Will Media Finally Count the Dead in Iraq?

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By: Greg Mitchell

From the beginning, the U.S. military refused to count — and the American media rarely probed — civilian casualties as the result of our invasion of Iraq in 2003.

For the longest time these deaths were rarely mentioned at all. In recent months, they do appear nearly every day or two, usually in relation to several dozen bodies discovered around Baghdad with holes drilled in their skulls or showing other forms of torture. We also now learn about U.S. soldiers arrested for killing innocent cvilians. Even so, the press almost never attempts to quantify the Iraqi death toll.

Now today comes a shocking study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — to be published Thursday by Lancet, a leading medical journal — based on very detailed (and no doubt dangerous) field work. It suggests that more than 600,000 Iraqis have met a violent or otherwise war-related end since the U.S. arrived in March 2003. Even now, however, The Associated Press casts a very skeptical eye on the study, emphasizing the views of one ?expert? (as the AP describes him) who charges that it is nothing but “politics,? with the November election approaching.

The expert is Anthony Cordesman, who actually is a respected voice on military matters (he recently said flatly that a civil war is indeed raging in Iraq). But the Washington Post, fortunately, quickly found others with far more experience in studying civilian casualties who basically endorsed the Johns Hopkins study.

The AP report by Malcolm Ritter called the study ?controversial? right in its first sentence, then went on to cite Cordesman as the only critic. Ritter also noted that the invaluable Web site, Iraq Body Count, which has tried to keep a running tally, places the number of dead at 50,000. At least he admitted that base their count strictly on confirmed media reports.

But, as I said at the top, media reports have been scattered, partly due to disinterest (in the beginning) and the dangers of investigating (later on).

The Johns Hopkins count, based on door-to-door surveys in 18 provinces (most of them not beset by daily violence) could be lower, the study suggests — but the bottom line is still 426,000 and the high end soars to nearly 800,000. The last guess coming from President Bush was 30,000.

Today, asked about this at a press conference, Bush declined to amend his 30,000 figure, called the new survey not “credible,” and, seriously, added: “I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they?re willing to ? you know, that there?s a level of violence that they tolerate.”

He meant Iraq, but he could just as easily been talking about America.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, interviewed Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years. He called the Johns Hopkins survey method “tried and true,” and added that “this is the best estimate of mortality we have.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, an official of Human Rights Watch in New York, told the Post, “We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy” of the survey.

Two weeks ago, in a column, I explored Bush?s recent statement that, one day, the Iraq adventure will be looked on as ?just a comma.” Baffled at first (did he mean ?coma?), I soon discovered that the ?a comma, not a period? phrase is widely used by some Christians today, though it originated, oddly enough, with the comedienne Gracie Allen.

Anyway: at that time, to graphically show what 2,700 American deaths in Iraq looked like, I displayed 2,700 periods (not commas) on the page. But I also noted that the number of Iraqi casualties dwarfed the American toll.

Now, thanks to the Johns Hopkins survey, we have a better (if not confirmed) idea of that. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a way to readily show 600,000 periods, although I suppose I could print 600 of them and then say ?multiply by 1000 in your mind?.

Maybe that would be hard to imagine — one would hope so.

So, instead, I will close with something a little more palpable. When I was doing my own field research a few decades ago in another place devastated by violent death ? Hiroshima ? I found that the most valuable and chilling moment of all came on virtually the first day, when I climbed a hill overlooking the rebuilt city. It resides in a natural bowl formed by the hills, and I found it all too easy to imagine nearly everything spread out below me, including all the people, dead and gone.

Here is a list of 12 American cities with a populaton of just under or just over 600,000. Think of them disappearing — and imagine the U.S. one-tenth its current size. Then you’ve got the possible toll in Iraq:

Washington, D.C.
Ft. Worth
Las Vegas


Relating to the above, NBC correspondent Jane Arraf posted the following last night at the network’s Blogging Baghdad site (at msnbc.com):

“Some readers and viewers think we journalists are exaggerating about the situation in Iraq. I can almost understand that because who would want to believe that things are this bad? Particularly when so many people here started out with such good intentions.

“I’m more puzzled by comments that the violence isn’t any worse than any American city. Really? In which American city do 60 bullet-riddled bodies turn up on a given day? In which city do the headless bodies of ordinary citizens turn up every single day? In which city would it not be news if neighborhood school children were blown up? In which neighborhood would you look the other way if gunmen came into restaurants and shot dead the customers?

“Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.

“It’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.

“I don’t know a single family here that hasn’t had a relative, neighbor or friend die violently. In places where there’s been all-out fighting going on, I’ve interviewed parents who buried their dead child in the yard because it was too dangerous to go to the morgue.

“Imagine the worst day you’ve ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you’ll begin to get an idea of what it’s like every day for a lot of people here.”

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