Counting the dead in Iraq

For the first time, George W. Bush has announced to the American people the approximate number of Iraqi civilians killed since the beginning of the war. 30,000, more or less, is the number he used, and that number is certainly enough to provide reason to grieve for the families of the victims, and for the nation at large. But is 30,000 an accurate number? Many do not think so.

The Lancet Study, conducted by the medical journal and led by a staff member of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, extrapolated a total of approximately 100,000 dead from its research. Last fall, when the Lancet Study was published, another group, Iraq Body Count, put the estimate at around 15,000, and today, its website indicates a maximum number of 30,892. Iraq Body Count is composed of activists and academicians, and is a respected group.

The Lancet study has been criticized for including all “excess deaths,” from illness and accident. A larger criticism was that the researchers drew heavily on the population of war-ravaged Falluja, thereby spiking the projected numbers beyond reason. On the other hand, the Iraq Body Count study, which requires a death to be overtly connected to war violence, uses a death count only if it has been confirmed by two independent news organizations. The Iraq Body Count group acknowledges that many, if not most, of the deaths go unreported by the media, and therefore the actual number of Iraqi dead is likely to be much higher than what it is reporting.

Though we do not know–and will most likely never know–the number of Iraqi civilians who have died in the war, it seems clear that the current number of 30,000 is inaccurate, and perhaps very inaccurate. General Tommy Franks’ now famous statement, “We don’t do body counts,” has turned out to be true in more ways than one. Not only do we not have an accurate count, but–more significant, perhaps–the American news media does not even talk about the deaths of Iraqi civilians. Anti-war rhetoric also often excludes Iraqi civilian deaths, and concentrates only on the deaths of American soldiers. To complicate matters even more, there is the additional task of figuring which of the Iraqi casualities are the result of action by U.S. forces, and which are the result of the activities of insurgents.

It will be interesting to see what kind of public discussion Bush’s statement on 30,000 deaths produces.