The Quantification of War

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As its fourth year approaches, the war in Iraq is amassing some noteworthy numbers: dollars spent, US soldiers killed, and Iraqi casualties. The last figure is a source of recent controversy. In October The Lancet published a report that estimates that 655,000 Iraqis have died from the war, 601,000 of them from violence. (Most wartime civilian deaths are usually symptomatic of a broken infastructure: women who can’t get to hospitals die in childbirth, others die from malnutrition, or from diarrhea from drinking contaminated water.) Other death toll trackers such as the The Brookings Institution, and the volunteer organization Iraq Body Count, who estimate 50,000-70,00 civilian deaths respectively, consider The Lancet’s findings to be completely off the charts.

But once you get into the thousands and tens of thousands does it really matter? Some analysts claim that the statistical anarchy of an asymmetrical war renders it nearly impossible to accurately calculate how many people have died. Others assert that politicians will use whatever estimate best supports their position. Dennis Kucinich, a staunch opponent of the war, feathered his cap with the Lancet’s 655,000 before he tossed it into into the presidential ring again. George Bush dipped from the shallow end of the fatality spectrum for the 30,000 figure he cited during a press conference last October, one of the deadliest months to date.

On the other hand, good statistics (unlike lies and damned lies) have legitimite uses. Some contend that a true gauge of Iraqi fatalities is essential to determining the reality of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi and therefore our ability to plan a way out. Just as the rallying cry “3,000 dead” on 9/11 helped propel us into Iraq, could a consensus on the Iraqi death toll be used as a tool for extricating us?

Does it matter how these numbers break down? How many men, women and children have died and how? Do these numbers change the way you look at this war, or any war? At what point does a body count become a metaphor for the atrocity of war?

Les Roberts

Epidemiologist, Lecturer, Columbia Univeristy Mailman School of Public Health,

Co-author, Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey

Juan Cole

Professor, Modern Middle East and South Asian History, University of Michigan

Blogger, Informed Comment

Colin Kahl

Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

Faiza Al-Araji

Iraqi refugee living in Amman, Jordan

Blogger, A Family in Baghdad

Neurotic Iraqi Wife

Blogger, Neurotic Iraqi Wife


Blogger, Nabil’s Blog
Extra Credit Reading
Riverbend, The Lancet Study…, Baghdad Burning, October 18, 2006: “There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.”

Omar, Responding to the Lancet Lies, Iraq the Model, October 12, 2006: “Among the things I cannot accept is exploiting the suffering of people to make gains that are not the least related to easing the suffering of those people. I’m talking here about those researchers who used the transparency and open doors of the new Iraq to come and count the drops of blood we shed.”

Staff, Bush discredits Iraqi death toll report, The Guardian, October 11, 2006: “The US president, George Bush, tonight admitted “a lot of innocent people” had lost their lives in Iraq but rejected the findings of a controversial report that the civilian death toll in the war-torn country had reached 655,000.”

Jonathan S. Landay, Study says violence in Iraq has been underreported, McClatchy Washington Bureau, December 6, 2006: “The Bush administration routinely has underreported the level of violence in Iraq in order to disguise its policy failings, the Iraq Study Group report said Wednesday.”

Michael Luo, The Reach of War, The New York Times (Select), December 6, 2006: “Ambulance workers have among the clearest views of Baghdad’s descent into chaos.”

neurotic_wife, The Smile of Victory, Neurotic Iraqi Wife, October 15, 2006: “At least a hundred bodies are found decapitated thrown in trashbins daily in Baghdad only. And I say at least 100. Take into consideration the West, East, South and North of the Country. Add another 100. Oh and by the way these are the ones we hear of. So 100 plus 100 we get 200 daily. AT LEAST. Multiply that by 365, then by 3 since thats three years from March and add 200 * 217 (number of days from March to October). You still with me???”

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