The Magazine

The Casualties of War

The Lancet study of Iraq deaths is further discredited.

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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That the new World Health Organization-Iraqi government study of war-related Iraq deaths reached wildly different conclusions from two much-hyped reports in the British medical journal the Lancet is no surprise to anyone who has followed the issue. But the new study highlights the fanaticism of the Lancet and its defenders and illustrates yet again the bias of mainstream media coverage of the Iraq war.

In late October, 2004 Lancet published a report estimating 98,000 war-related deaths in the first 18 months of the conflict. Two years later, the Lancet updated that figure to a stunning 655,000 Iraqis dead by July 2006 as a consequence of the March 2003 U.S. invasion. The media stood at attention and saluted. "Within a week, the study had been featured in 25 news shows and 188 articles in U.S. newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times," according to an excellent investigative report in the January 4 National Journal. CBS News called the 2006 Lancet report a "new and stunning measure of the havoc the American invasion unleashed in Iraq."

Inevitably, the World Socialist website demanded: "Why is the American press silent on the report of 655,000 Iraqi deaths?" Too bad it wasn't--silence (or at least a modicum of skepticism) is what should have greeted the Lancet report.

The latest study, called the Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS), was published in the January 9 issue of the nation's most prestigious medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine. It found an estimated 151,000 excess violent deaths from the U.S-led invasion in March 2003 through June 2006, when compared to violent deaths in the prewar period. This is roughly one-fourth the war-related deaths found by Lancet in 2006. Further, for the most recent comparable reporting time periods for both surveys, it found the Lancet 2006 number to be more than seven times that of its own survey. And other estimates indicate the IFHS figures themselves may be too high.

One estimate that's far lower even than the IFHS figures comes from IraqBodyCount.org, the antiwar website which at the time of Lancet 2004 reported 14,000-16,000 war-related deaths. Even now Iraq Body Count tallies fewer than 90,000 fatalities. Its figures, according to its website, include "individual or cumulative deaths as directly reported by the media or tallied by official bodies (for instance, by hospitals, morgues and, in a few cases so far, NGOs), and subsequently reported in the media." It doesn't, however, include combatant deaths among Iraqis, which would be picked up by household surveys like that of the IFHS. (Osama bin Laden himself in his preelection 2004 video used the Iraq Body Count figures to decry the volume of blood spilled by the infidels.)

Then there's the U.N-conducted Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004 (ILCS). Using a dataset significantly larger than that of either of the Lancet studies--22,000 households versus 988 for Lancet 2004 and 1,849 for Lancet 2006--it found 24,000 war-related deaths from the opening of the war until May 2004. That's only the first 14 months of conflict compared with 18 in Lancet 2004, but it does stretch the imagination that in those ensuing four months the numbers of deaths somehow quadrupled.

Only one source found higher numbers than either Lancet paper--a poll by the British Opinion Research Business (ORB). It claimed in a September 2007 press release that "more than 1,000,000 Iraqi citizens have been murdered since the invasion took place in 2003." (Emphasis added.) The polling ended in August 2007, and the actual alleged death toll was over 1.2 million.

"Murdered" isn't the language of the staid, neutral polling organization that its defenders claim ORB to be. Yet surely only a hardened cynic would assert that ORB's purpose was to make the Lancet figures seem to be in the ballpark despite all other studies showing otherwise.

Or perhaps it wouldn't take a hardened cynic. "The key importance of the [ORB] poll," claimed one leftist British "media watch" organization, "is that it provides .  .  . strong support for the findings of the 2006 Lancet study, which reported 655,000 deaths."

Big numbers can be hard to wrap your mind around. Fortunately, the IFHS paper breaks the figures down so they are more comprehensible, and so doing utterly damns the Lancet assertion.

"The IFHS data," states the paper, "indicate that every day 128 persons died from violence from March 2003 through April 2004, 115 from May 2004 through May 2005, and 126 from June 2005 through June 2006. The Iraq Body Count numbers were 43, 32, and 55 civilian deaths per day for the same periods. In the [Lancet 2006 study] there was a much higher rate of death from violence and a sharp increase during the 3-year period, with 231, 491, and 925 deaths per day, respectively."