The Blog

Body Count

Inside the voodoo science of calculating civilian casualties.

7:00 AM, Apr 16, 2003 • By JOSH CHAFETZ
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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.