Down for the Count

According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon announced last Monday that it "has no plans" to count civilian casualties. Previously, U.S. officials expressed similar sentiments regarding Iraqi military casualties. "We do not look at combat as a scorecard," Captain Frank Thorp, chief military spokesman of Central Command, told the New York Times. "We are not going to ask battlefield commanders to make specific reports on enemy casualties."

While the Iraqi government was uncharacteristically tight-lipped regarding its military casualties, it did release information on civilians. On April 3rd, it provided its last count: Naji Sabri, the country's Foreign Minister, told Reuters that 1250 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the war, and over 5000 injured. Given that most of what the Iraqi government was officially proclaiming about the war made Ari Fleischer look like the world's most honest, candid man, such numbers were generally taken with a sandstorm of salt.

And yet, such contentions weren't wholly incredible. On April 6th, according to the Associated Press, the International Committee of the Red Cross revealed that "the number of casualties in Baghdad [were] so high that hospitals [had] stopped counting the number of people treated." A declaration like that should have inspired relentless media coverage of Iraqi casualty totals. Instead, media coverage of civilian casualties has actually been so scarce that even that kid from "The Sixth Sense" probably thinks that only anti-American buildings have perished in the conflict.

Ever since the war started, the most consistently updated source of Iraqi casualty information has been provided not by the professional media, but rather by an independent group of researchers who operate the website Iraqbodycount.net. Based in England, the site's core team of 19 contributors monitor media reports from dozens of newspapers and TV channels to, in its words, "establish an independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq resulting directly from military actions by the USA and its allies in 2003." As of Tuesday, April 22nd, the site was reporting a minimum of 1878 civilian deaths, and a maximum of 2325.

Perhaps if the site's creators had thought to publish photographs of precision-dismembered Iraqi civilians on a deck of playing cards, Iraqbodycount.net would have received more attention. As it is, the number of press mentions it has gotten over the course of the war is fairly modest. On its busiest day during the conflict, the Iraqbodycount.net database page generated 74,887 page-views. But as Hamit Dardagan, principal researcher and site manager of Iraqbodycount.net, points out, "That's just the visitors to our own website." Iraqbodycount.net also created a series of "IBC webcounters" that other web publishers used to display the project's stats on their sites. "There are 600 websites who notified us that they had installed the counter, but this wasn't compulsory and we know there were others, probably a majority, who didn't notify us," Dardagan says. "How many web users therefore actually saw these countres is another calculation altogether."

Along with its fans, Iraqbodycount.net has attracted some critics too. In the Weekly Standard, Josh Chafetz writes about "the voodoo science of calculating civilian casualties," arguing that Iraqbodycount.net's methodology gives too much credence to Iraqi government sources. For example, if two media outlets simply reported that the Iraqi government had announced the deaths of 300 civilians in a particular incident, that incident would generate entries of "300" in both the "Minimum" and "Maximum" columns of the Iraqbodycount.net database, even if the media outlets stated that they were unable to verify the claims themselves.

"This might have been a serious criticism if the figures provided by the Iraqi government were all we relied upon," counters Dardagan. "In fact, our figures only very rarely came from such sources alone."

Chafetz also questions Iraqbodycount.net's methods regarding incidents like the well-publicized explosions in Baghdad's marketplaces. "Anyone who reads the papers knows that the U.S. and British governments claim that...Iraq--either intentionally or mistakenly--caused those explosions itself," Chafetz writes. "By refusing to put zero in the minimum column, the Project again privileges Iraqi government sources over Western ones."

Dardagan's rebuttal: "If Saddam's forces had, say, deliberately shot at the civilian population in order to crush a domestic uprising, we would not have counted these as the responsibility of the US or UK, even if it could be argued that the invasion of Iraq prompted the uprising and the repression." In contrast, the Project did count civilian deaths that resulted when "Iraqi forces were using the military means at their disposal to defend themselves against [coalition] attacks."

Of course, this policy still doesn't solve every he-said/she-said dilemma: if you believe the Iraqis deliberately bombed their own marketplaces, you will dispute some of Iraqbodycount.net numbers. Still, critics who fixate on its purported ideological flaws miss a much more important issue: namely, Iraqbodycount.net's lack of competition.

"Fools and knaves come up with figures...where responsible observers fear to tread, and the media, for lack of good numbers, cite the foolish or downright dishonest ones," Chafetz concludes in his Weekly Standard piece. If the fearfully responsible U.S. government hadn't already announced that it has no plans to count Iraqi civialian casualties, perhaps this conclusion wouldn't seem so dishonest. And if this conclusion didn't completely let the media off the hook, perhaps it wouldn't seem so foolish. Or to put it another way - how come CNN, or Fox News, or The New York Times didn't create their own versions of Iraqbodycount.net?

After all, the media knew that the U.S. government wasn't going to do body counts in Iraq. And with the Bush Administration and the Pentagon aggressively marketing a potential war as a precision-guided, trauma-free exercise in liberation, surely a little rigorous fact-checking was in order. Financing their efforts themselves, the Iraqbodycount.net team has been able to conduct a pretty substantial research project - but imagine the resources a world-class news organization could have devoted to such a project, and the exposure it could have given it. A project like Iraqbodycount.net was tailor-made for today's 24-hour, interactive, constantly updated news cycles - and it represented a rare opportunity for news organizations to go beyond constantly recycled newzak and Pentagon ventriloquism. The fact that no professional media outlet attempted to do what a couple dozen volunteers pulled off was not a triumph of journalistic responsibility, but rather an embarassing example of journalistic complacency.

In contrast, Iraqbodycount.net deserves substantial credit for its efforts - both for its actual work in compiling information about civilian deaths, and more generally for refusing to allow this aspect of the war to be completely buried by endlessly repeated statue-toppling clips. But while Iraqbodycount.net's work stands as the first word on this subject, hopefully other organizations will eventually address it as well.

In the end,Iraqbodycount.net is based entirely on news reports, and news reports,especially breaking news reports, are certainly not infallible. So perhaps in Iraq there have been fewer than the 1878 to 2325 civilian deaths that Iraqbodycount.net is currently reporting. At the same time, because Iraqbodycount.net depends only on media reports, and the media hasn't been there to witness every death, perhaps there are more.

Some pundits look at the relatively low death totals, compare them to the dire, pre-war predictions of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, and conclude that the war went very, very well. Where are all the poor dead innocent Iraqis, they ask, conveniently forgetting their similarly hyped phantasmagorical counterparts, the innocent Americans killed by Saddam-equipped terrorists who will remain hypothetical forever as well. To ensure that those hypothetical dead Americans remained safely abstract, real Iraqi civilians (along with real American, English, and Iraqi soldiers) paid with their lives.

We know exactly how many innocent citizens died on September 11th, and we'll never forget them. We should also never forget the innocent citizens who died in Iraq. First, however, we have to determine who they were and how many they numbered.

G. Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.

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