Tuesday, 19 February 2013 00:00

Media communication and the consequences of war: counting the casualties in Iraq

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White and red flags, representing Iraqi and American deaths respectively, sit in the grass at Oregon State University White and red flags, representing Iraqi and American deaths respectively, sit in the grass at Oregon State University Credit: Reid Parham

The 10th anniversary of the February 2003 mass protests against the Iraq War prompted Spinwatch to re-post an article by David Morrison on social media. It was a very useful article, but it was badly flawed in its discussion of the death toll from the Iraq war. It shied away from providing any details about the most credible estimates of the death toll, and it did not mention the appalling state of public ignorance about the topic in the USA. Future wars are probable when the public within powerful countries is kept overwhelmingly clueless about the consequences of past wars.

In 2006, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) asked US citizens the following question:

Please just give your impression. About how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war?

The median answer was a staggeringly low 5000 – a reasonable estimate would have been in the hundreds of thousands.

I have very recently verified with PIPA that they have not asked the question again since 2006. Had anyone else asked the question? PIPA could only point me to an Associated Press survey that was done one year later (February of 2007). That survey asked US citizens the following question:

Just your best guess, how many Iraqi civilians have died in Iraq since the war began there in March, 2003?

AP’s question also specified “civilians” as opposed to combatants, but AP said “have died” instead of “have been killed”. Saying "have been killed", as PIPA did, may possibly have led respondents limit their estimate to bystanders killed in violent incidents and exclude deaths other war related destruction. Recall that by 2007, over 4 million Iraqis had become refugees: just over two million fled Iraq and the rest were internally displaced. The UK independent reported in 2007 that throughout Iraq 'The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50 to 70 per cent in the past four years and 80 per cent lack adequate sanitation.'

With these facts in mind, consider the results to AP’s survey question in February of 2007:

8%.....1,000 or less
24%...1,001 to 5,000
20%...5,001 to 10,000
21%...10,001 to 50,000
11%...50,001 to 100,000
6%....100,001 to 250,000
5%....More than 250,000
4%... Don't know/Not sure

Fifty two percent of the respondents estimated 10,000 civilian deaths or less as of 2007 - one sixth of what Iraq Body Count (IBC) tallied at the time (60,000). Seventy three percent made estimates lower than what IBC had tallied. Though shocking enough, the use of IBC’s figures drastically understates how misinformed the US public is about the human cost of the war. IBC did not count Iraqi civilians who died from disease, malnutrition or other war related hardships. And IBC has never even claimed to offer a full count of civilian deaths from violence. In April of 2006, IBC argued that 'the worst one could say of IBC is that its count could be low by a factor of two'.  At the time of AP poll, that would have placed Iraqi civilian deaths (from violence alone it must be stressed) possibly as high as 120,000 if one accepts IBC’s arguments. However, two studies published in the Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal, had already suggested that the civilian death toll from all causes was higher than 100,000 – as estimated by only 11% of the respondents to the AP poll.

One study was published in the Lancet in 2004. It found 100,000 Iraqi deaths (both combatant and civilian) from all causes only 18 months after the war began. Another study published in the Lancet in 2006 found that the death toll had increased to 650,000 by the end of June 2006.

The Iraqi government, working with the WHO, had a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in January of 2008 that estimated 151,000 deaths from violence alone by the end of June 2006.  The study did not give an estimate for war related deaths from all causes. However, it provided death rates from which an estimate could be made. Les Roberts, lead author of the Lancet studies, had immediately pointed that out when the study was published. In March of 2008, the lead author of the NEJM study (Mohamed Ali), confirmed that 400,000 Iraqi deaths as of June 2006 can be calculated from that study's data.

To sum up, as of June 2006, according to the best available estimates, there were 400,000-650,000 Iraqi war related deaths (both civilian and combatant). There were even higher estimates made by professional pollsters (as FAIR discussed here), but I am referring here to estimates published in peer reviewed scientific journals. By any rational standard, such estimates should carry the most weight.

Of course, the war did not end in the middle of 2006. IBC’s count would double by the end of 2011. Doubling the scientific estimates made for Iraqi deaths results in a death toll of 800,000-1,300,000.

To what extent is the US public aware of any of this today?

Judging by the AP poll done in 2007, perhaps 11% may be aware. Ideally, outfits like PIPA would poll US citizens to find out what they know about the Iraq war’s death toll; the polls would ask people to estimate civilian and combatant deaths. Ideally the media would care deeply about the extent to which it succeeded or failed to inform the public about such an immensely important topic. In reality, negligible interest exists to explore these questions in the USA. The UK media’s indifference may even have been worse. Despite querying various people in the UK, including various journalists, I found no polls of the UK public that explored what it knew about how many Iraqis died – that in a country where a myth was spread that humanitarian motives primarily drove the rush to war.

Incidentally, the corporate media’s disgraceful performance is yet another compelling reason to regard IBC’s figures (which relied heavily on the corporate media) to be extremely conservative.

There is nothing new about militaristic humanitarianism vanishing when it comes to looking at the human cost of war and the extent of public knowledge about it. In 1991, as the western powers were beginning their astoundingly bloody assault on Iraq, an obscure poll reported that US citizens gave a median estimate of 100,000 for the number of Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam War.  The war actually killed about two million.

Like the Iraq war, the Vietnam War was extensively covered by the corporate media for obvious reasons. The media has no credible excuse to evade responsibility to the vast public ignorance about the human consequences of those wars.  It is hardly difficult to see that the media will continue to hide horrific slaughters until the public wrenches control over public debate away from a war mongering elite.

Joe Emersberger is an engineer and a member of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union. Visit his blog.