Ten Years On, Calculating The True Cost Of The War In Iraq
This past week was a time for reflection on one of the greatest blunders in U.S. foreign policy: George Bush’s misguided and unjustified war in Iraq, which began ten years ago. And yes, it is and shall ever be George Bush’s war in Iraq, for reasons I’ve already explained.
I’ve read an awful lot of commentary on the subject. You probably have, too. Most of it focused on the obvious: That Saddam Hussein’s regime did not have weapons of mass destruction; that Iraq had no operational connections with al Qaeda; that the Bush Administration fudged the intelligence to make its case for war; that the media was entirely too solicitous of Bush and his cronies, failed to ask the hard questions, and ultimately was complicit in the tragedy. Along the way, I read a lot about the financial cost of the war in Iraq (estimated to be at least $823 billion), and the number of American casualties there (according to the Department of Defense (.pdf file): 4,422 killed, 31,926 wounded).
But when it comes to the number of Iraqis killed or wounded … well, that’s when most commentators become a little vague. Were there tens of thousands of Iraqis killed? Hundreds of thousands? Remember when George Bush was asked in December 2005 how many Iraqis had died and he responded: “I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis …”
It’s a big number, but, really, who’s counting?
There are, of course, organizations that have tried to do that grim counting. One of the better known organizations is IraqBodyCount.org, which estimates the total number of Iraqi civilians “killed by violence” to be between 111,827 and 122,306. But therein lies the problem. As its website explains:
Iraq Body Count is an ongoing human security project which maintains and updates the world’s largest public database of violent civilian deaths during and since the 2003 invasion. The count encompasses non-combatants killed by military or paramilitary action and the breakdown in civil security following the invasion.
Data is drawn from cross-checked media reports, hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures to produce a credible record of known deaths and incidents.
This information is extraordinarily useful, but it’s incomplete. The problem is, if you only count official and/or media reports of individuals who died in acts of violence – whether the initial bombing campaign and invasion, or subsequent military actions and terrorists attacks – your numbers will not include everyone who died as a direct and proximate result of the U.S. invasion. That’s because not every death is accurately reported in the first instance, and it’s because even after the bullets stop flying and the bombs stop dropping, the effects of all that destruction continue to reverberate. The war destroyed roads, bridges, government buildings, water filtration plants, houses, apartment buildings, hospitals, infrastructure … and that means that people were exposed to the elements, were deprived of food and potable water, were unable to get medical treatment for otherwise treatable injuries and illnesses.
And so people died of exposure, starvation, dehydration, deprivation, and otherwise treatable injuries and illnesses. All as a direct and probable consequence of the war itself.
All told, the actual number of deaths caused by the U.S. invasion, whether caused by acts of violence or by the resulting destruction of housing and infrastructure and so forth, is likely much higher than any of the “official” estimates. In October 2006 – some five years before the war ended – the British medical journal The Lancet published a study conducted by public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University, which indicated that “approximately 600,000 people have been killed in the violence of the war that began with the U.S. invasion in March 2003.” You can download a .pdf file of the researchers’ paper, entitled The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study 2002-2006, here. At the time, the Washington Post reported:
A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.
The estimate, produced by interviewing residents during a random sampling of households throughout the country, is far higher than ones produced by other groups, including Iraq’s government.
The surveyors said they found a steady increase in mortality since the invasion, with a steeper rise in the last year that appears to reflect a worsening of violence as reported by the U.S. military, the news media and civilian groups. In the year ending in June, the team calculated Iraq’s mortality rate to be roughly four times what it was the year before the war.
Of the total 655,000 estimated “excess deaths,” 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country.
That was in 2006. How many more died from 2006 until the U.S. formally withdrew from Iraq in December 2011? How many more died after the U.S. formally withdrew, as a consequence of the instability we unleashed there? How many will continue to die until real stability returns?
When it came out, the 2006 Johns Hopkins/Lancet study was controversial, but that’s only because the task those researchers undertook was essentially an impossible one. No one really knows, or will ever know, exactly how many people died because of George Bush’s catastrophic failure in Iraq, largely because the U.S. made such a mess of that country, the total human costs of that war are simply incalculable.
We’ll never really know the full cost of the war, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care.
And, god damn it, that doesn’t mean we should ever forget.
David von Ebers
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