COMMENTARY & ANALYSIS

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
~ George Orwell

Commentary by Daniel Thornton

The ComRes poll ran on the Bank Holiday weekend of May 25th-27th 2013, just 2 months after the 10 year anniversary of the Iraq invasion.

A lot of newspaper and broadcast space was devoted to summarizing the military-industrial narratives of a decade of war, and of course some coverage also to the suffering in Iraq, in all of the years leading to such a macabre anniversary and especially on the day which commemorated the 10th year since the invasion was launched.

Iraq, and  the West’s legacy there, was once again front-page news – a perfect preamble to measuring just how informed the public are about the impact to Iraq and Iraqis of this protracted conflict, a question which remained unasked among all the mainstream analysis and widespread journalistic contrition.

What do the public actually know? Do people in the UK – a major ally and instigator of the invasion along with the US – have a reasonable idea of the likely death toll as a result of the war and ongoing conflict in the country their government invaded and occupied? Do the taxpayers who bankrolled such an adventure have any idea about the impact of their democratically elected government’s foreign wars, conducted in the name of their safety and security?

The answer to this question is, quite resoundingly, ‘No’.

ComRes infographic

ComRes data visualized as infographic (by Melanie Patrick)

A brief summary of the results and early commentary was provided by Joe Emersberger, who posted to his blog:

The UK public were asked:
How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you suppose have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003? Please just give your best estimate.

The responses are summarized below:

Up to 5,000…………………..44%
5,001 – 10,000……………….15%
10,001 – 20,000………………7%
20,001 – 50,000………………8%
50,001 – 100,000…………..11%
100,001 – 500,000………..10%
500,001 – 1,000,000……….4%
1,000,001+……………………..2%
Don’t know/Not stated…0.3%

Fewer than 10,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war according to 59% of the respondents.  The results are especially shocking because respondents were not asked to limit their estimates to Iraqi civilians or to deaths caused directly by violence…

~ Joe Emersberger, ZCommuincations blog

See below for some discussion of the various studies and estimates taken of the body count in Iraq, and why they vary so much, and are controversial and politically charged, but even the very lowest estimates suggest that at the absolute minimum up to 120,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, with the higher end of the estimates at over 1,000,000. We will return to this in a discussion about the various studies undertaken below.

In fact, the answers given in the ComRes poll were so wide of the mark and so overwhelmingly under-estimated by the vast majority of respondents, that Alex Thomson, of Channel 4 news, wrote the following on his blog on May 31st, upon being sent the results:

“Perhaps that last figure is the most startling – a majority of women and more than a third of men polled say fewer than 5,000 deaths have occurred. That figure is so staggeringly, mind-blowingly at odds with reality as to leave a journalist who worked long and hard to bring home the reality of war, speechless.”

To his credit, Alex Thomson was the only mainstream journalist to cover the results of this poll in any meaningful way, although ComRes is a respected agency, and the publicly published polls frequently garner column inches in both digital and print editions of major newspapers – if, of course, they are considered ‘fit to print’.

There was no other mainstream notice of this poll to be spoken of, beyond the odd Tweet.

100,000 DEAD? OR 1,000,000 DEAD? “WE DON’T DO BODYCOUNTS…”

According to international law, it is incumbent upon the belligerents in a war to observe certain protocols and distinguish, for example, between combatants participating in the hostilities and civilian populations caught in the melee. Indiscriminate attacks and indiscriminate weapons are supposed to be forbidden, and a body of rules and ‘controls’ in place to mitigate the worst horrors of war. Absent from these stipulations is any meaningful requirement to count the victims of the ensuing conflict.

Both Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks, who lead the US in both Afghanistan and Iraq, famously went on record saying “We don’t do body counts.” This blunt response to a question about civilian casualties from the press was an attempt to distance George Bush’s new wars from the previous disaster of Vietnam. One of the media rituals of that earlier conflict was the daily announcement of how many Vietnamese and Communist fighters US forces had killed. It was supposed to convince a sceptical American public that victory was coming. But the ‘body count’ concept sounded (because it was) callous – and never more so than when it emerged that many of the alleged guerilla ‘insurgents’ being reported killed were, in fact, civilian women and children.

Returning to Iraq and the invasion of 2003, by October in 2005 it became apparent that the US forces were attempting to count the deaths caused by ‘insurgents’ (ie Iraqis attempting to repel a foreign invader from their home) – but not any caused by the coalition forces that had invaded the country and were occupying it subsequently. ‘We’ don’t do bodycounts – at least not of people ‘we’ are killing.

