Late Night: And Then the Time Will Come When You Add Up the Numbers
(Post inspired by this: “President Bush said Saturday the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, which he set in motion at the beginning of the year, is showing successes and proves that “conditions on the ground can change.”)
If you think about it, one of the most crucial things we don’t know about this misbegotten Iraqi adventure tells us everything anyone really needs to know about it. We know to a regularly updated certainty how many American soldiers have died: 3723. But we don’t know for sure how many Iraqis have died. As far as documented deaths are concerned, we’re up to at least an appalling 70,604. But everyone admits that is far too low, given the difficulties of accurate documentation in a war zone. The best-known attempt to quantify the “excess mortality” in Iraq — bluntly, the number of dead people who probably would not be dead had the invasion not occurred — is that published in the Lancet. This study concluded:
We estimate that as of July, 2006, there have been 654 965 (392 979–942 636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war, which corresponds to 2·5% of the population in the study area. Of post-invasion deaths, 601 027 (426 369–793 663) were due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire.
The Lancet numbers are of course “controversial,” in the sense that they are shocking and therefore our good friends the right-wing-war supporters, with their well-advertised near-fanatical devotion to truth and objectivity, don’t like them and therefore like to pretend that the Lancet study has been “fisked” and “debunked.”
If you’ve not been following the sordid saga of wingnut attacks on the Lancet study, the latest installment is here. For the backstory just go to Tim Lambert’s place and scroll down. And down. And then, yes, down some more, OK, then, head into the archives, and scroll down… Look, it ain’t pretty, and we all owe Tim at least a beer for keeping an eye on this madness. The upshot is, there’s no serious reason to doubt the Lancet’s estimation.
(Incidentally, I am setting up a Devastating Point. Please bear with me a moment.)
Now — and this is getting to the good bit, trust me — one of the consistent refrains in the anti-Lancet Wingnut Chorus is that the study’s authors refuse to “release the raw data” the report is based on:
In any event, the Lancet authors refuse to release their figures. Now folks, this isn’t like KFC protecting its secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. Releasing the data would make everything transparent and settle this once and for all, which is exactly why the Lancet and the authors keep it under armed guard on a remote desert island.
Just read Tim on this bit of deceptive crappola for why it’s irrelevant. But bear in kind this: the wingnut insistence upon SEEING THE RAW DATA. Oh, it’s very thrilling, to claim your Mortal Enemies are Hiding the True Facts by Using Statistical Shenanigans!
I myself am willing to even concede this. To a point. Let me spell out the point. Here indeed I have a suggestion, a modest proposal, if you will: If you are trying to make political hay out of statistics about how many people in Iraq are dead, you have an ABSOLUTE ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY to fully and openly provide the sources of your data and open them up to independent review.
(If you’ve guessed where this was headed, give yourself a popsicle, because it means you pay attention to the news.)
And with that in mind, I give you… this.
In fact getting access to any kind of civilian casualty number has grown much more difficult in the past year. The most reliable source for civilian casualty estimates, the UN, has not been allowed access to the data since the start of 2007. The Iraqi government was mad because it thought the UN’s numbers were too high so it stopped sharing the data.
There are also numerous reports of underreporting of civilian casualties inside Iraq.
Even more damning is the fact that just last August the military and the Bush Administration specifically underreported civilian deaths in an attempt to tout the success of the original Baghdad security operation. An accusation that was confirmed by the Iraq Study Group.
A drop in civilian casualties would be great news. I just wish someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in reporting that news could actually verify those numbers.
Will the wingnut-o-sphere demand a sound accounting from the Bush administration about its “Surge” numbers? After all, this should be a matter of a strict count, nothing to do with algorithms or datasets. My bet is they won’t… takers?
Which gets us back to where we started. All you need to know about this war is that the Bush administration and its sycophants care, or even know, about the number of dead Iraqis only in terms of its own political gains and losses.
And what else do you really need to know about this horrible, immoral mess?