I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Counting Iraqi deaths

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

The news item that is certain to (and ought to) dominate our political discussions for the next several days at least is the report that "a team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates 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." The findings are so extraordinary because of how radically they depart from other estimates:

It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December. It is more than 10 times the estimate of roughly 50,000 civilian deaths made by the British-based Iraq Body Count research group.

The report is being published in Lancet and was conducted "by Iraqi physicians and overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health." Nobody disputes that the survey used scientific methodology to reach its findings, although everyone recognizes there is inherent uncertainty in counting the number of civilian dead in a war zone, and even the researchers themselves acknowledge a huge margin of error. The same research team published a similar report in Lancet in 2004 claiming that 100,000 Iraqis had died, though this newest survey has a much larger and more representative sampling than the prior one.

Independent of disputes over absolute numbers, what seems conclusively clear is that -- contrary to the endless claims from our government and its followers -- the trend in Iraq, after 3 1/2 years of our occupation, continues to worsen significantly, with violence steadily increasing in recent months. That appears to account for at least some of the disparity between this newest report and older claims by the Bush administration, since this current report includes:

a steeper rise in the last year that appears to reflect a worsening of violence as reported by the U.S. military, the news media and civilian groups. In the year ending in June, the team calculated Iraq's mortality rate to be roughly four times what it was the year before the war.

Needless to say, Bush followers have become overnight expert statisticians and are able -- with certainty no less -- to declare these numbers to be wildly inflated and unreliable (some try to provide some reasoning, while some don't even bother). As always, facts which reflect poorly on the Leader and his wars are, for that reason alone, false and inherently "biased," and can be disregarded with the wave of a hand (which is, incidentally, as good an explanation as any as to how and why we are in the dreadful situation we find ourselves in Iraq).

I have no idea whether the new Lancet study is accurate or how sound its methodology is. For what it's worth, statistics-loving Kevin Drum acknowledges the inherent uncertainty involved but seems convinced of the study's core methodological accuracy, and Juan Cole has some analysis as to why the findings seem convincing. That there are such wide disparities is unsurprising. Different sides in every conflict, and particularly in wars, typically look at things in self-serving ways and issue claims designed to bolster their view.

Whether entirely accurate or not, there is no question that there are tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians at the very least who have died as a direct result of our invasion and, in that regard, the study underscores a critically important point about the nature of our ongoing occupation. In most wars, the number of dead on the "other side" is a secondary consideration. If anything, the objective often is to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy's population in order to force their government into submission. In many traditional wars, especially modern wars, a high death toll would be an indicator of success, not failure.

But the opposite is true with the war we are waging in Iraq. Ever since the "threat" rationale for the war vanished (that Saddam had WMDs which would be used against us), the principal, if not exclusive, "justification" for the war was that it would improve the situation of the Iraqi people. Achieving that, so the argument goes, is both morally right and a significant boon to our own security, since improving public opinion of the U.S. in the Muslim world is critical to enhancing our influence and undermining Al Qaeda recruitment efforts. That rationale transforms Iraqi anger towards our war effort from what it would be in most normal wars (an irrelevancy, or even something to be desired) into the greatest impediment to "victory."

In that regard, the fact that enormous numbers of Iraqi civilians are dying as a result of our war effort is -- regardless of the exact number -- one of the greatest indictments of the wisdom (let alone morality) of the entire endeavor. Similarly, recent polls conducted by our own State Department and independent polling groups all show that "a strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to immediately withdraw from the country, saying their swift departure would make Iraq more secure and decrease sectarian violence." Worse, "77 percent of those polled [said] the United States intends [to] keep permanent military bases in the country." If Iraqis want us gone and are completely distrustful of our motives for being there, what possible good could can anyone reasonably claim is being achieved?

The fact that there were no weapons to eliminate made the war useless. The fact that we have created extreme, uncontrollable chaos -- which provides a vacuum which the Iranians and Al Qaeda are happily filling -- makes the war dangerous. And the fact that huge numbers of Iraqi civilians continue to die as a direct result of our ongoing occupation and want us to withdraw immediately makes the war completely counter-productive even when measured against the objectives which the administration currently claims are the ones which justify the war in the first place.

We are not even close to leaving Iraq or even decreasing our troop levels by any meaningful amount. If anything, a Republican victory in three weeks would make it highly likely that the neoconservative dream of still more troops would be fulfilled. The trend of violence and death in Iraq is unquestionably worsening, and not only do we achieve nothing by staying, but the situation in Iraq worsens every day -- not just for Iraqis but for our own security. The invasion of Iraq is one of the greatest strategic disasters in our country's history, and this new survey, independent of morbid and inconsequential quibbles over its accuracy, underscores why that is the case.

UPDATE: As lib4 noted in comments, the Bush followers' newfound insistence on statistical exactitude is in marked contrast to the barrage of entirely unverifiable and speculative assertions which were casually tossed around by war advocates prior to the war. We were subjected to a barrage of melodramatic claims about the "hundreds of thousands" of Iraqis murdered by Saddam in torture chambers, and we continue to be subjected to similar post-war claims like this one from the President, "reporting" that we "discovered mass graves with hundreds of thousands of men and women and children clutching their little toys, as a result of [Saddam's] brutality." It seems highly doubtful, to put it mildly, that we statistically verified that there were "hundreds of thousands" of people in mass graves who were murdered by Saddam.

