Tuesday, October 17, 2006

# Posted 12:38 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

655,000 DEAD IN IRAQ? What is one to make of the recent study in The Lancet, a prestigious journal of medicine, claiming that the war has resulted in the death of 655,000 Iraqis? I don't know. I haven't had to time examine the evidence yet.

Yet strangely enough, even the mendacious anti-American propagandists over at Iraq Body Count are rejecting the figure of 655,000 as absurd. (Hat tip: Glenn again) IBC's arguments seem sensible, but they are so untrustworthy I still won't believe them even when they seem to have no political motive.

In addition, I'd like to respond to IBC's statement that:
Totals of the magnitude generated by this study are unnecessary to brand the invasion and occupation of Iraq a human and strategic tragedy.
No, not a strategic tragedy. A strategic success. The insurgents and their foreign allies sought to murder as many Shi'ites as possible in order to provoke a brutal reaction, a civil war, and ultimately an American withdrawal. The brutal reaction has begun. So has something akin to a civil war. Pressure for an American withdrawal continues to mount.

IBC's references to the "invasion" and "occupation" as the problem are a distraction. The insurgents and their allies decided to make Iraq this way, just as Saddam made it before the invasion. That is the human tragedy.

No back to the study for a moment: Have you had a look at it, Taylor? You seem to share my somewhat morbid interest in the subject of mass casualties (and how, in an ideal world, we might prevent them). Any thoughts?
(16) opinions -- Add your opinion

The opinion is so good, you had to post it twice ?
Well, the methods used seem pretty sound, and since two of the participating academic groups are based at Johns Hopkins and MIT, working with field researchers from Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad using standard techniques for extrapolating from a statistically valid sample of more than a thousand families, we're looking at a very high degree of credibility here. The onus is on doubters to get better data and more accurate results. To just dismiss the Lancet-published study out of hand is completely unprofessional, dishonest or stupid - take your pick.

Here's a quote from the relevant MIT web page (see http://web.mit.edu/CIS/):

"The School of Medicine at Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, Iraq, and The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University--in cooperation with MIT's Center for International Studies--have released a report on the under-examined question of civilian deaths in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Its central conclusion, based on a population-based survey conducted at some risk by a team of Iraqi and American public health researchers, is that approximately 600,000 people have died violently above the normal mortality rate. Including non-violent deaths that are nevertheless linked to the war, the total is estimated to be more than 650,000."
Gee, I don't know. People with political motives of a different sort love to claim that the number of Iraqis Saddam killed reaches all the way up into the hundreds of thousands. Isn't that an unsubstantiated number?

And "Iraqi Body Count" is fine web-site, but they only restrict their count to deaths reported by "recognised sources." In other words, only when the death has been acknowledged by at least two independent, credible news organizations, according to them. Obviously this will leave many deaths unreported. As for IBCs arguments, they make some interesting points. But where is their supporting data to back them up with? (Medialens.org had a good two-part report on its blog sometime last January about how Iraq Body Count severely UNDERCOUNTS the Iraqi dead.)

Is this all politically motivated? Of course. The RELEASE of the study at this time is politically motivated, I have no doubt. But such a claim tells me nothing about whether the numbers are true or not. And everyone - including IBC - who is discounting the study has political or professional motivations of their own. And isn't putting someone to task for using the words "invasion" and "occupation" (descriptions that fit the dictionary definitions of those words) also politically motivated?

Iraq is a terrorist media war. They have the ear of the world's media.

Where are the 650,000 bodies. Where are the estimated 850,000 wounded.

You cannot hide these, especially when the media is looking for reasons to attack the Iraqi government and the coalition.
Sorry: My comments were addressed to Jay.
It's important to reiterate that the methods employed in this study are the same as those used to provide estimates of total numbers of deaths in the conflicts in Darfur and Congo - figures which have never been questioned on OxBlog, and, indeed, sometimes used to berate politicians who have not been active enough on those conflicts!

You should repost Josh Chafetz' 'Not in their name... in mine' piece again, as I feel it has additional resonance now.

Speaking of which, how's OxfordDemocracy going? Any progress on holding the Bush administration to its pro-democracy promises?
I haven't read the study. I was in an experimental stat class decades ago, unfortunately, not in the control group, and I still get the chills and shakes at the concept.

However, I note two items. One is that the bulk of the dead were men nof fighting age, which ought to be considered a feature, not a bug.
The other is that the death rate prior to the invasion is said to have been 5.5. This is sixty percent of ours, about half of the world's. It's been said that when you have a country with a large number of children, this will happen. But I gather that other nations with young populations, such as Mexico, have higher death rates. If the "before" is artificially low, then you shouldn't have much trouble coming up with excess deaths "after", even without punching up the "after" rate.

However, if the reason for the low death rate is all these kids, then the sanctions didn't kill bajillions of Iraqi kids.

I guess the liberals will have to choose the one they like--lots of war dead now or lots of dead kids then--but they can't have both.

