Slaughter in Iraq

I don’t think anyone other than the standard issue Bush cultist will deny that the Iraq invasion has been a disaster on many levels. It has alienated the world, it has enraged Muslim sensibilities, and it has strained the American military to the breaking point. And the worst part is that the administration has nothing to offer other than to “stay the course.” It seems clear to me that even Bush and Cheney must have realized that they have no options left, failure stares them in the face, that there is nothing they can do to succeed in Iraq (whatever “success” might mean) and it seems like their only goal is to bluff and try and wait it out until they leave office so that someone else will have to make an ignominious retreat out of that country. This is, in essence, what their “stay the course” policy implies. They can then try and blame their “cut and run” successor for “losing” Iraq. The fact that this policy will result in numerous more pointless deaths mean nothing to such cynical people.

As one after the other of the rationales offered for invading a country that never attacked or even threatened the US (“they had weapons of mass destruction”, “they were making weapons of mass destruction”, “they were thinking of making weapons of mass destruction”, “some guy in the Iraqi government drew a figure of a nuclear bomb” and other changing rationalizations for the war) fell apart, the apologists always had one final after-the-fact rationalization for the war. And that was that the people of Iraq were better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein.

Hence the report that over six hundred thousand people had died violent deaths as a result of the invasion came like a thunderbolt. Even the most extreme estimates of the rate of Iraqi deaths under twenty years of Saddam Hussein’s rule came nowhere close to the current rate of dying. And when you consider the uncounted number of injured people, the figures of casualties become staggering.

Like most people, I was stunned by news reports that a new study out of Johns Hopkins University to appear in the British medical journal Lancet had put the death toll as a result of the war in Iraq at 655,000. This number represents those deaths since March 2003 that exceed the number that would have died if the mortality rates before March 2003 had been extrapolated to the present. Of these, about 600,000 had died violent deaths. Since this is a statistical extrapolation based on samples, they provide 95% confidence limits of 400,000 and 900,000. What this means that there is only a 5% chance that the correct number of deaths lies outside this range. Even the lower limit of 400,000 is a staggeringly high number. (Note: The population of Iraq in mid-2004 was 26,000,000 and in Baghdad was 6.5 million.)

I knew that the situation in Iraq was bad. I knew that many people were dying as a result of the lawlessness and the death squads and the suicide bombers and actions taken by the US and coalition forces. Anarchy seems to be reigning in that country. But this number was so huge that my initial reaction had a little incredulity mixed in with the surprise. After all, this was much larger than the figure of about 48,000 currently published by the group Iraq Body Count which seemed to be the source used by President Bush in December 2005 when he estimated the deaths as then being around 30,000.

Although I too was surprised by the number of deaths, I was nevertheless even more amazed at the number of people, including Bush and his supporters, who summarily dismissed the study seemingly simply on the grounds that the number was too large! In other words, because the result is disagreeable, it cannot be believed. They made no attempt whatsoever to criticize the study on its own merits.

Bush said in his press conference on October 11, 2006 that this was “not a credible report” and that the “methodology is pretty well discredited” and “600,000 or whatever they guessed at is not credible.” These are quite amazing statements. This is the same person who eagerly swallowed and repeated lies about Iraq’s purported nuclear program even though they came from dubious persons such as Ahmed Chalabi who had a vested interest in getting the US to invade Iraq. But suddenly he has acquired the skill and expertise to judge credibility, so much so that he can confidently discount the methods and analysis of a team of veteran public health experts from a prestigious American university who have published their findings in a respected medical journal.

But that was not the only incredible thing that he said at the news conference. He also said “I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.”

This statement implies that the people in Iraq made some kind of free choice to accept a trade off of massive deaths in return for getting rid of Hussein and that they are satisfied with the results. What would it take for him to decide that they were not “tolerating” it? Mass collective suicide? He is deliberately misinterpreting the natural stoicism of people anywhere to try and survive and make do in the face of utter adversity over which they have little control, as “tolerance” for an abominable state of affairs. A state of affairs deliberately caused by his decision to wage an elective war.

Of course, Bush and his pro-war cheerleaders have to try to discredit the Lancet study because the high numbers of deaths involved immediately places this into the category of the first rank of human disasters and war crimes and he knows it. Bush himself is the one who said about Darfur: “About 200,000 people have died from conflict, famine and disease. And more than 2 million were forced into camps inside and outside their country, unable to plant crops, or rebuild their villages. I’ve called this massive violence an act of genocide, because no other word captures the extent of this tragedy.” (Thanks to Jonathan Schwarz for the link.)

If 200,000 deaths in Darfur is genocide, then what does that make Iraq?

I have not written about the Johns Hopkins study earlier because I had not seen it and did not want to go purely by media reports. But it is now public and I will discuss the methods and results in the next few postings.

POST SCRIPT: Who would have thought?

In a 60 Minutes interview, David Kuo, former #2 in the Bush administrations Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, blows the whistle on the fact that the White House actually despised the religious extremists they publicly courted.

In the program Kuo says people in the White House political affairs office rolled their eyes at the evangelicals, called them “nuts’ and “goofy” and referred to Pat Robertson as “insane,” Jerry Falwell as “ridiculous,” and that James Dobson “had to be controlled.”

I had thought that this White House had completely lost touch with reality. But at least in this narrow area, they seemed to have called it correctly.


  1. Vinod Gundapaneni says

    The Chicago based NPR radio program “This American Life” did a segment on the first run of this Lancet study (they did a smaller scale estimation a year or so ago I guess). The program explains their methodology and documents how their earlier number of over 100,000 dead through violence was similarly dismissed and discredited.

    Search for the episode “What’s In a Number?” at to listen to the program from their site. It’s the first half hour or so of the program.

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