So immediately, with the General’s pronouncement, the matter of so called ‘collateral damage’ – murdered civilians caught in the war and its aftermath – became a political ‘hot potato’, and something both hawkish and doveish commentators could trade narratives over. A very important part of the hawkish case for war – especially in the media – was the sophistication of modern weaponry and the likely low civilian casualties of such an invasion. Newspaper pages pored over the technical details, and schematic diagrams of missiles, ordnance, aircraft and sea vessels deployed in the Gulf. It was hi-tech, ‘smart’, ‘remote’, ‘guided’ weaponry, that only blew up bad guys and could fly down air-con vents to kill terrorist in their bathrooms, seemingly.

Outside of the public mainstream pro-invasion rhetoric, privately researchers estimated that the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months could range from 48,000 to over 260,000. Additional deaths from post war adverse health effects could reach 200,000. The majority of casualties would be civilians, almost exclusively Iraqis.

A leaked United Nations document, “Likely Humanitarian Scenarios”, estimated that 500,000 Iraqis would be left injured or sick, and noted that the population of Iraq was exceptionally vulnerable because more than 12 years of sanctions had caused 60 percent of Iraq’s 23 million people to be impoverished, below the poverty line, and dependent on state rationing.

So the stakes were known to be high, and, as usual, stacked against the civilian population in the target country. But the simple fact is that even now, 10 years after the war, nobody really knows exactly how many lives have been extinguished.

There have been no shortage of estimates, but they vary enormously.

In order to evaluate their usefulness, it is important to consider their methodologies, the assumptions used in extrapolating data, and the ‘best practice’ and typically accepted methodologies and assumptions used in other ongoing theatres of conflict when reporting casualty rates in the mainstream media. If the media reporting were balanced, then the same principles should apply in every theatre of conflict regardless of Western involvement or neutrality.

Three major studies of war mortality have been done in Iraq. Two appeared in The Lancet, the British medical journal, and one appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. They bear strong similarities in their findings, but have some important differences, too.

THE LANCET

The first household survey to be published was conducted in the first 18 months of the conflict and appeared in the highly respected peer-reviewed journal The Lancet in October 2004. The researchers, mainly epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and medical personnel in Iraq, estimated 98,000 “excess deaths” due to the war so far.

The second household survey, conducted by the Johns Hopkins’ scientists again, was completed in June 2006 and published four months later, in The Lancet once again. It was immediately controversial, as it found that 650,000 people (civilians and fighters) had died as a result of the war in Iraq. Publicly, the UK and US government ridiculed the figure and dismissed it as ‘not credible’ in official statements, but privately the UK government’s chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, Sir Roy Anderson, had advised them that the study was ‘robust’ and the methodology ‘close to best practice in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq’ in an internal memo sent two days after the study was published, dated 13th October 2006.

Indeed, Les Roberts, who lead the Johns Hopkins team, had been publicly hailed for his work improving the reputation of conflict epidemiology, and for his contribution to the study of death tolls in war zones, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Roberts had traveled there when the civil war was in full swing, and applied his expertise as a former researcher for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and director of health policy for the International Rescue Committee to establish what were considered ground-breaking new levels of confidence in estimates extrapolated from the surveys he helped design.

The next year, using a similar approach, he concluded that the war’s overall death toll in eastern DRC at the time wasn’t 50,000, as widely reported, but a staggering 1,700,000 at the time.

After Roberts presented his Congo data on Capitol Hill in 2001, US aid to the country jumped tenfold. A subsequent CDC survey of mortality rates in Kosovo using the same design was used as evidence in Slobodan Milosevic’s war crimes trials at The Hague. Multiple such surveys in Darfur contributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s decision to condemn the Sudanese government for facilitating genocide. And Roberts’ 2001 estimate of deaths during Sierra Leone’s civil war has been widely accepted as the most likely tally.

In short, the methods pioneered by Les Roberts and his team at Johns Hopkins were all but universally accepted as best practice and considered to have improved the reputation of conflict epidemiology as a discipline. At least, this was the case when considering conflicts for which the West was not immediately responsible, prior to the ‘Global War on Terror’. As he was to discover, when applied to the death toll inflicted by Western ‘Interventions’, his methods were to receive a quite different reception.