This was a war that was "justified" by patently false representations and the most reckless (if not deliberately misleading) manipulation of the available data. For the same war advocates responsible for that recklessness now to insist upon mathematical precision before information ought to be considered constitutes intellectual dishonesty of the highest order. The one fact which has remained barely acknowledged, let alone examined, is the number of Iraqis killed as a result of this war. It is, quite obviously, the politically motivated and self-serving desire to keep that topic hidden and ignored -- rather than any rational objections to the methodologies here -- that is motivating the all-too-predictable attacks on the study (launched, absurdly, within a mere few hours of its release).

UPDATE II: Two of the overnight pro-Bush epidemiologists who are objecting to this study -- Mark Coffey of Decision08 and TheRealUglyAmerican -- have made appearances in the comment section to explain why this peer-reviewed study using standard scientific methods is, as Coffey pronounced, "ridiculous on the face of it." But it is clear that they do not actually understand what the study is examining.

They (and other of the above-linked Bush followers) seem to be laboring under the misunderstanding that the 650,000 death toll is the number of Iraqis who have died violent deaths since our invasion. That is not what the study is purporting to measure. The study is comparing the mortality rate of Iraqis during the time of our occupation (including deaths by any cause, such as disease, famine, or anything else) to the mortality rate prior to the occupation, and based on the post-invasion increased mortality rate (13.1 deaths per 1,000 persons post-invasion versus the pre-war 5.5 figure), calculates that more than 650,000 Iraqis have died during the occupation than would have died during the same time frame in the absence of the invasion.

While it is true that the study claims that roughly 600,000 of the "excess deaths" are due to violence, that includes not only violence from American troops but also random crimes, government violence, and sectarian conflicts. It is unfathomable that anyone would think that they can whimsically dismiss away that figure as "ridiculous on its face" based on anything other than a desire that it not be true (or at least that it not be known).

UPDATE III: Even a quick review of the pro-Bush blogosphere reveals what a tender nerve has been struck by this study. They can't hurl enough furious invective at the study's proponents and those reporting its findings, but it's not entirely clear why that is. In fact, the more one thinks about this study, the less remarkable and surprising its findings seem to be.

After all, it's self-evident that if you invade a country which was essentially stable, and you then proceed to bomb it, shatter its infrastructure, remove its government, and replace all of that structure with anarchy, chaos, and civil war, the mortality rate is going to increase dramatically. Beyond just the number of people who will die directly from the fighting, it is much harder to stay alive -- and much easier to die -- in a chaotic and violence-plagued society than in an orderly and structured one. That's just obvious. And if you then perpetuate those conditions of chaos and violence over the course of three-and-a-half years -- where the mortality rate increases over that time -- the number of "excess deaths" (meaning deaths that would not have occurred had the stability not been overturned) is going to accumulate and eventually be quite high. That's what has happened in Iraq.

I've never perceived Bush followers as being shy about admitting that the wars they cheer on cause lots of civilian deaths. Usually, they wave away those sorts of concerns with inspiring and cleansing phrases like "birth pangs" and tell you that while it's really too bad that so many civilians have to die, it's all really worth it. Usually, in response to effete, whiny concerns that their wars are resulting in the deaths of huge numbers of innocent people, one hears the defiant Stalinist resolve about the need to break some eggs in order to make beautiful democratic omelettes.

Yet here, they seem to be a in veritable panic, screaming with their hands over their ears that this study is all just fabricated lies from Bush-hating ideologues. It seems emotionally important to them to deny the study's conclusions and the only explanation as to why that would be -- at least the only explanation I can see -- lies in the sheer numbers. The phrase "600,000 excess deaths" packs a pretty big wallop. Even the most morally monstrous person would not want the responsibility of having advocated a war that resulted in the deaths of that many human beings (or at least would not want to be perceived as has having that responsibility). And thus, even though they have nowhere near the information, knowledge or expertise they would need to deny the conclusions of this study, they are doing so vigorously, even hysterically.

It's one thing to whimsically order up some wars knowing in the abstract that you're going to eradicate some distant, fuzzy innocent lives by doing so. Usually, our society is poilte enough not to talk about such things too much, let alone to crudely count the bodies, so war advocates won't be harassed too much by the deaths they cause.

But here it has been quantified -- their war has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings who would be alive today in the absence of their invasion. That number -- 600,000 -- just sounds so mammoth, almost Holocaust-like in magnitude (hopefully, it goes without saying that I'm not to comparing the Iraq war to the Holocaust, but merely pointing out why I think this study prompted such an intense reaction).

Like children who want what they want without having to pay any price for it, these Bush followers refuse to accept the consequences for their war. So with blind irrationality, they insist that this study is false without having any real idea of whether it is, all because they want it to be false, because they are incapable of accepting the consequences (including, perhaps predominantly, the political costs) for their actions. A refusal to recognize unpleasant facts is hardly a new phenomenon for them, but in this instance, the need to deny facts seems particularly acute.

One other observation: if it could be demonstrated that the findings of this study were accurate, would that change the mind of a single war proponent? Would they suddenly stand up and announce that the war was not worth the costs? I don't think there's much doubt about the answer.

UPDATE IV: Lindsay Beyerstein has an astute and interesting post on the methodologies used in this study.

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