On the Fifth Anniversary, What Could We Cautiously Say About the Iraqi
Today thousands of Americans will gather in hundreds of vigils across
the country sponsored by MoveOn and United for Peace and Justice,
among others, to mark the fifth anniversary of the illegal and unjust
war in Iraq. These vigils will note the 3990 U.S. deaths and 29,314
wounded, and will note the terrible toll the war has taken on Iraq.
But what is a cautious, conservative, responsible thing to say about
the Iraqi death toll? No accurate count can be given, and the question
has been further clouded by poor reporting in the U.S. media, and
misleading commentary by the Bush Administration and its supporters.
There are two scientific studies that have used standard techniques
for estimating the death toll.
The first, generally referred to as the "Lancet study," estimated that
just over 600,000 Iraqis had been killed as a result of the invasion
as of July 2006.
The second, generally referred to as the WHO study or the Iraq Health
Ministry study, estimated that 151,000 Iraqis had been killed over
essentially the same period. There is some reasonable basis for
questioning whether this study underestimates the death rate - indeed,
some Iraqi officials indicated that they thought that it did - but it
was a scientific study, using generally accepted methods.
If we assume that the tally of deaths reported by Iraq Body Count,
while not giving us an accurate picture of the overall scale of death
(no tally could, in such a situation), does give us an rough picture,
when compared to itself over time, of changes in the death rate, then
we can extrapolate these two numbers forward to the present.
The Lancet study would suggest an Iraqi death toll today of about
1,190,000. This is how we arrive at the Just Foreign Policy estimate
of Iraqi deaths. This is also broadly consistent with the death toll
of 1.2 million estimated by Opinion Research Business in Britain in
September 2007 (as of August 2007).
The WHO/Iraqi Health Ministry Study, based on the same extrapolation,
would suggest a death toll today of about 300,000.
Note that the WHO study also uses Iraq Body Count trends to
extrapolate, suggesting that this is a reasonable approach, in the
absence of better information.
Thus, a cautious, balanced appraisal based on available scientific
information would suggest an Iraqi death toll today of between 300,000
and 1.2 million since March 2003.
Note that, if you look for estimates of war dead in past wars - for
example, Vietnamese dead in the Vietnam War - you will also see what
appears at first to be a wide range. The exact death toll will never
be known. More studies - and certainly such an important question
deserves to be further studied - will give us more information. But as
of today, a responsible, cautious, conservative thing to say is that
between 300,000 and 1.2 million Iraqis have died, and the statement
"hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died" has very strong support.