Moralising With Numbers

Much has been made of a recent report in the Lancet which sought to estimate the number of civilian casualties due to the war in Iraq. Of course such a task is not an easy one, and such numbers must be imprecise at best.

But the left-wing press was happy to seize on the report of nearly 700,000 civilian casualties, with the usual finger-pointing: “See what Bush has done!”

However, leftist columnist – but Iraq war supporter – Christopher Hitchens writes in the October 16, 2006 Slate, that the figures certainly need to be questioned. For example, the implication is that US and Allied forces have killed 700,000 innocent people. But the story is certainly more complex.

In his piece, “The Lancet’s Slant,” Hitchens starts with the figure itself: “654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war,” as the report puts it. Notes Hitchens, “The figure is both oddly exact and strangely imprecise: It does not clearly state, for example, that all these people have actually been killed, but it does suggest a steep climb in the Iraqi death rate. In its attribution of cause, it is also more vague than it may appear. These deaths are the claimed result, be it noted, of ‘the war’.”

He explains, “If the cause of all this death is ‘the war,’ does that mean that the coalition has killed nearly 700,000 Iraqis? Of course it means nothing of the sort. Indeed, if you look more closely, you will see that less than one-third of the surplus deaths are attributed, even by this study, to ‘Allied’ military action. Grant if you wish that this figure is likely to be more exact, since at least the coalition fights in uniform and issues regular statistics. That leaves, according to the Lancet, a pile of corpses nearly half a million high. Here, the cause of death becomes suddenly less precisely identifiable. We are told that 24 percent of the violent deaths were caused by ‘other’ actors, and 45 percent of them by ‘unknown’ ones. If there is any method of distinguishing between the ‘other’ and the ‘unknown,’ we are not told of it.”

The numbers require further detailing: “Make the assumption that some percentage of those killed by the coalition are the sort of people who have been blowing up mosques, beheading captives on video, detonating rush-hour car bombs, destroying pipelines, murdering aid workers, bombing the headquarters of the United Nations, and inciting ethnic and sectarian warfare. Make the allowance for the number of bystanders and innocents who lost their lives in the combat against these fanatics (one or two, alas, in the single case of the precision bombing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, just to take one instance). But who is to say how many people were saved from being murdered by the fact that the murderers were killed first?”

Indeed, the causes and circumstances of the deaths need to be clearly ascertained: “Just in the last few days, we have read reports of a Sunni Muslim vice president of Iraq who has had three members of his family killed, and of the delightful insurgent practice of leaving ‘IEDs’ in the mountains of garbage that bestrew Baghdad’s slums so that ragpickers and garbage collectors can be randomly killed. No doubt the relatives of these victims report ‘excess deaths’ in their family circle, as indeed they should. And it is true that some of the killers are sheltered within parties that have connections to the government. But the ‘tit for tat’ confessional killings were and are a deliberate tactic of the insurgency and now threaten to spread into mass reprisals on both sides, while all the effort of the coalition is devoted to negotiating a compromise between the country’s factions. It is simple moral idiocy to fail to distinguish between these phenomena.”

Other considerations must be taken into account. For example, “The Lancet figures are almost certainly inflated, not least because they were taken from selective war-torn provinces.” And there may well be political bias involved as well. For example, “the editor of the magazine is a full-throated speaker at rallies of the Islamist-Leftist alliance that makes up the British Stop the War Coalition.”

The fact that civilians are being killed is undeniable. But who is doing the killing and why is another matter. And other questions can be asked. How much killing was taking place under Saddam’s dictatorship? How many more deaths would have happened had his regime been allowed to continue?

We are all appalled at civilian casualties. But we must not succumb to the game of moral equivalence. The Allies seek to minimise civilian casualties as much as possible, and are regretful when they occur. However, when civilians die at the hands of terrorists, it is a calculated and deliberate policy. That is what terrorism is all about: the specific targeting of civilians for the sake of terror.

The situation in Iraq is far from ideal. But it was far from ideal under Saddam. And politicised number crunching is not all that helpful in such a situation.

[844 words]

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