Iraq Body Count: Real and Imagined
by Ian Sinclair
4 April 2015
“We don’t do body counts”, US General Tommy Franks, Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, infamously stated in 2002.
Depressingly, much of the mainstream media’s (lack of) coverage of the post 9/11 wars has broadly mirrored Western Government’s disinterest in those killed by their aggressive foreign policy.
This failure of journalism has had a predictable effect on US and UK public understanding of the Iraq War. A 2007 Ipsos poll of US public opinion included a question about how many Iraqis the interviewee thought had died in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. The median answer given was 9,890, with 72 percent of respondents believing under 50,000 Iraqis had died. Similarly, a 2013 ComRes survey found 74 per cent of Britons estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war, with 59 per cent estimating that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died. Only 6 per cent of the poll’s respondents estimated the death toll to be over 500,000 Iraqis.
It is this ginormous gap between public knowledge and reality that makes the new report from the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians For Social Responsibility (PSR) so important. Titled ‘Body Count’, the paper investigates the total number of deaths caused by the so-called War on Terror. PSR estimates the war “directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million.” Though they believe this shocking figure to be a conservative estimate, PSR note it is “approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs.”
The report is particularly good on the relative merits of the different mortality surveys conducted in Iraq, comparing Iraq Body Count (IBC) with the 2006 Lancet survey. IBC, which recorded approximately 110,000 dead Iraqi civilians between 2003 and 2011, is repeatedly cited by the media. In contrast, the Lancet study’s estimate of 655,000 Iraqi dead was quickly attacked and rejected by politicians and many journalists.
Of course, the differing responses can be explained by how the respective results fit with Western Governments’ self-serving narrative of the war. This conclusion is inescapable when one considers an earlier mortality study on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used similar methods to the Lancet study, had been uncritically accepted by Western governments. In addition the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Advisor noted the Lancet study’s design was “robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area”. As one of the report’s chapter headings says: the Lancet’s methodology is “barely disputed among experts”.
In contrast, the report explains how the IBC’s passive counting of Iraqi civilian deaths using Western media outlets and registered deaths by hospitals and morgues severely underestimates the total number of dead. The gaping flaws in their methodology are numerous and serious: Western media reports were often based on US military or Iraqi government sources, both of whom had a vested interest in downplaying the number of civilian dead; the Baghdad-based Western media’s coverage of provincial Iraq was patchy at best; as the level of violence rises in a particular area there is a corresponding reduction in media coverage; Western occupation forces often blocked journalists from investigating instances of civilian deaths; Iraqi government statistics from morgues were deliberately downplayed for political purposes.
There is a lot of hard evidence for the IBC’s gross underestimation. For example, in 2007 Najaf governorate’s spokesperson said they had buried 40,000 non-identified corpses since the start of the war. The IBC database records only 1,354 victims in Najaf. IBC recorded no violent deaths in Anbar province in June 2006, despite it being a stronghold of violent resistance to the occupation at the time.
Since the report was released on 19 March 2015, there has been zero coverage in the supposedly free and questioning British media. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this omission has huge ramifications for democracy and foreign policy: How can the British general public make informed decisions about foreign policy if they are not aware of the consequences of military action carried out by the UK and its allies? T
his mass ignorance is no coincidence. Rather it is advantageous to the US and UK Governments. “The figure of 655,000 deaths in the first three war years alone… clearly points to a crime against humanity approaching genocide”, notes the PSR report about the 2006 Lancet survey. “Had this been understood and recognized by the public at large, the Iraq policy of the US and its European allies would not have been tenable for long.”
*Please note my article reproduces a couple of small factual errors from the original PRS report. Please read the comments below for more details.