Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Tirman Headshot

War's Violence and Why It Matters

Posted: Updated:

The war memorials so famously closed during the GOP-induced shutdown are notable for many things, but one of them is rarely mentioned -- the absence of any mention of the civilians who were killed in the wars. It's a national habit to ignore those civilians -- three million dead in Korea, two million dead in Vietnam. They aren't exact numbers and several scholars think those numbers are too low.

And so it is with Iraq. Another Iraq War mortality study was published the other day and it confirms that the scale of mayhem in that benighted country from the George Bush-ordered invasion in March 2003 to the tardy Obama-led withdrawal in December 2011 was indeed vast. Led by Prof. Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington, the research team found about 500,000 Iraqi "excess deaths" were caused by the war.

The number, which includes violent deaths and deaths caused by the horrendous effects of the war on health care, sanitation, and the like, is far higher than what is routinely reported in the news media in the United States, which typically comes in around 100,000. This figure is usually drawn from Iraq Body Count, a London NGO, which has used a method of counting corpses listed in newspapers. Hagopian's study, which was peer-reviewed and included health professionals in Iraq, is a randomized household survey, a far more reliable method, as scientists generally affirm.

While lower than other household surveys, including the 2006 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet (which I commissioned), the Hagopian numbers line up rather well with the other scientific estimates. While covering different periods, the excess deaths (the difference between pre-war mortality rates and wartime mortality rates) all come in at more than 400,000, and run as high as one million.

It is quite difficult to conduct household surveys during wartime, and so sampling errors are inevitable. I believe the Hagopian estimate, as they acknowledge, is "conservative," particularly since there remains a very large number of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. Almost all of them departed their homes because of violence, often the loss of a family member, so their absence in the survey is significant. The researchers proxied 56,000 deaths for these refugees, but the actual total could be -- likely is -- much higher, perhaps by a factor of two or more.

What is important here is to recognize that the scale of killing and "indirect" mortality in this war was -- as many of us insisted all along -- colossal, brutal, and permanently damaging. Those who kept saying that the survey estimates were too high have been doing a severe disservice to our understanding of this most grisly human endeavor. It's a disservice because it fails to explain the actual dynamics of war, this war in particular, and its human costs. So when a politician or a newscaster says that "tens of thousands" died or "as many as 100,000 civilians were killed," they play into a narrative that this "collateral damage" was unfortunate but surely far less than the 300,000 or so Iraqis that Saddam Hussein allegedly killed. And, however sad, some go on, the price was worth it there, and would be again in Iran or Syria or wherever the hawks would take us next.

Discounting the true costs of war also undermines our ability to grasp its consequences. Why do American soldiers and marines suffer from historically high rates of PTSD and suicide? Hagopian and The Lancet study give us some clues: a large percentage of deaths (35 percent in Hagopian) is attributed to coalition forces. How can one explain the bitter civil war-like conditions that persist to this day? It is explicable mainly as a result of the extreme violence visited upon Iraq during the war (from whatever source). What explained the Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion to begin with? Very likely it was a reaction to the heavy-handed violence of the occupation. The high deaths tolls tell us a lot, if we ask the right questions and have properly gathered and analyzed the data.

When the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war was noted in the news media last March, the rote answer to the scale of mortality was always the lowest numbers, if the topic was raised at all. I have my own hypothesis about this ingrained habit -- that American society cannot deal with the horror of what it unleashed on Iraq, and so tend to feign indifference and minimize the actual carnage. (The opposite tendency occurs in reporting on other people's wars -- such as Syria -- where the appeal regarding civilian suffering is frequent.) But even the meager acknowledgement of our culpability on the 10th anniversary was better than President Obama's. When the last of the U.S. forces were withdrawn in December 2011, he failed to mention the Iraqi people at all.