In an election year when no topic was too trivial or too stupid to engage the rapt fascination of journalists and politicians, there was one matter that drew no attention whatsoever until the last week. It was a subject that has been treated as taboo by the U.S. government and most media sources: How many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the war in their country?
From the moment when our forces began the “shock and awe” bombing campaign last year, the policy of the White House and the Pentagon has been to refuse to discuss this sensitive issue. As Gen. Tommy Franks explained before he retired, “We don’t do body counts.”
For the obedient mainstream media, the story ended there.
Editors and producers saw no reason to pursue the subject beyond that official pronouncement, apparently presuming that their audience would have no interest in learning the true human costs of the war. To wonder aloud about the forbidden topic was risky. After all, even reporting the number of young Americans killed could and did lead to bitter accusations of anti-war partisanship. Curiosity, let alone concern, about the number of Iraqi fatalities might be interpreted as unpatriotic.
This complicit silence was not due solely to lack of information, since any and all speculation about the many thousands of Iraqis murdered by Saddam Hussein has been considered worthy of reporting and repetition. Sensational stories about uncovered mass graves have no doubt led many Americans to believe, wrongly, that the dictator was regularly massacring thousands of his countrymen up until the day he was ousted. He was undoubtedly guilty of enormous atrocities and will pay the price some day.
Thanks to an extraordinarily courageous academic team working jointly for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Columbia University School of Nursing and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, we now have an answer to the unasked question. After surveying thousands of households in Iraqi communities, they conservatively estimate that approximately 100,000 civilians have died as the direct or indirect result of the war. More than half of those who have died are women and children. “Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths,” according to the report’s summary, “and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.”
Like any survey that relies on extrapolations from interviews, the Hopkins study is inexact. The authors responsibly tried to discount for possible distortions, and went so far as to recalculate the data without information gleaned from the Falluja region, where intense fighting might have skewed the results. If the deaths from the Falluja area are included, the total number is considerably higher. The methods used by the Hopkins researchers-including a corps of brave Iraqis who risked their lives to conduct interviews in very dangerous places-accorded fully with scientific standards. (The complete study is available on the Web site of The Lancet , the eminent British medical journal, at http://www.thelancet.com.)
While the nation’s quality newspapers dutifully reported the Hopkins study, its release five days before the Presidential campaign may have robbed it of impact. Certainly there were no impassioned cable-television debates over what that troubling data means. Nobody seemed eager to ask whether 100,000 dead civilians might be too many-particularly since we know there were no weapons of mass destruction threatening us, and no significant connection between the Al Qaeda terrorists and the Iraqi regime. Americans who consider the war an act of vengeance on behalf of those murdered on Sept. 11, 2001, ought to consider the proportion that these numbers suggest.
The Hopkins study emphasizes that its authors found no evidence of intentional misconduct by coalition forces. “This isn’t about individual soldiers doing bad things,” said lead investigator Les Roberts. “This appears to be a problem with the approach to occupation in Iraq.” Specifically, the study urges a “re-evaluation of the consequences of weaponry now used by coalition forces in populated areas.”
As American commanders prepare a post-election assault on Falluja to dislodge the insurgents sheltered there, that advice is highly pertinent. But the blame rests not on the military officers who have tried to accomplish the mission set forth by the President. Rather, the high price of pacifying Iraq belongs to him and his administration, for deciding early on to send too few troops to win the peace, to discard the necessary plans for security and reconstruction, and to allow the escape of jihadist leaders such as Abu-musab al-Zarqawi when they could have been annihilated far from Iraq’s cities.
George W. Bush is unlikely to ponder the study’s awful implications, even when he is no longer preoccupied with his own political future. We can only hope that whoever occupies the Oval Office next year will not be so quick to mock the notion of a more “sensitive” and wiser approach to the struggle against terrorism.