Number Crunching: Death Count Politics

In an age where Hitlerian wars of aggression are considered standard practice for "healthy" democracies (with only the "competence" of their execution being a fit subject for debate), it is difficult, if not impossible, to single out a single element of the grotesque carnival as the most macabre. But surely the warmongers' game-playing with the death toll of slaughtered Iraqis is a prime candidate.

Throughout George W. Bush's rape of Iraq, which was launched on a sea of lies and spin, the warmakers and their innumerable sycophants and transcribers in the media have relentlessly downplayed the number of Iraqis being killed in the conflict -- when they deign to notice the darker-hued dead at all, that is. Bush and his accomplices have been tossing around a number of 30,000 to 50,000 for a long time; these figures -- more than 10 times the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks -- are obviously considered a perfectly acceptable amount of "collateral damage" for such a noble crusade.

Several other death tolls have been offered, most notably the Iraq Body Count, which restricts itself to deaths reported in the press and by officials of the conquerors and their collaborators. This count has always run in advance of the number of murders happily admitted to by Bush, but the IBC numbers have always been, by design, merely a minimum baseline for the ever-churning slaughter.

As we all know, there was a very brief moment of panic amongst the death merchants when a survey by Johns Hopkins experts reported in 2006 that the true count of civilians who had died as a result of the war was at least 650,000. This study, published by The Lancet, one of the world's leading peer-reviewed medical journals, was quickly given the smear treatment, haughtily dismissed by Bush and his British moll, Tony Blair for its "unsound methodology" -- despite the fact that the moll's own officials confessed privately that the Lancet study's methodology was sound. Indeed, it was the same methodology employed by the U.S. and UK governments to estimate the slaughters in Rwanda and Darfur, among other atrocities. But evidently the same science does not apply when those ordering the atrocities have white hands.

Very quickly, the media mandarins took up the smear, and never failed, in their very few mentions of the Lancet study, to note the "controversy" over its methodology -- a controversy ginned up entirely by the warmakers and their apologists, much as revisionists like David Irving concoct "controversies" over the mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazis. Of course, Bush and his supporters are themselves very active revisionists on the Irving model -- "revising," in real time, the history of the holocaust they are carrying out in Iraq.

Last year, a follow-up to the Lancet study gave a credible estimate of more than 1 million Iraqis killed as a result of the invasion. One salient fact about this and the Lancet study should be borne in mind: there were areas of Iraq that are so dangerous that they could not be surveyed. In other words, the most deadly areas of the conquered land had to be left out of the studies. So they too are, in the end, minimum baselines for the total death count. Needless to say, the Lancet study follow-up has been invisible in the corporate press, not to mention in the presidential "debates."

("Debate" is certainly an odd term for a process deliberately designed to choke off any careful, thoughtful, in-depth examination and critique of issues and policy -- i.e., a debate -- and instead restricts candidates to throwing quick soundbites at each other for 90 minutes or so. Of course, it serves the purposes of the kind of sham democracy that the United States is saddled with, but it would be regarded as a ludicrous and sinister farce in any genuine republic.)

But even though the masticators of conventional wisdom have swallowed the Administration's blood-streaked bull droppings about the "success" of the "surge," pushing the war crime into the media background ("Thank god [Iraq] is off the front pages," the resurgent surge-monger John  McCain told one of his sycophants in the press corps recently), the very length of the continuing conflict has forced war supporters to grudgingly adopt somewhat more "realistic" figures for the number of human beings gutted, shredded, shot and annihilated to aggrandize the wealth and power of corrupt and fanatic elites in both countries.

Thus a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has been seized upon by some war supporters as "vindication" for their cause -- primarily because it seems to refute or undercut the Lancet study: "Why, we haven't killed a million or even half a million fellow human beings in Iraq; we've only killed 151,000 of them! We're on the side of the angels over there, just like we said all along. Now, let me tell you my ideas about soft partitioning...."

But like the compulsive mastication surrounding the surge itself, the macabre PR driving this latest dribbling of conventional wisdom cud offers much less than meets the eye. Even putting aside the perversity of touting the senseless slaughter of 151,000 people as some kind of moral victory, the new study does not refute the Lancet survey at all; in fact, as Andrew Cockburn notes in an excellent Counterpunch article, the new report is guilty of the same kind of "questionable methodology" of which the Lancet study was unjustly accused. From Cockburn:

...Now we have a new result complied by the Iraqi Ministry of Health under the sponsorship of the World Health Organization and published in the once reputable New England Journal of Medicine, (NEJM) estimating the number of Iraqis murdered, directly or indirectly, by George Bush and his willing executioners at 151,000 -- far less than the most recent Johns Hopkins estimate. Due to its adherence to the rule cited above, this figure has been greeted with respectful attention in press reports, along with swipes at the Hopkins effort as having, as the New York Times had to remind readers, "come under criticism for its methodology."

However, as a careful and informed reading makes clear, it is the new report that guilty of sloppy methodology and tendentious reporting -- evidently inspired by the desire to discredit the horrifying Hopkins findings, which, the NEJM study triumphantly concludes "considerably overestimated the number of violent deaths." In particular, while Johns Hopkins reported that the majority of post-invasion deaths were due to violence, the NEJM serves up the comforting assessment that only one sixth of deaths in this period have been due to violence.

Among the many obfuscations in this new report, the most fundamental is the blurred distinction between it and the survey it sets out to discredit. The Johns Hopkins project sought to enumerate the number of excess deaths due to all causes in the period following the March 2003 invasion as compared with the death rate prior to the invasion, thus giving a number of people who died because Bush invaded. Post hoc, propter hoc. This new study, on the other hand, explicitly sought to analyze only deaths by violence, imposing a measure of subjectivity on the findings from the outset. For example, does the child who dies because the local health clinic has been looted in the aftermath of the invasion count as a casualty of the war, or not? As CounterPunch's statistical consultant Pierre Sprey reacted after reading the full NEJM paper, "They don't say they are comparing entirely different death rates. That's not science, it's politics."

...Les Roberts, one of the principal authors of the Johns Hopkins studies, has commented: "We confirmed our deaths with death certificates, they did not. As the NEJM study's interviewers worked for one side in this conflict, [the U.S. - sponsored government] it is likely that people would be unwilling to admit violent deaths to the study workers."

...If any further confirmation of the essential worthlessness of the NEJM effort, it comes in the bizarre conclusion that violent deaths in the Iraqi population have not increased over the course of the occupation. As Iraq has descended into a bloody civil war during that time, it should seem obvious to the meanest intelligence that violent deaths have to have increased. Indeed, even Iraq Body Count tracks the same rate of increase as the Hopkins survey, while NEJM settles for a mere 7% in recent years....

Finally, there is the matter of the New England Journal of Medicine lending its imprimatur to this farrago. Once upon a time, under the great editor Marsha Angell, this was an organ unafraid to cock a snoot at power. In particular, Angell refused to pander to the mendacities of the drug companies, thereby earning their undying enmity. Much has evidently changed, as the recruiting ad for the U.S. Army on the home page of the current New England Journal reminds us.

But of course, for moral perverts like George W. Bush and all those who have championed his Hitlerian assault -- from the bootlicking yellowstains of the Young Republicans to the bloodthirsty "liberal hawks" like Christopher Hitchens and Michael O'Hanlon -- it doesn't really matter how you count the dead....when the dead don't count.