US underreports Iraqi civilian deaths

(Montpillier Vt) Times-Argus, Feb 24, 2008

U.S. underreports Iraqi civilian deaths

Wallace Roberts

The U.S. Air Force dropped six times as many bombs in Iraq last year as it did in 2006, 1,447 compared to 229, according to an announcement in mid-January by Air Force Col. Gary Crowder, commander of the 609th Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia, as reported in The Washington Post.

The report on the increase in bombing comes just after the World Health Organization released the findings of a study which put the number of civilians killed in Iraq between the invasion in 2003 and 2006 at about 151,000. That figure was almost instantly accepted by some supporters of the war who have been eager to discredit reports of much higher civilian deaths.

It’s a controversial field. When Gen. David H. Petraeus testified before Congress in September that the escalation of the war in Iraq was going well, he used a graph indicating that the number of civilians killed since the invasion in 2003 until August 2007 was about 37,500. Two days after this testimony, a British opinion polling company released the results of its own study which put the number of civilian deaths between 1 and 1.2 million, 32 times the Pentagon figure.

Although Petraeus’s appearance before Congress was covered extensively in the major U.S. media, there was almost no mention of the British study except for a short article on the inside pages of the Los Angeles Times. The survey, by Opinion Research Business, which has done several opinion surveys in Iraq since 2005, was ignored by the major daily newspapers and network news programs. In fact, despite their failure to carry stories about the ORB findings, the Washington Post and the New York Times nevertheless a few days later devoted considerable space to the issue of civilian deaths in Iraq, but cited only U.S. military and Iraqi government sources, both of which have a vested interest in minimizing the numbers.

The ORB poll asked 1,461 Iraqi families last August, “How many members of your household, if any, have died as a result of the conflict in Iraq since 2003?” The survey showed that 16.1 percent of the country’s 4 million households said one family member had died in this manner, resulting in 653,496 deaths. Some 4.7 percent of the families said two members had died for another 383,457 deaths. Less than 2.5 percent of the families reported three or more deaths. ORB said the poll had a margin of error rate of 2.4 percent.

ORB is a respected British firm which has done work for clients like the BBC and the Conservative Party and has done other polls in Iraq. Its latest Iraq study comes 11 months after the respected British medical journal The Lancet published the findings of a study done by researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health showing that more than 601,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed by war-related violence through August 2006. This study, which used a standard epidemiological survey technique called “cluster sampling” to ensure that the researchers interviewed a random sample of the nation’s population, received somewhat wider coverage, but overall the report has been minimized or discounted.

The Johns Hopkins study was commissioned by the MIT Center for International Studies, whose director John Tirman, has recently launched a new project “Iraq: The Human Cost,” which has a wide range of resources describing the impact of the war. ORB itself paid for its study because, as Johnny Heald, a managing director, said, the company wanted to “raise (our) profile.”

Prof. Leslie Roberts (no relation) of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, a co-author his school’s report, said recently, “The (ORB report) is 14 months later with deaths escalating over time. That alone accounts for most of the difference (between our poll and the ORB poll)…Overall they seem very much to align.”

Roberts said that there were two major differences between the WHO and Johns Hopkins surveys which may account for most of the difference in the number of deaths each survey found. The Johns Hopkins interviewers were mostly staff members of a Baghdad university and they obtained copies of death certificates for 92 percent of the deaths they reported, whereas the WHO survey used government employees (to whom the civilians would probably not be truthful about this issue), and they did not collect death certificates.

Both the Lancet and ORB reports conclude that most violent deaths were from gunshot wounds and took place outside of Baghdad, in contrast to the official reports which say that three-quarters of deaths in the first four years of the war were in Baghdad. A total of 31 percent of the deaths in the Johns Hopkins survey were attributed directly to Coalition forces.

After the initial coverage of The Lancet article, there was a sharp drop in references to its findings in the major U.S. media, and even now nearly all articles mentioning civilian deaths in Iraq are based on the numbers published by the Pentagon or Iraqi government. Our major newspapers and TV news programs report almost daily on the poll results in the presidential primary races and seem to give them full credence even with wider margins of error than those of the ORB and Johns Hopkins studies. This faith in the value of election polling is not likely to change after the mistakes pollsters made in the New Hampshire primary.

At first glance, the failure of the U.S. media to report and reference the Johns Hopkins and ORB studies appears inexplicable, especially in light of an Associated Press poll in February 2007 which found that the average American believes that only 9,900 Iraqis have been killed since the end of major combat operations in 2003. The failure is compounded by the fact that the ORB and Johns Hopkins studies used standard scientific polling and sampling techniques whereas the Pentagon does not even disclose how it arrives at its figures.

