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Now we know: the high cost of war in Iraq
by Andrew Mack
Now we know: the high cost of war in Iraq
by Andrew Mack

November 3, 2004
The stunning revelation that postinvasion Iraqi deaths are three to 10 times higher than any previous estimates will be a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. The revelation comes from the first scientific survey of the postinvasion death toll among Iraqis that is published on the website of the British medical journal The Lancet. The researchers, led by Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Les Roberts, surveyed almost 1,000 households in 33 neighbourhoods across Iraq. Dr. Robert’s team estimates that 98,000 people have died since the invasion who would still be alive had there been no war. And, unlike wars everywhere, most of the ”excess“ deaths were from violence, not disease or malnutrition. If the death rate from Fallujah is included in the calculation, the ”excess death“ total would be closer to 200,000. The number of ”excess deaths“ was calculated by comparing the death rate from various causes in the 15 months before the invasion with that of the 18 months that followed it. This huge death toll is not due simply to the war – most violent deaths have occurred since the U.S. declared victory in April of 2003. The survey also shows that 84 per cent of the violent deaths were caused, not by rebels, but by coalition forces. Women and children made up more than half of thee deaths, with 38 per cent of the total being children. These findings demonstrate how body-counting exercises, no matter how careful, can grossly underestimate the true costs of war.’s much-cited website, for example, lists only 14,000 to 16,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, though it acknowledges that these are only reported deaths and that ”many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media.“ The central message of this remarkable Lancet report is clear: High civilian death tolls are inevitable when a high-tech army seeks to reduce its own casualties by fighting an urban counterinsurgency campaign remotely via air strikes. No matter how precise the weapons and accurate the targeting, using long-range ordinance against densely populated residential urban areas will always cause massive civilian casualties. The body-count consequences of fighting this way are instructive. For every 100 dead Iraqis (most of them civilians), only one U.S. combatant has been killed. (About 900 U.S. service personnel have died in action; more have died in accidents). When Israel attacked Palestine refugee camp in Jenin in 2002, there was a storm of protest at the civilian casualties (estimated at 56). But the Israelis didn’t try to strike at their enemies remotely; they went into harm’s way on foot. Twenty-three soldiers lost their lives. Had the U. S. fought in Iraq the way Israel fought in Jenin and suffered a comparable casualty ratio, more than 40,000 U.S. service members would have been shipped home in coffins by now. It may seem extraordinary that no official attempt has been made to measure civilian casualties. Part of the answer is that Iraq’s Health Ministry is ill-equipped to carry out surveys. But the reality is that neither the United States nor the interim government in Baghdad has any interest in publicizing high civilian death tolls. The huge, but mostly unreported, Iraqi civilian death toll helps explain why Washington is losing the hearts-and-minds battle in Iraq and just why there is so much Iraqi rage about the occupation. In the West, there is justifiable outrage at the barbarous beheadings of foreigners in Iraq, but relatively little concern about the tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis whose deaths are the inevitable consequence of a U.S. counterinsurgency strategy designed to reduce coalition casualties. The Lancet survey indicates just how deadly this strategy has become for ordinary Iraqis. We now have no excuse for ignorance. Andrew Mack is Director of the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.
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