Sunday Magazine November 5, 2006
Level Playing Field
For the data from The Lancet: which Bush Jnr dismisses read HEREMIKE MARQUSEE
A recent study by the Johns Hopkins University has put the death toll in Iraq since the coalition invasion at 6,55,000, ten times the figure cited by Western media.
Looking for an Honorable exit? A U.S. soldier in Baghdad (PHOTO: REUTERS )
WHENEVER scientific research produces results that are inconvenient to people in power, they seek to deny, discredit or downplay them.
On October 12, the Lancet, one of the medical world's most respected journals, published a peer-reviewed study conducted by Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health, one of the medical world's most respected institutions. Entitled "Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey", the study found "as a consequence of the coalition invasion of March 18, 2003, about 655,000 Iraqis have died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation, which is equivalent to about 2-5% of the population."
6,55,000 is more than 10 times the death count usually cited in the media. The scale of suffering implied by the figure is almost impossible to grasp. Alongside each death there stand legions of wounded, bereaved, homeless, dislocated, impoverished. What's more, this is not an event in the past. As the study makes clear, the mortality rate is continuing to rise. Another year of occupation means at least another 1,00,000 dead.
Asked about the report, George Bush declared: "The methodology is pretty well discredited". In fact, though none of the scores of journalists present challenged the president's assertion, the opposite is the case. Experts in the field have been forthcoming and unanimous in endorsing the study's methodology and conduct. Casualty figures cited in other conflicts, including Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, have been arrived at by the same means, are considered authoritative, and are routinely invoked by U.S. or British leaders when it suits them.
It's argued that this is not a body count, that it is merely an estimate based on sampling and extrapolation. But if we don't employ sampling and extrapolation, we will never know the actual extent of any forms of human suffering. In war zones, and especially in the circumstances prevailing in Iraq, this has proved the most reliable method of ascertaining reality on the ground. The study's findings are dismissed or criticised not because there is any serious doubt about their statistical reliability but because they are such a powerful rebuke to the U.S. and British regimes and their apologists. The resistance to the facts is a resistance to culpability and accountability.
In recent months, British and U.S. media have dedicated extensive coverage to the horrifying prospect of a genocide involving 3,00,000 people in Darfur. The news that the ongoing slaughter in Iraq, for which our governments bear direct responsibility, has already claimed more victims was treated differently. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post ran the story on page 12, the New York Times on page 16 (its front page story that day was about the impact of the deaths of three U.S. servicemen in Iraq on their small American hometown). In Britain, it made the front page of only two of the country's nine national dailies. The BBC reported the publication of the study but presented the findings as "controversial" and in any case impossible to verify. Within 48 hours, the study and the number 6,55,000 had disappeared altogether from the British and the U.S. media.
In denial mode
Denial at official level is made easier by popular reluctance to credit the figures. The same people who readily accept such numbers of horror when they are reported in relation to African or Asian societies find it hard to assimilate the notion that "we" can be as brutal as "them". All societies suffer from this self-serving reflex, but in this case it's exacerbated by popular misconceptions about the role of the U.S. and Britain in the wider world, past and present. In the U.S., "we" are not and never have been an imperial power, "we" are the American exception, and if terrible things have happened in Iraq, they are a by-product of our good intentions. In Britain, there remains a widespread tendency to play down imperial atrocities and play up imperial beneficence, along with a belief that the imperial past has been left behind.
The media typically present the problem in Iraq as one of "violence" in the abstract, with occupying soldiers engaged in the thankless task of "controlling" it. The study, however, shows that 31 per cent of the excess deaths since the invasion were directly caused by U.S.-led coalition forces. In other words, U.S. and British troops have killed something like 2,00,000 Iraqis, the vast majority of them civilians. (The other 4,00,000 dead were victims of criminal, insurgent or sectarian violence all spurred by the invasion and occupation.) Though the proportion of deaths ascribed to the occupying forces has diminished in 2006 (down to 26 per cent), the actual number killed has continued to rise. Gunfire remains the most common cause of violent death (accounting for 53 per cent) followed by car bombs or other ordinance (18 per cent) and air strikes (12 per cent).
Why it must end
These findings confirm what Iraqis have been reporting for the last three and a half years, and help explain why they continue to regard the occupation as anything but benign. In a recent poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, nearly eight in 10 Iraqis said the U.S. presence in their country was provoking more conflict than it was preventing (as opposed to being "a stabilizing force".) Thirty-seven percent wanted U.S. troops to withdraw within six months; an additional 34 per cent wanted them out within a year. Six in 10 Iraqis approved of violent attacks on U.S.-led forces, but 94 per cent have an unfavourable view of al Qaeda.
Despite the efforts to bury the nightmare figure of 6,55,000 dead, the war is now widely regarded in both the U.S. and Britain as a disaster from which we must extricate ourselves. In Washington and London, there is a frenzied hunt for an exit strategy, or at least something that can be sold to the public as an exit strategy. The problem is that the only strategies being considered are those that leave the U.S. with a measure of control over Iraq's resources and a veto in its politics backed up by military might. Thus the sole workable exit strategy is left off the table: an immediate, unconditional withdrawal of occupying troops, and the cessation of U.S. and British efforts to determine the future of Iraq by force of arms.
Nonetheless, in both Britain and the U.S., domestic political pressure for a quick withdrawal is on the rise. That needs to be bolstered by international pressure. Yet during his recent visit to Britain, which included a meeting with Tony Blair and a speech at Cambridge University, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred not once to Iraq. The Indian government's silence on this ongoing atrocity seems to be considered a price worth paying for a Security Council seat, though it compromises any moral claim to that seat, and commands zero respect from the global majority, including those within the US and Britain working to change their governments' misbegotten policies.