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Wikileaks Docs Underestimate Iraqi Dead

For all their value, the newly leaked documents will, unfortunately, reinforce the inaccurate lower estimates of Iraqi mortality.

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There were other estimates, of course, which relied on a proven method in epidemiology, a population-based survey in which qualified researchers would visit randomly selected households and ask questions to gauge the level of killing. Several such surveys have been taken in Iraq. Two, in fact, used this method at almost exactly the same time -- in mid-2006 -- with one managed by researchers at the John Hopkins School of Public Health (and commissioned by a program I run at MIT), and the other by the Iraqi Ministry of Health. Both found much higher numbers, although the surveys’ data do not agree in some important respects. Still, the Hopkins survey found 650,000 “excess deaths” from the war, including violent and non-violent causes, with the MoH at 400,000. And both were done well before the violence and other impacts -- a crippled health care system, poor hygiene, etc. -- took many more lives. Both measured all Iraqi deaths, not just civilians, especially important in a conflict where the line between civilian and “insurgent” is often blurry.

The most authoritative review of all the mortality estimates -- passive and active -- appeared in the professional journal Conflict and Health in March 2008, and concluded that population-based surveys are superior (for the reasons discussed here), and that “of the population-based studies, the [Hopkins] studies provided the most rigorous methodology.” The passive reporting, these experts agree, suffers from under-reporting and inability to capture indirect deaths, and thereby called into question the estimates of IBC, the Brookings index, the U.N. office in Baghdad, and other such efforts.

There is also the matter of corroborating evidence, which typically is overlooked. Two pieces in particular are powerful. The first is the number of displaced Iraqis, estimated between 3.5 and 5 million. Hundreds of interviews of those in Syria and Jordan suggest nearly all fled because of violence in their neighborhoods. No war has produced more than about a 10 to 1 ratio of displaced to dead, and in most wars the ratio is about 5 to 1 or narrower. The 5 to 1 ratio would translate into at least 700,000 deaths in Iraq.

The second and less reliable number is the overwhelming number of widows, some from earlier wars, which the Iraqi government has variously estimated at about 750,000.

The evidence, then, is rather clear and compelling. Something like 700,000 or more Iraqis have been killed either through direct or “structural” violence in the period since the U.S. invaded more than seven years ago. The number could easily be as high as a million. Most were killed by other Iraqis, or the deplorable conditions that wars wreak and persist in Iraq.

Do the numbers matter? Are 115,000 less morally onerous than a million? Well, yes. But that is not the point here. The major news media in this country supported the invasion. It’s an embarrassment that the war was not only fought on false premises that they in effect promoted, but that the consequences have been so devastating, with more fatalities than were attributed to Saddam Hussein.

What else explains this negligence apart from stubborn unwillingness to learn the science of conflict mortality? Possibly, they fear a right-wing backlash or government opprobrium. But this cowardice has its consequences, too. For more than a year, the Republicans have woven a victory narrative about Iraq, and arguing that shaky case is easier with the lower mortality figures. Whether the American public cares about the deaths of others is a debatable proposition. But the media’s negligence surely serves to make the next invasion easier.

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