It is an unseemly thing to be debating how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion and occupation by US troops. I’m absolutely sure that most opponents of the war feel that way. They would, I’m sure, wish that we would all just sit back and accept the politically motivated study released today that purports to show 600,000 more Iraqis have died since 2003 than would have if we hadn’t invaded:
A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion, the highest estimate ever for the toll of the war here.
The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month, a number that is quadruple the one for July given by Iraqi government hospitals and the morgue in Baghdad and published last month in a United Nations report in Iraq. That month was the highest for Iraqi civilian deaths since the American invasion.
But it is an estimate and not a precise count, and researchers acknowledged a margin of error that ranged from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths.
First of all, the Times makes a common mistake by lumping civilians, insurgents, and Iraqi Police and Army units all together and simply referring to them as “civilians.” In fact, the study makes absolutely no effort to differentiate between civilians and insurgents, Police and army. All the researchers asked were the number of dead over the last 3 years.
But why is the study politically motivated?
Fred Kaplan of Slate on the 2004 study:
“Readers who are accustomed to perusing statistical documents know what the set of numbers in the parentheses means. For the other 99.9 percent of you, I’ll spell it out in plain Englishâ€”which, disturbingly, the study never does. It means that the authors are 95 percent confident that the war-caused deaths totaled some number between 8,000 and 194,000. (The number cited in plain languageâ€”98,000â€”is roughly at the halfway point in this absurdly vast range.)
This isn’t an estimate. It’s a dart board.
Imagine reading a poll reporting that George W. Bush will win somewhere between 4 percent and 96 percent of the votes in this Tuesday’s election. You would say that this is a useless poll and that something must have gone terribly wrong with the sampling. The same is true of the Lancet article: It’s a useless study; something went terribly wrong with the sampling.”
As you can see from the above New York Times excerpt, these purveyors of wildly exaggerated mortality have tried the same technique this time around as well: they have “a margin of error that ranged from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths.”
What’s more, this excerpt from the original NY Times article of October 29, 2004 could have been pasted into their article today:
â€œEditors of The Lancet, the London-based medical publication, where an article describing the study is scheduled to appear, decided not to wait for the normal publication date next week, but to place the research online Friday, apparently so it could circulate before the election.â€
Funny how these studies seem to show up around election day, eh? Color me suspicious, but if the study had come out 3 weeks after the election, I would be more sanguine about the author’s motives.
The Washington Post tries to put the best face on the study by quoting non-experts who seem satisfied with the results but curiously, all seem to be unanimously against the US occupation. But putting a ball gown on a sow still gives you a pig all dressed up with nowhere to go:
Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method “tried and true,” and added that “this is the best estimate of mortality we have.”
This viewed was echoed by Sarah Leah Whitson, an official of Human Rights Watch in New York, who said, “We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy” of the survey.
“I expect that people will be surprised by these figures,” she said. “I think it is very important that, rather than questioning them, people realize there is very, very little reliable data coming out of Iraq.”
Ms. Whitson’s take is interesting. There is “no reason to question the findings” of a study using, despite what Mr. Waldman says, questionable methodology 3 weeks before an election. She actually wishes critics would just sit back and shut up because – and here she inadvertently debunks the study herself - “there is very, very little reliable data coming out of Iraq.”
At least give the Times credit for including some cautionary voices in its article:
Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy, said interviewing urban dwellers chosen at random was â€œthe best of what you can expect in a war zone.â€
But he said the number of deaths in the families interviewed â€” 547 in the post-invasion period versus 82 in a similar period before the invasion â€” was too few to extrapolate up to more than 600,000 deaths across the country.
Donald Berry, chairman of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was even more troubled by the study, which he said had â€œa tone of accuracy thatâ€™s just inappropriate.â€
In other words, the researchers were able to discover and confirm 547 dead in the post invasion period by interviewing a little more than 1800 families. And from that sample, they extrapolate 600,000 dead.
What’s wrong with that picture?
There are other sources for counting Iraqi dead. The well respected Iraq Body Count, run by academics opposed to the war, lists nearly 49,000 civilian dead since the invasion. Their methodology is sound and their numbers are based on actual reports from morgues, the media, and the military. Their number of confirmed dead is still less than half the number estimated in the 2004 Lancet study.
Someone is wildly off base here. Could it be the group that says that the US military has killed 180,000 Iraqis as a direct result of military actions?
Gunshot wounds caused 56 percent of violent deaths, with car bombs and other explosions causing 14 percent, according to the survey results. Of the violent deaths that occurred after the invasion, 31 percent were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes, the respondents said.
The fact that those three percentages totalled up equal 101% isn’t as ridiculous as 31% of deaths were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes. And here we get to the number one critique of this study and why it so totally useless:
Again, the study makes absolutely no effort to differentiate between innocent civilians and Iraqis trying to kill our troops. Nor does it differentiate between civilian deaths and the deaths in the Iraqi police and armed forces.
In addition, the study includes deaths that the researchers have arbitrarily determined were caused by the invasion but not caused by violence. If they are using the same criteria as the 2004 study, some of these causes of death include:
- Malnourishment due to bad economic conditions as a result of the invasion.
- Illness due to degraded health care infrastructure.
- Deaths due to domestic violence.
- Deaths due to criminal activity unrelated to the insurgency.
- And â€œ... civilian deaths resulting from the breakdown in law and order, and deaths due to inadequate health care or sanitation.â€
Of course, the political problem engendered by this pseudo-scientific hit piece is that the left will use this figure without any caveats and state flatly in their critiques of the war that 600,000 civilians have died as a result of our invasion. And by the time the study is once again debunked by those who know a helluva lot more about statistics and such than I, the lie will have taken hold and the myth will have been set in stone.
And the American people are treated to one more October surprise before casting their vote on November 7.