There are two major reasons for the failure of the Lancet and ORB studies to earn greater credibility. The institutional reason can be inferred from a comment by Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, who said recently that his paper chose not to use the term “escalation” instead of the Pentagon’s word “surge” to describe the troop increase in Iraq because use of the former word could be seen as a “political” decision criticizing the administration. (During the Vietnam War, the White House “escalated,” its word, the war several times by sending in more troops; each escalation gave peace advocates new grounds for protests and marches).

The cultural reason is that the high number of deaths appears so incredible that reporters and editors are in denial and refuse to give these studies credence or to pursue their veracity. In fact, this denial by Americans of their country’s responsibility for civilian deaths in wartime is woven into the warp of the country’s history from the beginning.

For instance, few of us know that the consensus estimate of the number of native Americans killed by Europeans by war, massacre, war-induced famine, and the deliberate spread of contagious diseases is 95 percent of the 8 to 12 million people who inhabited what is now the United States and Canada before the arrival of Columbus, a slaughter that continued right up to the beginning of the last century.

In World War II, the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. Army Air Force on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed between 105,000 to 140,000 Japanese civilians outright or within four months. Another 900,000 Japanese were killed by U.S. firebombings of 63 other cities. In Germany, the United States and Britain killed 1.8 million civilians in firebombings of cities like Dresden which, like most of those in Japan, had little or no military value.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who was a member of the Army Air Force team that planned the bombings of Japan, said in “The Fog of War,” the recent documentary about his career, that if the United States had lost the war, he and the other bombing planners, as well as their chief, Gen. Curtis Lamay, would probably have been tried as war criminals. For his part, Lamay long maintained that the bombings were justified to save the lives of American soldiers who would have been killed in the invasion of Japan that would have been necessary if the bombings had not brought the country to its knees. In fact, many scholars now believe it was not the nuclear attacks that motivated Japan’s surrender but the Soviet Union’s invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria the day after the Hiroshima attack that convinced the country’s emperor to give up.

In Vietnam, the consensus estimate of the number of civilians killed from 1965 to 1975 is 2 million civilians and 1 million soldiers on both sides. To that number should be added the 2 million Cambodians (out of a population of 7 million) killed by the Khmer Rouge, which would not have come to power without the chaos created by the war in Vietnam and the Nixon-Kissinger bombing of Cambodia. Just in the last 66 years then, the armed forces of the United States have killed or been responsible for the deaths of 8 million civilians, not including any of those in Iraq.

To refuse to be aware of the consequences of America’s wars is not just denial, it’s delusional. By failing to report scientific evidence of a million civilian deaths in Iraq, the press is just giving Americans what they want to hear. We are able to fabricate this collective delusion because we accept on faith the idea that America is an exception among the nations of the world and that our good intentions are proof of virtue.

Vijay Prashad, director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College in Hartford, maintains, “The claim of innocence of the U.S. state is a blanket denial of history… There is an automatic faith in the goodness of the system (so that Americans can) feel assured in the end that the goodness and innocence of America will shine through.”

James Carroll, the writer and former priest, recently put it this way: “Missionizing in the name of freedom is a basic American impulse.” He said that this belief in the special mission of America is held by conservatives, moderates and liberals alike. “The liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars — Vietnam then, Iraq now — represent an egregious failure to live up to America’s true calling. We’re better than this. Even antiwar critics… do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don’t get the sense, even from most liberals, that — no, America is a nation like other nations and we’re going to screw things up the way other nations do.”

The collective delusion also distorts our perspective on the Iraq war. There is much debate about the torture and illegal detention of terrorist suspects and about the loss here at home of our privacy rights and civil liberties, but as bad as these things are, they do not compare with 1 million civilian deaths. Where is that debate?

Prolonged innocence is dangerous for both children and nations. Children, fortunately, outgrow it naturally by learning from experience that they are exceptional only in their mothers’ eyes. The child’s naive idea of pride in winning wars ought rationally to give way under the burden of the knowledge of the price that was paid for victory. Who were the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who died so that my father and hundreds of thousands of other U.S. soldiers would not have to face the prospect of an early death in the invasion of Japan? Who are the 1 million citizens of Iraq who have died so that Americans can be assured of gasoline for $3 a gallon?

Wallace Roberts is a community organizer and an award-winning journalist who lives in Williamstown.

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