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October 14, 2006

655,000 Iraqis Dead?

Is the line between intellectual dishonesty and bald-faced lying a fine line or is it a wide chasm? Whichever it is, The Lancet and those who masturbate over its latest Iraqi war dead estimate have leapt across that line with ease.

A study published in the Lancet this week estimates that 654,965 Iraqis have died as a consequence of war since 2003. . . .

. . . The researchers—led by Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins University—gathered data on more than 12,000 people in clusters of houses around Iraq, and tried to figure out how many people had died both before and after March of 2003. By comparing the pre- and post-invasion mortality rates, they figured out how many deaths could be attributed to the war, and then extrapolated from their sample to the country's entire population. [via Slate.com]

655,000 is roughly the population of Baltimore, Maryland, where Johns Hopkins University is located.

Historian Gwynne Dyer (who wrote the very readable book War, which pretty much made me want to be a history major) is against the Iraq war. He predictably gushed over the Lancet's study:

Johns Hopkins University, Boston University and MIT are not fly-by-night institutions, and people who work there have academic reputations to protect.

The Lancet, founded 182 years ago, is one of the oldest and most respected medical journals in the world.

Must be true then. These people couldn't possibly make a mistake. In fact, I bet the peer review process is waived for all studies coming out of JHU, BU, MIT, or the Lancet.


The most disturbing thing is the breakdown of the causes of death.

Over half the deaths -- 56 per cent -- are due to gunshot wounds, but 13 per cent are due to air strikes. No terrorists do air strikes. No Iraqi government forces do air strikes either because they don't have combat aircraft. Air strikes are done by "coalition forces" (i.e. Americans and British) and air strikes in Iraq have killed over 75,000 people since the invasion.

Oscar Wilde once observed that "to lose one parent ... may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

To lose 75,000 Iraqis to air strikes looks like carelessness, too.

Actually, blind acceptance of the Lancet's figures and methodology by a historian such as Dyer looks like carelessness to me.

Now, I didn't do too well in statistics, so I won't pick apart the Lancet's methodology, no matter how suspect it seems to me (it was based on interviews?!). But I do have a history background and the 655,000 number seemed wildly far-fetched to me the instant I saw it. Wildly far-fetched.

I immediately wondered why the study's authors had not considered placing the estimate into historical perspective. That would be a kind of "smell test," which I suspected the study might not pass.

Consider this. In 3½ years, the Lancet figures we have been responsible for 655,000 civilian deaths. (Not casualties, deaths. The term "casualty" includes missing, wounded and POWs.) For comparison, I simply went to two easily available sources: The Oxford Companion to World War II, and the often less reliable Wikipedia.

According to those two sources, Japanese civilian deaths in World War II ranged from 400,000 to 600,000. One generally expects the Wikipedia figure to be at the higher range, and that was true in this case. I also consulted Wings of Judgment, by Ronald Schaffer, a somewhat left leaning historian of the two World Wars. Shaffer gave an estimated range from 330,000 to 900,000 Japanese deaths (p. 148), which coincidentally is almost exactly the range that the Lancet used for Iraqi civilian deaths (392,979 to 942,636).

Looking at all three sources, the Wikipedia estimate of 600,000 Japanese civilian deaths seems most reasonable. So the obvious question to me is this:

Are we to believe that the United States has killed more Iraqi civilians in the current war than we killed Japanese civilians during World War II?

I have no doubt that there are very many anti-war kooks who would not hesitate to believe that, but it sure doesn't pass the smell test to me.

Keep in mind that we attacked Japan repeatedly with unguided incendiary bombs in WWII, while we mostly relied on precision guided bombs when bombing Iraq. Also remember that the aerial bombing in Iraq occurred in the first three weeks of the war, and thereafter was only used to support certain offensives like in Fallujah, etc.

Keep in mind that the purpose of strategic bombing in WWII was to kill civilians and that we intentionally targeted Japanese civilians for over a year. In Iraq, we make a great effort to avoid civilian deaths. In fact, Iraqi civilian deaths are counter-productive to the war effort and can be used as a propaganda against us by our enemies, as the Lancet study proves.

