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Body Count

Inside the voodoo science of calculating civilian casualties.

7:00 AM, Apr 16, 2003 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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IT'S ALMOST AS IF some people want Iraqi civilians to die. So eager are they to score political points that you can almost see them licking their chops as they desperately seek out any reports--however sketchy--of Iraqi casualties. For their political agenda, the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi.

I'm talking, of course, about the small but heavily publicized portion of the antiwar movement that predicts and counts civilian casualties.

First, the predictors: Medact, the British affiliate of the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, released a study last November predicting a total death toll of somewhere between 48,000 and 261,000, with up to 200,000 additional deaths from "indirect and longer-term adverse health effects of the war in Iraq." Medact predicted that between 3,200 and 80,000 (when in doubt, go for a wide range!) of the initial deaths would be civilians, and presumably almost all of the later 200,000 would. (Medact also suggested that, in the event of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack, either the United States or Israel might nuke Baghdad, killing between 300,000 and 3.9 million, mostly civilians.)

Another prediction, a leaked confidential report by a U.N. humanitarian aid specialist, foresaw 500,000 Iraqi civilian casualties from U.S. action, but didn't speculate on how many would be fatal.

And on almost any street in Oxford, one can see the posters passed out by the British chapter of Amnesty International, entitled "Iraq: The Human Costs of War." The poster, which is careful to cover itself by using a lot of question marks, reads in part: "50,000 Civilian Deaths? 500,000 Civilians Injured?" Not quite, thank God.

But far worse is a group that claims to be keeping an accurate running count of Iraqi civilian deaths but is, in fact, doing no such thing. The group is called the Iraq Body Count Project, and its main figure is Marc Herold, a professor of economics and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire. You may remember Herold from his similar project during the Afghanistan campaign. There, he produced a figure of almost 3,800 civilian casualties, and his methodology was immediately criticized by many for taking reports from unreliable media sources at face value and for double-counting some incidents. An independent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found 1,200 or fewer civilian casualties.

Unbowed, Herold turned his attention to the Iraq Body Count Project. The Project's website has a continuously updated "maximum" and "minimum" count. The problem is that the minimum is anything but. As the Project's methodology page explains, "The minimum can be zero if there is a report of 'zero deaths' from two of our sources. 'Unable to confirm any deaths' or similar wording (as in an official statement) does NOT amount to a report of zero, and will NOT lead to an entry of '0' in the minimum column." In other words, suppose the Iraqi Information Minister said, "Today the imperialist aggressors slaughtered 300 innocent Iraqi children." Reputable news outlets will report what the Minister said, while simultaneously reporting that they were unable to confirm it and that the Pentagon was unable to confirm it.

But the Pentagon will only rarely be able to say with certainty that the incident did not happen, or that no innocent civilians died--the fog of war is often too thick, and the Pentagon, unlike the (former) Iraqi Information Minister, does not want to make false statements. So, instead, it will say that it was "unable to confirm" the reports. And the result? The Iraq Body Count Project will add 300 to both its minimum and its maximum counts.

To take two actual examples from the Project's database, consider the explosions in the Al-Shaab marketplace in Baghdad on March 26 and in the Al-Nasser marketplace in Baghdad on March 28. For the former, the Project lists a minimum of 14 and a maximum of 15 civilian deaths caused by coalition action; for the latter, the numbers are 34 and 62. But anyone who reads the papers knows that the U.S. and British governments claim that, in both these instances, Iraq--either intentionally or mistakenly--caused those explosions itself. By refusing to put zero in the minimum column, the Project again privileges Iraqi government sources over Western ones.

And yet the Western media continue to take the Project's numbers seriously. Its figures have been cited everywhere from the New York Times and the Washington Post to Wired, the Independent (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany), and Libération (France). And in a couple rotations of the media spin cycle, inflated figures born out of a simple political agenda to discredit coalition military action become established "facts." The BBC website has thus cited the Project's count while simply referring to it as an "independent website," without even giving its name so that readers can check for themselves.

So how many civilians have actually died in Iraq? The simple answer is that it's far too early to come up with anything resembling an accurate count. But it is striking that, as of this writing, the Iraq Body Count Project's maximum stands at less than 1,800. And if there's one thing we can say for sure about the Iraq Body Count Project, it's that the maximum is undoubtedly a true max: Given the group's methodological biases, the chances of the actual number of civilian deaths being higher than its maximum figure seem very, very small. By comparison, the best estimate of civilian deaths in the first Gulf War--where the military task was significantly less demanding and the number of people liberated significantly smaller--was between 2,000 and 3,000.

Unfortunately, in an ever faster media cycle, the press often takes numbers wherever it can get them, without bothering to inquire into the counters' agenda or even methodology. Fools and knaves come up with figures--be they advance predictions or ongoing "counts"--where responsible observers fear to tread, and the media, for lack of good numbers, cite the foolish or downright dishonest ones.

Josh Chafetz is a graduate student in politics at Merton College, Oxford, the co-founder of the Oxford Democracy Forum, and the co-editor of OxBlog.