Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Iraqi dead

By Michael J.W. Stickings

So just how many Iraqis have been killed since the war began? Is the number really well over 600,000, as the recent and widely-quoted Johns Hopkins report suggests?

At Healing Iraq, Zeyad says that "654,965 excess civilian deaths is an absurd number". He estimates that the actual total is "half that number". Yet he makes an important point that is often lost in our attempts to quantify the violence in Iraq:

As if it is different for Iraqis whether 50,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the war or 600,000. The bottom line is that there is a steady increase in civilian deaths, that the health system is rapidly deteriorating, and that things are clearly not going in the right direction.

He's right. 600,000 is a lot worse than 50,000, but 50,000 is still pretty bad. Is it possible to justify 50,000 "excess" deaths? A single death is a tragedy. Beyond that, all we have are numbers, the callousness of quantification -- even worse, the politicization of quantification, with one side saying this, the other that, all with little apparent regard for the basic truth that thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in Iraq since that much-ballyhooed shock-and-awe campaign back in March 2003.

I suppose the actual number does matter. We should all know just how massive the death toll has been, just what the human cost of the war has been. But let's not get caught up in excessively pedantic arguments that detach us from the human context of the violence in Iraq. Whatever the actual number, after all, Bush's misadventure in Iraq has been a disaster, with countless Iraqis suffering as a result.

Read Zehad's excellent post. Then go see Tim F. over at Balloon Juice: "If people stopped dying tomorrow, Bush and his enablers would have an ambiguous claim for the bloodiest reign in recent Iraqi history. Regardless of whether we personally killed these people, they died because we consciously chose to destabilize Iraq without planning for the power vacuum and the violent groups that it would inevitably draw in. But people won’t stop dying tomorrow. The bloodshed has gotten immeasurably worse in recent months and precisely no reason exists to think that trend will turn around."

And so it goes. The number of "excess" Iraqi dead, whatever it is, will keep rising. The human cost of failure is immense indeed.

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