Further complications with the Lancet figures were exacerbated when a 2011 article, published by Professor Barry S Levy and Professor Victor W sidel stated:

Iraqi non-combatants

The number of war-related deaths among Iraqi non-combatants is uncertain, but we conclude from our review of studies that it was at least 116 903. However, studies by research groups using different methodologies arrived at widely different estimates.
This, of course, was seized upon by the Twitter account ‘Media Lens Wipe’ to critique the poll before it had even run (read about that here), but can hardly be considered a rejection of the previous studies, as much as an absolute bare minimum base-line, as Iraq Body count clearly is, and recognition of the controversy manufactured by newspapers in response to political heat over figures in the hundreds of thousands.

IRAQI MINISTRY OF HEALTH

Another household survey, this one conducted by the Iraq Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation at the same time as the second Johns Hopkins study, found 400,000 excess deaths, 151,000 by violence. As is the case with most such surveys conducted during time of war, there were problems in data gathering and the analysis tended to minimize violent death estimates, in contrast to The Lancet. But the survey generally confirmed the very high mortality reported in The Lancet.

IRAQ BODY COUNT

The almost universally preferred, and oft-quoted figure, used by all mainstream media outlets, from a fairly early time in the conflict until today, has been the figure arrived at by the Iraq Body Count project.

This records ‘the violent civilian deaths that have resulted from the 2003 military intervention in Iraq’, but is extremely limited in its scope. Specifically, it counts reported deaths, relying on a number of sources, such as newspapers (especially, though not exclusively English language, Western newspapers) and NGO’s. The site itself states “The IBC project is heavily reliant on the professional rigour of the press and media organizations that it monitors.” The site was created by John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan, who make very clear that “The whole point about it is that it doesn’t require statistical analysis or extrapolations.”

There is no precedent of relying on the journalistic record to present accurate figures for casualties in a violent conflict zone – it is, very obviously, hopelessly inadequate and too severely limited in its scope. Even though IBC clearly states that it doesn’t count many civilian deaths, its numbers are often reported as total Iraqi casualties. The mainstream media have embraced IBC as their preferred reference, and presented it’s figures as an accurate reflection of the death toll in Iraq. This figure currently, in June 2013, stands at 113,185 – 123,900 – significantly lower than other best practice survey conclusions, peer reviewed in science journals.

“RIGOROUSLY DOCUMENTING THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG…” – THE CONTROVERSY

It should be noted that both the second Lancet article and the New England Journal of Medicine article were based on studies that were completed at the height of war-related violence in Iraq. Large-scale fighting continued for another year and slowly subsided for a year after that to lower but continuing levels.

In 2008, the peer-reviewed journal, Conflict and Health, published “Iraq War Mortality Estimates: A Systematic Review,” and found that the household survey method was superior to other forms of counting after assessing a wide range of different surveys and databases. They point out that ‘Thirteen studies met the eligibility criteria. The studies used a wide range of methodologies, varying from sentinel-data collection to population-based surveys. Studies assessed as the highest quality, those using population-based methods, yielded the highest estimates.‘ These are the household surveys of the type conducted by Les Roberts and the Lancet, and the World Health Organization, all yielding results in the hundreds of thousands, around half a million range.

So why is the well established and peer reviewed research so controversial and why do the media consistently use the least reliable estimate, from the self-confessedly inadequate Iraq Body Count?

An excellent analysis of the controversy, critiques, responses and increasing complexity of the epidemiological argument between the various competing narratives and their authors is provided in a 2008 article from the US website PRWatch. I highly recommend reading this article in full, it is an extremely illuminating timeline of the various published studies and the mainstream media response to those studies.

The issues are complex and cannot be easily summarized without substantial context. It is far better to read around the issues in some depth in order to arrive at a personal understanding than to accept any easy summary of the issues raised around the interpretation of these figures. The facts and narratives have been more than adequately covered elsewhere, so there will be no re-hashing of the key points here – follow the links. Essential is a good appreciation of the manner in which statistical analyses are typically and unquestioningly accepted by the media. The current conflict in Syria is a case in point – Syria has a smaller population than Iraq, and has been scene to sectarian violence in scattered cities throughout the country for at most 2 years.

The headlines, as of June 2013, are that up to 100,000 people have already been killed as a consequence of this violence.

Iraq, with a larger population, suffering a full invasion by the largest most powerful military in history, and then 10 years of foreign occupation and sectarian meltdown at least as vicious as Syria, only everywhere across the country as opposed to slowly spreading from city to city, is supposed – according to Iraq Body Count and mainstream reports everywhere – to have only just topped 100,000 after a decade of war…

Something here does not add up. Two plus two is most definitely not making four.

