Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

The body count deniers

Posted by metaphorical on 6 March 2007

 “We don’t do body counts”
 General Tommy Franks, US Central Command

Could 650,000 Iraqis really have died because of the invasion?

The Times in the UK, not the one in New York, asked that question yesterday in a headline.

You know you’re in for a statistical slight-of-hand right away with that question, the answer to which is surely, Yes, it’s possible that 650,000 Iraqis have died because of the invasion. Even the people who disagree with the Lancet’s published articles on the Iraqi bodycounts would agree that it’s possible. They think it unlikely, they question the evidence, they think other numbers are more scientifically defensible, but they don’t deny the possibility.

I’m going to point to the MIT/Bloomberg study, commonly referred to as The Lancet study, here, and to the Times’s article questioning it, here, and then more or less dismiss them, because I’m interested in the general pattern of how the conservative right tries to turn questions about the details of a story into a refutation of its general outlines, and then parlays that into a dismissal of the broader moral or policy concerns that occasioned our interest in the first place. Looking over that last sentence, it’s way too general and vague, so let’s get to some specific examples. We’re not by any means lacking in them.

Consider the creationists’ strategy of finding a few cases where the evolutionary explanation of a organism or organ’s functioning is still sketchy. They then act as if those few cases call into question the literally tens of thousands of studies that back the case for evolution.

The same thing has been going on in the debate about global warming. Even if there were an anomolous study or two legitimately contradicting the enormous amount of evidence for human causation—and there isn’t —it doesn’t change the fact that the overwhelming weight of the case rests on one side, and that by any definition of rational belief, only a willfully irrational person could believe that human activity isn’t the cause.

The Swiftboaters questioned a few of the details of John Kerry’s three Purple Hearts and thereby concluded that Kerry was a coward and Bush, who cowered in Texas and Alabama for the whole Vietnam War, was not.

They also seized on the unsubstantiated documents in the Dan Rather/CBS fiasco as if that disproved all the other facts we know about Bush’s wartime record—wriggling out of active service, using his connections to get flight training he wasn’t going to use (“Mission Accomplished” aside), and then meandering through the rest of his National Guard service. Somehow, the conservatives used Rather’s gullibility to turn the burden of proof around. If there isn’t a smoking gun document showing that Bush didn’t complete his National Guard service, there still aren’t any documents showing the opposite. In the face of legitimate reasons to doubt that Bush completed his obligations, it’s up to him to dig into the Army’s mysteriously poor record-keeping and prove it.

Let’s remember that in the Summer of 2004, we weren’t interested in, say, Kerry’s and Bush’s war records just for their own sakes. We wanted a better understanding of the characters of the two men who wanted to be sworn in as President the following January. Details aside, who better served his nation during the Vietnam War, the guy who volunteered for combat or the guy who ducked and covered?

Even if the MIT/Bloomberg study wasn’t the best evidence we have of what the body count is—and it is—we’re interested in it not for its own sake but because of what it tells us about the world: that the Iraq war is exacting an enormous toll on the Iraqi people. We’re interested in it because it saying something important when it comes to considering the morality of the war and the continuation of it.

Let’s look at one of the stronger, perhaps strongest, points that the body-count skeptics have to make.

Professor Spagat says the Lancet paper contains misrepresentations of mortality figures suggested by other organisations, an inaccurate graph, the use of the word “casualties” to mean deaths rather than deaths plus injuries, and the perplexing finding that child deaths have fallen. Using the “three-to-one rule” – the idea that for every death, there are three injuries – there should be close to two million Iraqis seeking hospital treatment, which does not tally with hospital reports.

The Lancet-cited figure of 650,000 is a headline-rounding of the midpoint between 393,000 and 943,000, the range that the MIT/Bloomberg study gives. Let’s suppose Professor Spagat is right. Taking the high number, 943,000 and supposing it represents both deaths and non-death casualties, and supposing the 3:1 ratio of them, we still end up with 235,000 deaths. Even using the lower 650,000 figure, we have162,000 deaths.

Even if we were to adopt the extremely conservative (pun intended) figures of Iraq Body Count, the death toll is at least 57,805 Iraqis, nearly 20 times the number of American dead.

The conservatives would like to “refute” the so-called Lancet figure of 650,000 and act as if that proves that the war is not exacting an enormous toll on the Iraqi people. Their strategy is the same as that of the U.S. Army, which doesn’t do body counts because it thinks the public will conflate the lack of a body count with a lack of deaths. The “body count deniers” are like children that think they become invisible when they cover their eyes.

5 Responses to “The body count deniers”

  1. ggwfung said

    war wreaks havoc into the heart of a society – look at the carnage and destruction of the short invasion of southern Lebanon. Wars should be illegal.


  2. I think I’ve plugged this before, but “This American Life” had an excellent show on the toll of the Iraq war with an extended interview with the author of the studies. It also delved into the IBC/Lancet study dispute on the body count.

  3. You’re right Andrew, we’ve discussed it, though I’m not sure it was in this forum. It’s quite a show, and I’m listening to it again (I wish I had before posting this).

  4. […] wrote about the body-count deniers earlier this month. That post didn’t discuss the deniers in the UK, about which a column by Richard Horton in today’s […]

  5. Ich erklare meinen Freunden uber diese Seite. Interessieren!

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