Iraqi bodies count

June 2, 2009

Tom Whipple
367 words
19 September 2008
The Times
Times2 5
English
(c) 2008 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

“We don’t do body counts”. So said General Tommy Franks in 2002, in response to a journalist’s question about Afghan civilian fatalities. Later, when President Bush declared “Mission accomplished” in Iraq, recording civilian deaths was still far from a priority.

No one was pretending it was mission accomplished when General David Petraeus presented his report on the progress in Iraq a year ago this month. Buried in the appendices was a reversal of General Franks’s statement as well: slide three was entitled “Iraq Civilian Deaths”. The Pentagon did do body counts after all.

The Iraqi fatality statistics, published quarterly, are now a central argument for the coalition. They show a fall from 3,700 monthly deaths in December 2006 to around 500 today.

It was not always so. In the beginning a website, IraqBodyCount.org, was not just the standard measure for civilian deaths in Iraq – it was the only measure. Unlike the Pentagon, whose sources are unclear, IBC’s methods are simple: they count deaths recorded in the media, providing upper and lower bounds. They soon came to be relied upon by much of the world’s media.

Initially, the Right was furious. But nowadays most attacks on IBC come from the Left: it is accused of undercounting rather than overcounting.

In 2004 a study in The Lancet concluded that 100,000 people had died in Iraq. The same team estimated last year that the death toll had reached 655,000. The IBC records fewer than 90,000. And when, in 2005, President Bush was asked directly by a reporter how many civilians had died in the conflict, his answer of 30,000 was close to the estimate provided by IBC at the time. It seems that with a free market in body counts, Bush had shopped around for the most favourable statistics.

Even for neo-conservatives, outsourcing body counts is the limit of market liberalism. At some point, someone in the Pentagon started counting. Their statistics may be dismissed as propaganda, produced using unpublished methods, but – even as propaganda – civilians, and statistics, matter again. That’s no bad thing.

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