Friday, January 04, 2008

Deconstructing the Lancet Iraq death toll study

The National Journal, ideologically motivated though it may be, has a thoughtful compilation of criticisms leveled at the October 2006 Lancet study that estimated as many as 650,000 Iraqis had died in the war.

They don't actually claim to debunk the study; instead, they raise specific methodological questions, and identify what they see as the weakest link: a heavy reliance on a single Iraqi researcher, who trained and oversaw the work of the surveyors who carried out the study.

As I said at the time, the specific number -- 650,000 -- needed to be taken with a grain of salt. Even if you think the researchers were totally on the up and up, the inherent difficulties of conducting statistical surveys in a war zone give reason for pause.

But given that even conservative estimates placed the number of dead at 50,000 (it's up to 80,000 now), and a month later the Iraqi health minister gave an estimate of 150,000, we're still talking about a lot of dead Iraqis. Even a total debunking of the Lancet study wouldn't alter the fact that the war is killing people faster than Saddam ever did.

Such a death toll, though, says nothing about the relative justness of this war. War kills people. The human toll needs to be part of the equation both when deciding to go to war and when considering how to prosecute it, but intent and execution matter.

The Russians in Chechnya, for example, were roundly and justly criticized for their indiscriminate use of heavy firepower. For the most part they didn't care at all how many civilians they killed.

The U.S. military, by contrast, generally takes pains to minimize civilian casualties. And one thing the Lancet study doesn't do is make a distinction between true civilian deaths and the deaths of insurgents. It's hard to feel sorry for a guy who gets dead because he opened fire on U.S. troops.

We can be held responsible in a general way for people killed by car bombings, on the theory that our invasion set off the chain of events that led to the instability in which car bombings occur. But that's a different sort of critique than "the U.S. is killing Iraqis in huge numbers." And it ignores the counterargument that the war is (hopefully) temporary, so that even if the short-run is horrific, Iraqis will be better off in the long run.

Strong antiwar types are in the uncomfortable position of wanting the 650,000 figure to be true, because it would support their argument that the war is a human catastrophe that can only be put right by immediate withdrawal. Strong prowar types are in the equally untenable position of arguing that the war has "only" killed 150,000 (or 100,000, or 80,000). That comes uncomfortably close to the logic of some Holocaust deniers, who try to minimize Hitler's crimes by arguing that the common estimate of 6 million dead Jews is exaggerated -- the true number was "only" a million or so.

The truth is, a lot of Iraqis have died because we invaded Iraq. We must bear that responsibility, not shrug it off. Whether it was worth it will only be known with certainty 10 or 20 years from now, when the outcome of our intervention is discernable. For now, the death rate is high enough to derail one late-arriving justification for the war -- that Saddam was killing his own people -- but not high enough to justify a withdrawal now that we're knee-deep in the mess and maybe -- just maybe -- starting to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

But let this serve as a reminder that war, while sometimes necessary or the best choice out of a set of bad options, is always a catastrophe. This one was entered into far too lightly; let's hope it ensures that the next one won't be.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you lived under Nazis Germany's Hitler----you might have lived and not been killed. But what KIND of life was it? The Iraqi's now at least have a chance to have a completely different kind of a country. I doubt the numbers anyway. But I DO know that some 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria just came back into Iraq. That tells me two things: they feel safe enough now to come back, and they STILL believe in their country.


1/05/2008 6:28 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

The Iraqi's now at least have a chance to have a completely different kind of a country.

True, but I'm sure many of the dead Iraqis would rather be alive than casualties of a grand social and political experiment.

Tradeoffs are tough to weigh when the price is paid in human lives.

I doubt the numbers anyway. But I DO know that some 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria just came back into Iraq.

Here's a link to the story you're referring to.

Yep, some are starting to come back. Trouble is, the reasons for their return are unclear. And considering that there are an estimated 2 million or so Iraqi refugees, what you cite is something of a drop in the bucket.

1/07/2008 9:44 AM  

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