Thursday, August 17, 2006

Counting the Dead

Iraq Body Count, the website dedicated to providing a count of civilians killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, can't get a break.

When the website first began, supporters of the war railed against it for being irresponsible, hysterical, treasonous, blah blah. Now that it's three and a half years old, anti-war pundits and groups are railing against it for being complicit, craven, inadequate, blah blah. (Les Roberts has been particularly vocal.)

The IBC has mounted its own thorough, persuasive defense of its methods and conclusions, and you can just go to its website to read that. But it's worth taking a minute to look at the IBC count and the problems with the way the anti-war activists are attacking it.

The IBC freely admits that even the high end of its own count for Iraqi civilians is an undercount. That's because the IBC is doing a literal count of press reports and not a statistical approximation of deaths based on sample data. But IBC has never pretended to give a complete count, just a best available count.

And that best available count is, right now, between 40-45,000 Iraqi civilians killed during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. IBC estimates that 40-50% of those have been killed by US or UK forces.

IBC's critics want the figure to be much higher and particularly want to elevate the deaths attributable to US aerial bombings. (They prefer 100,000 or even 250,000 civilian casualties, 80% attributable to the US.) It's understandable--anti-war critics want (as do I) to make people think about the morality of killing civilians in the name of protecting civilians.

After all, when it happened the invasion of Iraq was widely seen in the US as 1) payback for 9/11 and 2) a preemptive strike against Saddam's WMD. Of course, Saddam didn't have the WMD and he had nothing to do with 9/11. But even if he had, the anti-war activists want people to ask themselves--how do we justify killing, say, 20,000 Iraqi civilians and enabling the violence that killed 25,000 more in the name of preventing the deaths of civilians? Why do 3,300 dead in NY and Washington justify 20,000 dead in Iraq? How different from terrorism is a "war against terrorism" that necessarily kills a lot of civilians?

These are all hard questions and good ones. But playing fast and loose with the civilian body count isn't the right way to ask them. One of the most devastating critiques one can make of the Iraq war is that the Bush administration sold it by using irresponsible misinterpretation of available information--sold it with mistakes about WMD and dishonest implications about Hussein's alleged links to al-Qaeda.

In fact, that's the critique that the body count analysis depends on: if Saddam really had been in bed with al-Qaeda, if he had possessed WMDs, and if he had been on the verge of using them, then the Iraq war would have been a war of self-defense. In that case, Iraqi civilian casualties, while still heartbreaking, could be seen the cost of every war between nations; innocent or otherwise, civilians will get killed as a byproduct of their governments waging war. (I'm not sure I buy that, but it's a long- and widely held belief.)

But the anti-war activists think--and I think--that the Iraq war was a war of choice, not of self-defense, and that civilian casualties are therefore not just heartbreaking but also the consequence of a moral crime attributable to the American civilian leaders who started the war as well as to the insurgent guerrillas who are continuing it.

Yes, the civilian death count in Iraq almost certainly is more than 45,000. But we don't really know how much more--10% or a 100% more? Until we're in a position to get a truly accurate count, 45,000 is an enormous enough number to make us ask all the military, political, and moral questions that we should be asking about how and whether to wage war. And since misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and overblown accusations made the Iraq war possible in the first place, it's no good for anti-war activists to engage in them now.


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