1 Million Dead in Iraq? Reasons the Media Hide the True Human Toll of War -- And Why We Let Them

21/07/2011 00:00
Most Americans turn a blind eye to the violent acts being carried out in their name.

An Iraqi policeman walks past destroyed cars at the site of a blast near the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. Iraqi forces were on high alert in Baghdad on Monday after 30 people were killed in bomb attacks on foreign embassies blamed on delays in forming a new government after the general election a month ago.
Photo Credit: AFP - Ali al-Saadi

As the U.S. war in Iraq winds down, we are entering a familiar phase, the season of forgetting—forgetting the harsh realities of the war. Mostly we forget the victims of the war, the Iraqi civilians whose lives and society have been devastated by eight years of armed conflict. The act of forgetting is a social and political act, abetted by the American news media. Throughout the war, but especially now, the minimal news we get from Iraq consistently devalues the death toll of Iraqi civilians.

Why? A number of reasons are at work in this persistent evasion of reality. But forgetting has consequences, especially as it braces the obstinate right-wing narrative of “victory” in the Iraq war. If we forget, we learn nothing.

I’ve puzzled over this habit of reaching for the lowest possible estimates of the number of Iraqis who died unnecessarily since March 2003. The habit is now deeply entrenched. Over a period of about two weeks in May, I encountered in major news media three separate references to the number of people who had died in the Iraq war. Anderson Cooper, on his CNN show, Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times Magazine and Brian MacQuarrie in the Boston Globe all pegged the number in the tens of thousands, sometimes adding “at least.” But the number that sticks is this “tens of thousands.”

Cooper, Myers and MacQuarrie—all skillful reporters—are scarcely alone. It’s very rare to hear anything approximating the likely death toll, which is well into the hundreds of thousands, possibly more than one million. It‘s a textbook case of how opinion gatekeepers reinforce each other’s caution. Because the number of civilians killed in a U.S. war is so morally fraught, the news media, academics and political leaders tend to gravitate toward the figure (if mentioned at all) that is least disturbing. 

The “tens of thousands” mantra is peculiar because even the most conservative calculation—that provided by Iraq Body Count, a British NGO—is now more than 100,000, and IBC acknowledges that their number is probably about half correct. They count only civilians killed by violence who are named in English-language news and some morgue counts. Their method is incomplete for a number of reasons—news media coverage is far from comprehensive, most obviously—and many Iraqis who are killed are not labeled by authorities as civilians. The death toll from nonviolent deaths (women dying in childbirth, for example, because the health care system has been devastated by the war) is also very high and is not included in IBC’s tally. 

The more accurate figures come from household surveys and other methods, and these have much higher figures. I commissioned one conducted by Johns Hopkins scientists in 2006 that yielded a figure of 650,000, which was hotly disputed, but another around the same time yielded a total of more than 400,000 dead, including all Iraqis from all causes. Both surveys followed state-of-the-art epidemiological practice. And a lot of killing was still to come after those surveys were done.

There is a lively debate among specialists about these figures, but the bottom line is that “hundreds of thousands” rather than “tens of thousands” is the incontrovertible mortality statistic.

So why the devotion to the lower number? And why does it matter? 

The latter question is the easier one to answer. Make the rounds of right-wing blogs and think tanks and you’ll find a constant refrain: the war, despite its many difficulties, was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein. As Richard Miniter of the Hudson Institute put it last September, “The death tolls in the Saddam years were far higher than in the years following liberation; hundreds of thousands disappeared into mass graves.“

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