Friday, October 13, 2006

The Lancet Study -- A rejoiner to October 12 Comments

The 2006 Johns Hopkins-sponsored epidemiological survey of “excess deaths” (that is, deaths above the pre-March 19, 2003 death rate) in Iraq attributed directly and indirectly to the U.S.-led intervention in that country and to the increased chaos has – not unexpectedly – drawn dismissive criticism from the White House.

Over at the Pentagon, the findings, published in the British medical journal Lancet, were the topic of the first question at an October 11 press conference held by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General George Casey. Casey, the senior U.S. general in Iraq, characterized the report’s finding that 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths had occurred between March 19, 2003 and September 2006 as “not credible.”

That’s not how Middle East expert Professor Juan Cole sees it. But the numbers have to be disaggregated to really make sense.

For example, Cole notes that about 200,000 Iraqis have been killed EACH YEAR in the sectarian strife that broke out after the U.S. invasion. Depending on the margin of error (always given as a probability range), that breaks down to between 350 and 470 Iraqis dying from political violence daily.

By contrast, UN agencies in-country estimate only about 100 die daily from the sectarian struggle. This is patently an undercount since the UN relies on statistics from morgues. And anyone who has followed Iraq (or any country or population segment that is Islamic) knows that many bodies never reach a morgue because of the practice of burying the deceased before the sun goes down on the day of death or no longer than 24 hours after death.

On a practical note, Iraqi government workers and non-combatants alike do not have consistent access to certain parts of the country – places like Anbar province, some of the marsh areas in the south of Iraq, and of course some of the slum areas of Baghdad. Cole notes that Iraq has 89 urban areas plus Baghdad. If the capital averages just 100 dead daily and the other 89 cities average 4, one would be in the 655,000 range of the study.

Media reports of casualties concentrate on the fatalities in and around Baghdad, rarely covering other areas unless a really egregious incident occurs. As Professor Cole notes, even when there is sustained sectarian or inter-tribal bloodshed in a city, those numbers seem not to be included in the monthly statistics from Iraqi authorities.

The Lancet study breaks the total into “excess violent deaths” and non-violent excess deaths – 601,000 and 54,000, respectively. Of the violent deaths over the entire period, only 30% are attributed to U.S. forces, and this percentage is dropping as the sectarian strife increases.

Finally, a bit of perspective is in order.

The U.S. Army War College records that in the four years of the U.S. Civil War (April 1861-April 1865), the combined battle deaths of all the armies on both sides came to 184,600. Non-battle deaths IN THE ARMIES of both sides totaled 373,450. Thus total deaths IN THE ARMED FORCES were 558,050.

Other sites note that Union Army records list another 50,000 deaths from causes ranging from executions, captivity, murder and suicide to drowning and sunstroke. When added to the War College estimate (Confederate non-combat deaths are estimates), the total (608,000) approximates the unofficial but regularly used total of 620,000 deaths or an average of 155,000 per year just within the armed forces. The civilian population killed in the war, especially in the Confederacy, has never been calculated.)

(Interestingly, U.S. census records for the area labeled “South” record a population increase of 1.3 million between 1860 and 1870 against a total U.S. population growth of 3.8 million in the same ten years.)

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