Keep in mind that we flattened two Japanese cities in WWII with nuclear weapons, and that those attacks weren't even as deadly as the Tokyo firebomb raid in which three hundred B-29s burned the city to the ground and killed almost 100,000 civilians in one night. We bombed the crap out of Japan so thoroughly that we had pretty much run out of cities to destroy by the end of the war.

It was a lot easier to kill Japanese civilians by firebombing than it is to kill Iraqis today. The Lancet figures that most Iraqis (56%) were killed by gunshots, which is probably the least efficient way of killing mass numbers of people. Remember that Japanese civilians lived in houses made of paper and wood, and that the population density of Iraq is nothing compared to Japan in the 1940s. During the Tokyo raid, escape was near impossible. Shaffer wrote:

The fire storm quickly roasted those who stayed in under-house shelters. Alleys and small gardens filled with flaming debris. Shifting flames blocked exit routes. Abandoning their efforts to check the inferno, firemen tried to channel people across already burned areas, and where there was still water pressure they drenched people so they could pass through the fire. Some inhabitants ducked themselves in firefighting cisterns before moving. . . .

Choking inhabitants crawled across fallen telephone poles and trolley wires. As superheated air burned their lungs and ignited their clothing, some burst into flames, fire sweeping up from the bottoms of trousers or starting in the cloth hoods worn for protection against the sparks. Residents hurried from burning areas with possessions bundled on their backs, unaware that the bundles had ignited. Some women who carried infants this way realized only when they stopped to rest that their babies were on fire.

. . . Thousands submerged themselves in stagnant, foul-smelling canals with their mouths just above the surface, but many died from smoke inhalation, anoxia, or carbon monoxide poisoning, or were submerged by masses of people who tumbled on top of them, or boiled to death when the fire storm heated the water. [p. 134]

That is what it takes to kill 655,000 civilians. Death on that kind of scale is not something that can easily escape notice, yet there have been no such stories coming out of Iraq in the last three years. I'm not trying to minimize the horrible situation in Iraq, but some perspective is definitely in order. And the Lancet's estimate is so insanely exagerrated I can only conclude that the researchers are bald-faced liars.

More: Confederate Yankee wonders, "where are the bodies?"

[cross-posted at A Western Heart; Technorati: ]

Posted by annika, Oct. 14, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: History & annikapunditry


Killing 650,000 out of a population of 26 million would be about 2.5% of the population. That would be something in the neighborhood of communicating Sherman's message of war, i.e. "Don't fuck with us". We haven't done that.

Posted by: Casca on Oct. 14, 2006

Maaaan, your post was so engrossing that I missed Suppan's homerun.

Posted by: Sarah on Oct. 14, 2006

I don't believe the air strike figure nor the 655,000 dead figure from the liberation of Iraq. I wonder if they counted morgues and Iraqi statistics kept by authorities put in place after the fall of Saddam. I wonder why they extrapolate to the entire country when the Kurd and some other ereas were not affected much by coalition military action.

I think that you are right when you say that these numbers do not pass the smell test, and your post gives some good reasons why not.

Posted by: Denny on Oct. 14, 2006

This study, like the phony one they put out before, is being roundly discredited. It doesn't pass the smell test because it's BS.

Posted by: blu on Oct. 14, 2006

No doubt Straw believes it.

Posted by: kyle8 on Oct. 15, 2006

The timing of the release didn't pass the smell test either. Not even the MSM was carrying the water for these hacks.

Posted by: blu on Oct. 15, 2006

Ironically enough, iraqbodycount.com is disputing the Lancet report (via Instapundit)!

Posted by: Victor on Oct. 17, 2006

When we have a new 9/11 maybe in D.C. maybe just maybe the ney sayers will wake up. I hate to say this but some don’t realize we are in world war III.

Posted by: Atlanta on Oct. 20, 2006