The great 19th-century Tory Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli once remarked there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. It is a dictum the Bush administration has taken to heart when it comes to totaling up the carnage in Iraq: If you don’t like the numbers, just change them; and when in doubt, look ’em in the eye and lie.
For instance, according to the Department of Defense (DOD), the United States does not track civilian casualties. As former commander General Tommy Franks put it, "We don’t do body counts."
But testimony in the recent trial of U.S. Army snipers from the First Battalion of the 501 Infantry regiment indicated the generals indeed do body counts. In a July hearing at Fort Liberty, Iraq, Sgt. Anthony G. Murphy said he and other snipers felt "an underlying tone" of disappointment from their commanders when they didn’t rack up big body counts.
"It just kind of felt like, ‘What are you guys doing wrong out there?’" he testified. When the snipers started setting traps to lure in unsuspecting Iraqis, the kill ratios went up and the commanders, he said, were pleased.
The choreography the Bush administration does around casualties is aimed at creating a dance of lies and disinformation to cover up one of the worst humanitarian crises to strike the Middle East since the Mongols sacked Baghdad.
That is not an overstatement.
A recent poll by the British agency Opinion Research Business (ORB) found that the war may have killed more than one million people, a toll that surpasses the 800,000 killed in the Rwandan genocide. The ORB used "excess mortality" as its measure, that is, deaths over and above mortality figures from the past.
The Grim Numbers
Trying to figure out the butcher bill in Iraq is an uphill task.
For instance, according to the London-based organization Iraq Body Count, by March of this year, civilian deaths stood at 65,160, although the organization noted that 2007 has seen "the worst violence against civilians in Iraq since the invasion." The conservative Brookings Institute’s Iraq Index posts slightly higher figures, and the United Nations higher still.
The Iraq Interior Ministry is highly critical of the UN’s conclusion that 34,000 Iraqis died in 2006, calling the figures "inaccurate" and "unbalanced," but refuses to release its own figures. And the only sum the Bush administration has ever come up with is when the president commented to the press in December 2005 that the number of Iraqis killed was "30,000, more or less."
The first serious statistical investigation of the war’s impact was a survey by Johns Hopkins University published in the British medical magazine, The Lancet. According to the study, from the March 2003 invasion through September 2006, the number of deaths due to the war was 654,965. Over half of those were women and children. The Johns Hopkins study also used the "excess mortality" methodology, which measures not only deaths from war, but violent crime and disease. It found that 91.8% of the excess mortality was due to violence, 31% of that inflicted by coalition forces.
President Bush immediately dismissed the study’s methodology as "pretty well discredited," and the media either ignored it or accepted the White House’s characterization.
In fact, there is virtual unanimity among biostaticians and mortality experts that the methodology used in the Johns Hopkins study is accurate. Following up on an earlier version of the study, Liala Guterman, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, says she contacted 10 experts in the field about the Lancet article, and "not one of them took issue with the study’s methods or conclusions." Indeed, she said, the experts found the conclusions "cautious."
According to John Zogby of Zogby International, one of the world’s most respected polling services, "The sampling [in the Lancet survey] is solid, the methodology is as good as it gets." Ronald Waldman, a Columbia University epidemiologist, said the method was "tried and true," and British Defense Ministry science advisor, Sir Roy Anderson, said the survey was "close to the best practice."
Indeed, the Bush administration used exactly the same methodology to determine the number of deaths in Darfur, figures that were used to convince the U.S. Congress to label the current crisis in the Sudan "genocide."
The administration’s sleight of hand on deaths and casualties even extends to its own forces. There are, for instance, no hard figures on the number of private U.S. and British contractors wounded or killed, even though private contractors outnumber the number of coalition troops in Iraq.
And when casualty statistics come out in ways the DOD doesn’t like, it just changes how they are counted.
On January 29, 2007, the Pentagon listed 47,657 "non-mortal" casualties in Iraq. One day later this number had fallen to 31,493 by the simple device of dropping any casualty that did not require "medical air transport." The DOD also doesn’t include vehicle accidents, or soldiers who are taken ill, including those with mental problems.
No one has systematically collected information on the number of Iraqis wounded by the war, although a ratio of two or three to one wounded to killed in excess of one million people is considered a good rule-of-thumb figure.
Besides the deaths and injuries, the war had unleashed, according to the Financial Times, "The worst refugee crisis in the Middle East since the mass exodus of Palestinians that was part of the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948." According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2.2 million Iraqis have fled their country, mostly to Jordan and Syria, and another 2 million have been turned into internal refugees. If one adds to that the ORB figures for deaths, it means at least 20% of Iraq’s pre-war population of 26 million has been killed, wounded, exiled, or displaced.
The White House has simply ignored the refugee crisis.
In 2006, the United States budgeted $3 million for refugees, although according to Amman-based researcher Noah Merrill, none of the relief organizations, including the UN, has seen any of that money. And if they had, Merrill points out, it would come to a grand total of $3.50 per person. "Jordan is an expensive country, " he says, "and $3.50 will not help anyone not even for a day."
Half of Iraq’s population are children, nearly 20% of them under the age of five. Some 25% are malnourished and 10% suffer from acute malnutrition. According to a UNICEF study, 70% of Iraqi’s children suffer from traumatic stress syndrome.
Food rationing, a system on which five million Iraqis rely to stay alive, is breaking down, and according to Patrick Cockburn of The Independent, two million can no longer be fed because of security concerns. Unemployment is at 68%. Once the most industrial country in the Arab world, Iraq is devolving into an oil-rich, agrarian backwater. Some 75% of the country’s doctors and pharmacists have fled, bringing its medical system at one time the best in the Arab world to the point of collapse.
And finally, like a biblical plague, cholera is working itself down the country’s river system, from the Kurdish north to Basra in the south. Over 7,000 cases have been confirmed in northern Iraq, according to the World Health Organization.
In 1258 the Mongol generals Hulagu and Guo Kan besieged and took the city of Baghdad. They murdered its inhabitants, burned its libraries, and ravished its lands. The Bush administration has done the same, but hidden it behind a smoke screen of lies and voodoo statistics.
For the average Iraqi, there is little difference between the Mongols and the United States. Both have laid waste to their country.
Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.