorate never learns this lesson, until the next time their children are being killed in far off places for no visible reason.

At 2:01 am , Blogger Stewart said...

nothing much i can add to that - your last para sounds a bit chilling, but history proves it largely true.


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