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Oct 20 2006

Slaughter in Iraq-5

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)
In the part 4previous post I stated that peer-reviewed papers have prima facie credibility and if you want to challenge their veracity, the burden shifts to you to do so. If you want to discredit it, you have to produce contrary data or detect a serious flaw in the methodology, or show that there has been an error in the calculation.

None of these things has been done, at least as far as I have seen. All that the people condemning the study have said is that they do not believe it. I wonder if they have even read the study before condemning it. Take for example, this report from Norman Solomon, about how the media and pundits respond to such estimates. He points out that the present large numbers of casualties were predicted by reputable groups before the war but were dismissed by the media.

While we stare at numbers that do nothing to convey the suffering and anguish of the war in Iraq, we might want to ask: How could we correlate the horrific realities with the evasive discussions that proliferated in U.S. news media during the lead-up to the invasion?

In mid-November 2002 – four months before the invasion began – a report surfaced from health professionals with the Medact organization and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. “The avowed U.S. aim of regime change means any new conflict will be much more intense and destructive than the [1991] Gulf War,” they warned, “and will involve more deadly weapons developed in the interim.”

At the time, journalists routinely gave short shrift to that report – treating it as alarmist and unworthy of much attention. The report found that “credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48,000 to over 260,000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. Additional later deaths from postwar adverse health effects would reach 200,000. … In all scenarios the majority of casualties will be civilians.”

During a live TV debate on Dec. 3, 2002, I cited the report’s estimates of the bloodshed ahead and then asked: “What kind of message is that from the Bush administration against terrorism and against violence for political ends?”

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to the other guest: “Jonah Goldberg, do you accept that assumption in that report on these huge casualties, including a lot of children, if there were an effort to go forward with so-called regime change in Baghdad?”

Goldberg, a pundit with National Review Online, replied: “Frankly, I don’t. I mean, I haven’t looked at the exact report, and I think that there are a lot of groups out there that inflate a lot of these numbers precisely because they’re against the war no matter what.”

Notice that Goldberg had not even read the report, or shown any indication that he had at least read the critiques of knowledgeable people. This kind of behavior is typical for these people. All they do is speculate based on political biases. For Goldberg, the report numbers are too large for him to stomach, so the authors must be having a political ax to grind.

In showing such a cavalier disregard for actual reading documents or citing sources, Goldberg is following in the footsteps of his hero George Bush. Bush said he did not believe the numbers and cited General Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, as supporting him. It is true that Casey said “That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000. And so I don’t give it that much credibility at all.” But where did Casey get his own number? According to an AFP report, when questioned as to his source: “Casey said he did not know where he had seen the estimate of 50,000 or whether it was produced by the military.” In other words, he simply pulled it out of the air. It is this kind of flim-flam that is practiced by these people, hoping that the public will not notice that they have not provided any substantive critique of the 655,000 figure.

Other people have challenged the latest Lancet as “obviously” political because it was released just before the 2006 elections, and the 2004 study was also released before the elections that year.

I find this a curious argument. The Iraq war is perhaps the biggest issue of the day. Surely the voting public should have the best information on it when they vote for their leaders? It is in fact an obligation of the authors of such studies to try to release it in time for voters to evaluate the numbers and make decisions. The assertion that facts about the war and its consequences should not be given to voters is a bizarre idea. It has appeal only to those who genuflect at the thrones of power, who feel that the “leaders” are all wise and knowing and we, the public have no right to the facts, but must simply defer to their judgments.

The claim of unfair bias can only be justifiably leveled if the authors had (say) obtained very low numbers of deaths (which would have pleased the Bush administration) and deliberately withheld it until after the election. Or if they had cut corners in their data collection and analysis and rushed to print with a flawed paper purely in order to embarrass the administration. But such arguments have not been made by anyone. Instead the critics point to the timing of the release as if that were a sufficient argument against it.

A final point. While a lot of the focus has been on the number of violent deaths, I was disturbed to read in the report that about 53,000 deaths were “due to non-violent causes were estimated to have occurred above the pre-invasion mortality rate, most of them in recent months, suggesting a worsening of health status and access to health care.” These deaths rose above the pre-war levels only in 2006. This is a very disturbing but predictable sign. Wars are not only violent, they also let loose pernicious silent killers. They destroy water and sewage systems, they disrupt farming and agriculture, food distribution networks break down, medicines become scarce, hospitals suffer from lack of supplies and electricity, and people cannot earn enough to get food or medicines. All these things lead to serious health problems which last for a long time and whose effects are hard to reverse.

There will come a time when active warfare comes to an end in Iraq. People’s attention will shift away. But the breakdown of the health, sanitation, and food networks will remain, becoming a silent killer that will enact its cruel will on the Iraqi people for a long time to come.

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