Tuesday, 05 March 2013 00:00

Iraq: Media communication and the consequences of war, continued

By
An Iraq war protest poster showing Lancet estimate of Iraqis killed An Iraq war protest poster showing Lancet estimate of Iraqis killed Wikimedia Commons

Spinwatch recently published analysis by Joe Emersberger on 'Media communication and the consequences of war: counting the casualties in Iraq'. Below is an exchange between Joe and Chris Elliot, the readers' editor for the Guardian, regarding an article on 1 March 2013 that stated the Iraq war death toll was "tens of thousands".  Joe also gives his reflections.

Joe Emersberger's letter to the Guardian

RE: Don't Mention The Iraq War

Dear Guardian editors

Nick Hopkins wrote that the war “…led to the death of almost 200 British troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.”

It is beyond any rational dispute that the Iraq war caused over a half
million Iraqi deaths.

There were 2 scientific studies published that examined the death toll
from the war up until the end of June of 2006. The Lancet study
estimated a death toll of 650,000 Iraqis.  The Iraqi government (in
conjunction with the WHO ) published a study in the New England Journal
of Medicine (NEJM) that examined the same period. It published death
rates which correspond to a death toll of 400,000 (as confirmed by the
lead author of that study).

Again, of the end of June 2006, the best available evidence was that
between 400,000-650,000 Iraqis had died because of the war. This
includes Iraqi civilians and combatants. It includes deaths from
violence and all other forms of increased mortality that resulted from
the war. Of course, the war did not end in June of 2006. It raged for
several more years.

As of June 2006, Iraq Body Count (IBC) tallied about 50,000 Iraqi
CIVILIAN deaths from war related violence alone. IBC’s numbers would
more than double by the end of 2011. Similarly doubling the scientific
estimates of the war’s death toll yields 800,000-1,300,000 Iraqi
deaths. It must also stressed that IBC

1) Made no attempt to count Iraqi combatant deaths

2) Made no attempt to count increased civilian mortality from causes
other than violence

3) Used a methodology heavily reliant on media reports and that
inevitably missed a high proportion of the already limited category of
deaths that it sought to count. IBC has argued that it may have missed
up to half the deaths it sought to count. The lead author of the Lancet
study, Les Roberts, has disputed that claim as far too conservative.
Even if one sides with IBC in that debate, there is no doubt a high
proportion of the subset of war related deaths that IBC tallied were
missed.
 
It bears repeating, it is beyond any rational dispute that the Iraq war
caused over a half million Iraqi deaths. There is a great deal of
uncertainty about the proportion of those deaths that resulted from
violence, about the proportion of deaths that were combatants. There is
certainly room for debate about exactly HOW FAR above the half million
mark the death toll rose. None of these uncertainties justify Nick
Hopkins’ outrageous statement that “tens of thousands of Iraqis” died
because of the war.

If a foreign power invaded and occupied the UK, what would you consider
a reasonable way to estimate deaths that resulted from it? Would you
disregard British combatants who died? Would you not count British
civilians who died from increased incidence of disease and decreased access
to health care, food and medicine?

Joe Emersberger

Notes:


The Guardian replies

Dear Mr Emersberger,

We have been around this question many times before, as you can see
from an Open Door column 5 years ago and a recent data blog. And I am
sure you probably read them at the time.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jan/03/iraq-body-count-report-data

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jan/03/iraq-body-count-report-data

It is not beyond all rational dispute that "that the Iraq war caused
over a half million Iraqi deaths." It may be true but we don't know for
certain because it is a disputed figure. However, what is beyond all
rational dispute is that "tens of thousands of Iraqis died". What
cannot be said for certain is how many tens of thousands – we may not
know that for some years.

Best wishes

Chris Elliott


My response to the Guardian

Mr. Elliot.
Your response is astounding.
The Iraqi Government (that is the Iraqi government under US occupation
I should stress) publishes a study in the NEJM that corresponds to
400,000 deaths as of June 2006 - as confirmed by the lead author of the
study - and you claim that "It is not beyond all rational dispute
that "that the Iraq war caused over a half million Iraqi deaths."

That study alone exposes the extreme irrationality of what you wrote to
me.

You may as well dispute that the war continued after June 2006 or claim
that Iraqi combatants who died are not really Iraqis - or not really
human.

Your denial buries the death toll of the war and therefore helps to
facilitate future slaughters - in fact already has.

Joe Emersberger


The Guardian replies

Dear Mr Emersberger,
I am not "denying" that more than half a million Iraqis died – I just
can't prove it beyond all rational doubt. Whereas there is worldwide
agreement that tens of thousands of people have died.

Best wishes

Chris Elliott


My final response to the Guardian

Why not say "thousands died in Iraq" then or "hundreds" if your
standard is an order of magnitude on which there is "worldwide
agreement" - and not the most plausible based on the best available
evidence?

Does that apply to official enemies too, or only when flak is possible
from cheerleaders for the US/UK backed wars?

Did Saddam Hussein kill "thousands"?

Was Mao responsible for the deaths of "hundreds of thousands"?

Would there not be "worldwide agreement" that those orders of magnitude
were not technically false?

As the Media Lens editors once put it, it is breathtaking to behold how
scientific studies become weak, pitiful and unreliable things in the
eyes of journalists when the findings conflict with Power..


A reflection on the exchange


Elliot says of a death toll over half a million that 'I just can't prove it beyond all rational doubt'. Before addressing (again) how remote the possibility is that the death toll is under 500,000, it is worth stressing that the article Elliot defends goes far beyond claiming that a death toll significantly below half a million is merely possible. The article rules the most probable death toll out entirely by stating that only "tens of thousands" had died.

A death toll of between 20,000 - 100,000 could be accurately described as being in the "tens of thousands".  A death toll between 200,000 - 1,000,000 should obviously be described as being in the "hundreds of thousands". To do otherwise is to completely mislead readers.

As explained above, the best available evidence indicates that, as of June 2006, between 400,000 - 650,000 Iraqi deaths were caused by the war. There are wide confidence intervals around these numbers but these were the most probable estimates produced by scientific sampling of the Iraqi population. In other words, estimates significantly above or below that range were found to be significantly less probable.1 Of course, as Elliot well knows, the war did not end in June of 2006. It raged for several more years. That means that estimates below the 400,000 - 650,000 range became vastly less probable than they were found to be in 2006.  How much less probable? Consider that IBC's numbers more than doubled between the middle of 2006 and the close of 2011.

It is interesting that the points I laid out about the limitations of IBC's data, referring even to a detailed discussion by IBC itself, simply bounced off Elliot's forehead. He responded by offering links to articles about IBC's data as if this refuted the scientific studies published in highly reputable journals and produced by two sets of researchers who were completely independent of each other.

Finally, Elliot's concern about "worldwide agreement" over the death toll is, at best, a very cowardly concession to the war's very powerful apologists and perpetrators. The most probable death toll, based on the best available evidence, is that "hundreds of thousands" are dead because of it.

1 See this good discussion of this point.

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