To be fair, the study does not say they were all killed by violence, a mistake several commenters have made.
Of course, if the death rate before is low, it also means Saddam was not killing 'bajillions of Iraqi kids' (charming phrase Richard).

Which chips away at another justification for the war.
Of course, if the death rate before is low, it also means Saddam was not killing 'bajillions of Iraqi kids. Which chips away at another justification for the war.

According to the Lancet group, it was the sanctions that were killing 'bajillions of kids':

"In December 1995, the Lancet published another equally disturbing document, this time a letter to the editor from Sarah Zaidi and Mary C. Smith Fawzi. They relayed the findings of a study they conducted for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that estimated that 567,000 Iraqi children had died "as a consequence" of sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations in August 1990."



"About 4,500 children under the age of 5 are dying every month in Iraq of hunger or disease, Carol Bellamy, the executive director of Unicef, said today."

That's the lead paragraph from a NYT article in 1996.


While the Lancet study almost certainly overstates the number of casualties in Iraq (for all the reasons stated in the IBC press release), the liberation of Iraq has been costly, both in money and in lives. What I find interesting is this: while those who supported the invasion have the tally of dead laid at their feet on a daily basis, those who argued that Saddam was contained and the sanctions were working never have to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands who would've died (if Unicef and Lancet are to be belived) had Saddam not been overthrown and the sanctions lifted.
This is a re-posting of a comment by Tim Lambert. The original comment was appended to a duplicate version of my post about the Lancet study. I have now removed the duplicate but want Tim to have his fair say:

"Of course the IBC has a political motive From here:

I had anticipated that the team behind Iraq Body Count would react to the latest survey on Iraqi mortalities published in the Lancet by trying to minimise their import and undermine their reliability. I was not wrong. The reason is fairly simple: they're defending their turf. They have been engaged in this operation ever since Media Lens asked them what they thought of the fact that mainstream media outlets were using their figures as reliable maximum estimates of the dead, and why they didn't challenge this evident untruth even though they acknowledged on their site that it was indeed an untruth. Their place in the media spotlight is threatened, and such is the only occasion under which they have put up any kind of a fight, even going so far during the spat with Media Lens to compare their opponents to terrorists on BBC 2.

Read the whole thing.
Dear Balliol Alumnus,

Let me address a very good point you made. The methodology used for the Lancet casualty studies was also used to compile death tolls for the war in the Congo. I believe some of the individuals involved in the studies were also the same. (I don't know whether the same methods were used for Darfur, but assume you are correct.)

It was after the first Lancet study of Iraq was published in late 2004 that I read of similar methods being used for studies of the Congo. Since then, I have seriously wondered whether those figures defied common sense as well. Have I berated politicians for not being concerned about the Congo? Possibly. I'll have to check.

I have certainly berated them constantly for doing nothing about Darfur. But I was not aware of a similar methodology being used to calculate casualty figures there. Perhaps I should have inquired more closely.

Now let me address a rather surprising point you made. You ask (with an apparent note of sarcasm): "How's OxfordDemocracy going? Any progress on holding the Bush administration to its pro-democracy promises?"

Sadly, the Oxford Democracy Forum, or OxDem, folded shortly after I left Oxford. I'm proud of what I did while I was there but must also take responsibility for not making it sustainable.

With regard to your second question, I think we can agree that Iraq hasn't made the kind of progress toward stable democracy I'd hoped it would. Yet your question seems to imply that the President never sought to promote democracy in Iraq.

The United States' insistence on holding elections and its support for a surprisingly democratic constitution speak well of the President's intentions. I won't pretend that OxDem had anything to do with this, but I am glad nonetheless.

My question for you, BA, is as follows: Do you recognize that it is the insurgents who bear primary responsibility for preventing the emergence of democracy in Iraq?
"One is that the bulk of the dead were men nof fighting age, which ought to be considered a feature, not a bug."

Not if they were civilians who were dragged from their homes and executed for being Shia or Sunni in the wrong neighborhood or for working for the coalition, the Iraqi government, or some other organization that criminals, insurgents, and/or terrorists labeled a legitimate target.
I feel compelled to agree with David on this one. The bold “body count” does not tell the clearly incomplete story, local or strategic. As much as I respect and trust refereed journals, those referees are not without their own insights and … um predilections. The ballyhooed numbers immediately force me to consider this particular study as nothing more than an appeal to popularity via the numbers game because “[r]eliable data is very hard to obtain in Iraq, where anti-US insurgents and sectarian death squads pose a grave danger to civilian researchers.” It is a weak gambit to rely upon an incredibly small sample of eighteen hundred or so as I understand it when measured against a nation of 26 million during war-time. The result is not good for the Lancet or for me or for Iraq. The apparent conflation of “evidence” married to politics is simply specious.

For a reasonably level-headed comment on the Lancet article, check out Healin Iraq. It points out the range of the 95% confidence interval, emphasizing more the low end, but also discusses the problem of even allowing that low end.
Jay said, "two of the participating academic groups are based at Johns Hopkins and MIT."

The study itself states that MIT only provided funding and did not participate in the work.
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