If the media are willing to accept a figure of 100,000 killed in Syria, then it is untenable to the point of childishness to continue to cling to a figure of 113,000 – 123,000 in Iraq. Dr. Richard Garfield, who co-authored the first Lancet study, but published a critique of the follow-up study, to which the authors including Les Roberts responded, described the Iraq Body Count analysis and methods as “Rigorously documenting the tip of an iceberg…”.

A review of October 2006 U.S. newspaper and wire stories containing the words “Lancet,” “Iraq,” and “dead” or “death” found that most news reports presented the study as “controversial” (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor, among others), “discredited” (Boston Herald), “politically motivated” (Baltimore Sun), or even an “October surprise” (Washington Post) designed to hurt Republicans in the November 2006 midterm elections. (In contrast, letters to the editor that cited the Lancet study that month unanimously accepted its conclusions, as did the vast majority of editorial columns.)

Joe Emersberger has performed a similar analysis in the UK using the Lexis Nexis database and other search tools, and found an overwhelming bias toward official sources and pro-war hawkish coverage of the conflict, although only measuring the few mentions of the Lancet compared to the huge coverage of military and political PR and spin using similar search terms, rather than particular content.

So clearly, the media have played a very mendacious role in down-playing the statistics and studies which demonstrate higher figures in the hundreds of thousands. There are enough links on this page for any reasonably educated and literate person to read through and draw their own conclusions as to the apparent controversy over the death toll. Having reviewed all of the papers, critique, and response to critique I think the household surveys draw the fairest estimate, following the peer reviewed and scientifically robust epidemiologies, to conclude that at least 500,000 – half a million – Iraqis have died as a consequence of the invasion and occupation of their country since 2003, from a wide variety of causes, but significantly from violence. The actual figure may well be closer to 1,000,000 considering all other factors and the violence since the studies, but the simple truth is that we may not know for many more years the true death toll, or indeed ever. The wide use of depleted uranium and startling outbreak of extraordinary birth defects and cancers in areas where this ammunition was used indiscriminately will continue to haunt Iraq for years to come, and add to the body count of ‘consequences’ of the 2003 invasion and occupation of the country.

That the media have failed, spectacularly, to inform the public  – who were duped into acquiescence over the war despite historically unprecedented protest – of the human toll that the war was taking on the people of Iraq is, of course, perfectly in keeping with the Propaganda Model. That the media refused to report on scientifically sound and typically accepted best practice methodology and instead use media reporting as a basis for counting bodies is further illustration of the principles.

From this it is not hard to understand why such a significantly high proportion of the British Public are totally ignorant of the death toll. The misdirection, weak reporting, forced controversy and absence of credence given to the scientific research echoes perfectly the approach to climate science and any of a number of equally serious issues on which the corporate media consistently fails to report information vital to public understanding.

Noam Chomsky commented on the results of this poll:

Pretty shocking. I’m sure you’ve seen Sut Jhally’s study of estimates of Vietnam war deaths at the elite university where he teaches. Median 100,000, about 5% of the official figure, probably 2% of the actual figure. Astonishing — unless one bears in mind that for the US at least, many people don’t even have a clue where France is.

~ Noam Chomsky, in response to the ComRes Poll

But it’s hard, in face of the results, to lay the entire blame at the feet of the corporate media, and its subservience to state power and elite interests. While it seems undeniable that the media have consistently failed to report accurately on the actual death toll, to discover that 59% of respondents believe that the likely toll is 10,000 or less – either wrong by a factor of 10 or 100 depending on your view of the available studies – is to have to go beyond misleading and weak reporting and assess issues of political disengagement, apathy and callous disregard for ‘the Other’ which is seemingly an endemic part of our culture and its consumption of news as entertainment. It is a staggering indictment not only of the media which has spectacularly failed in it’s duty of informing the public of the consequences of its government’s controversial foreign wars, but also of a population too distracted, bored or dismayed by the awful reality to even bother with informing itself of the price paid by the true victims of the war – the civilian population of Iraq.

It may be that most British people do not care what results arise from the actions of their leaders and the work of their tax money.

Alternatively, it also could be that the British and US governments have actively and aggressively worked to discredit sources and confuse death toll estimates in hopes of keeping the public from unifying around a common narrative.

~ Les Roberts, in response to the ComRes poll

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