The Iraqi dead

Respect must be paid

Silence and the mournful echo of remembrance...hang over this suffering land,” wrote James Kitfield, who covered the war in Iraq for the National Journal (April 12) and was clearly shaken by what he saw: “While no accurate tally of Iraqis killed in this war exists, the dead surely number in the thousands upon thousands.” Nothing will more deeply mark the American occupation of Iraq than how these dead and their survivors are treated.

Between seventeen hundred and twenty-seven hundred civilians were killed in Baghdad during major combat operations, according to a May 18 report in the Los Angeles Times based on the newspaper’s survey of Baghdad’s hospitals. Hospital officials stressed to the Times that no official entity, Iraqi or American, has been interested in such information: “No one has asked us for our figures-not the Health Ministry, not the bureau of registry, not the Americans, no one,” said Dr. Daoud Jasim, an orthopedic surgeon at Mahmoudiya Hospital, about twenty miles south of the city center, that reported more than two hundred civilian deaths. “And it was a battlefield here, with civilians caught in the middle.”

On June 11, the Associated Press published a hospital-by-hospital survey that confirmed at least 3,240 civilian casualties, including 1,896 in Baghdad. The AP report covered only 60 of Iraq’s 124 hospitals and only the period between March 20 and April 20. Thus,

the count is still fragmentary, and the complete number-if it is ever tallied-is sure to be significantly higher....Even if hospital records were complete, they would not tell the full story. Many of the dead were never taken to hospitals, either buried quickly by their families in accordance with Islamic custom, or lost under the rubble. The AP excluded all counts done by hospitals whose written records did not distinguish between civilian and military dead, which means hundreds, possibly thousands, of victims in Iraq’s largest cities and most intense battles weren’t reflected in the count.

Strikingly few American newspapers saw fit to publish even a summary of the AP survey.

There is no official U.S. count of Iraqi casualties nor, so far, any plan to prepare one. Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jim Cassella explained to the AP: “Our efforts focus on destroying the enemy’s capabilities, so we never target civilians and have no reason to try to count such unintended deaths.” Cassella added that the Iraqi military’s use of civilian disguises and civilian shields would make an accurate count of civilian casualties impossible.

Information about military casualties is even more fragmentary. The U.S. military told the Wall Street Journal (April 10) that as of April 10 at least 2,320 Iraqi soldiers had been killed in the battle for Baghdad alone. A week earlier CBS reported the estimate of “several officers” in the U.S. military that 4,000 Iraqi troops had been killed on the road from the Euphrates to Baghdad. To these numbers must be added the Iraqi military dead in the early, fierce fighting for Umm Qasr and Basra in the south, the later fighting for Mosul and Kirkuk in the north, little-noted battles to seal Iraq’s western border with Jordan, and various other bloody engagements. Not even a preliminary total is available.

What is the ratio of civilian to military casualties in Iraq? On May 1, President George W. Bush strongly suggested that military casualties were far greater than civilian, thanks to the precision of American weaponry:

In the images of falling statues, we have witnessed the arrival of a new era....With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war; yet it is a great moral advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent. (Applause.)

To the extent that the president’s words were true, they deserve applause; but combat is not the chief cause of civilian death in war. “Ninety percent of war casualties are civilian,” Geoff Davis, director of the peace studies program at the University of Natal in South Africa, told the Christian Science Monitor (April 9), “and most of them die as a result of famine or the breakdown of medical facilities, not in combat.”

Most researchers estimate military casualties in Gulf War I at ten-to-fifteen thousand. Civilian casualties were higher: 17,500, according to a Columbia University study. Thirty-five hundred civilians died as collateral casualties during the shooting war; after the shooting, to quote a report about the study in Time (April 21) magazine, “an additional 14,000 died of waterborne diseases as displaced populations used contaminated rivers for drinking and bathing.” A Carnegie-Mellon study cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 28) estimates the same 3,500 dead during the fighting but a much greater 111,000 afterward.

Despite precision weapons, the casualty curve of Gulf War I may well be repeating in Gulf War II. In May, the World Health Organization confirmed seventeen cases of cholera, a waterborne disease that kills quickly by inducing uncontrollable diarrhea, in two Basra hospitals. When Anglo-American air strikes took out the electrical grid that powers the Basra water plant in the first days of the war, residents were driven to gather water from the polluted Shatt al-Arab river. In late June, the New York Times reported that the inability of the occupation forces to halt looting (or sabotage) of the Baghdad power grid has resulted in recurrent power outages that in turn have led to huge backups of sewage: “In some areas on the east side of Baghdad, some streets have been flooded for entire blocks with overflows of sewage.”

Given the size of U.S. field estimates of Iraqi military casualties, given the scope of the water system destruction and the documented outbreak of cholera, given careful efforts like those of the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, it scarcely seems reckless to make a preliminary guess that Gulf War II will cost twice as many Iraqi lives as Gulf War I did. Reckoning Gulf War I casualties at the low-end consensus figure of 30,000 (12,500 military plus 17,500 civilian), it would then seem conservative to estimate that 60,000 Iraqis may die as a result of the current conflict.

What will be the impact of these deaths on Iraqi society? Granting that every human life is of incalculable value, the socioeconomic impact of mass death varies with the size of the population suffering a given loss. Iraq at 24 million people is just one-twelfth the size of the United States at 290 million. If Iraqi war deaths in the current war are reckoned at sixty thousand, then Iraq in the months to come will be reeling from a socioeconomic blow equivalent to that of seven hundred and twenty thousand dead in the United States (60,000 x 12).

In putting forward these staggering numbers, I do not intend simply to embarrass the Bush administration (what would be the point?) but, if anything, to motivate it. Is the success of the American occupation of Iraq not well served by a good-faith effort to win the allegiance of the occupied nation by honoring its dead? Does the provisional, American-run government of Iraq think it need pay no attention to this matter at all?

Critics and advocates of the war do not differ in their hope that the occupation may redeem the terrible losses that the war has inflicted on Iraq by leaving behind a free, prosperous nation in which human rights are at last acknowledged and protected. What is at stake is more than Iraqi allegiance or Iraqi recovery alone. At stake is American honor. Will it be said-years from now, perhaps even months from now-that in the first preemptive war in American history, Americans did not ask and did not want to know how many Iraqis they had killed and did not consider it their responsibility to so much as notify the orphans, the widows, and the bereaved parents?

Granting that there is no reason for an army to try to count unintended civilian casualties in the heat of combat, the United States as Iraq’s only government cannot excuse itself from the basic duty that any respectable government must discharge toward the dead-the duty, namely, to bury the bodies, notify the survivors, and publish the names. What is called for is nothing that would be the equivalent of the laying of a memorial wreath. What the military and the civilian dead alike are owed is no more than a semblance of what would be done for plane crash victims in the United States. At the moment that little is not being done, and the omission-a default of simple decency-can scarcely fail to discredit the American liberation of Iraq. end

Published in the 2003-07-18 issue: 
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Jack Miles is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography and, most recently, Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story (W. W. Norton).

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