Truth is the First Civilian Casualty

The nearest I ever came to becoming a civilian victim of the war in Iraq, so far as I know, was at the business end of the guns of a squad of American soldiers. They were about 200 yards away from us at a car stop, too far to be sure I was a foreigner. I was too close to escape the menacing finality of the .50 caliber machinegun mounted atop their Humvee. We were in a red BMW and had the misfortune to be leaving a neighborhood that had just been subjected to a cordon and search, all entrances sealed by troops, who happened to have been alerted that insurgents might flee the area in, yes, a red car. The troops dismounted, except for the machine gunner, and split into two teams on opposite sides of the wide road, one team a bit closer to us. They were screaming at us to stop; our driver's first instinct was to reverse out of there but we persuaded him that would be quickly fatal. "Get out of the car!" yelled the infantry captain in charge, with the team on the left. And when we did, "Get back in the f---g car," screamed a sergeant with the team on the right. We held our credentials forward like baptismal offerings, our empty hands all in plain view. "Put your hands up," shouted the captain. "Get down on the ground NOW!" screamed the sergeant. We couldn't very well do those things simultaneously so we hovered between up and down and we could see them all shouldering their rifles, locked and loaded. We could hear both team leaders, but with all the street noise, the roar of the omnipresent generators mostly, they apparently couldn't hear one another. The distance narrowed as they advanced, though, and I hazarded walking toward them in hopes they'd see I was an American before they started shooting.

Afterward I asked their captain how close they had come to killing us. He still had the safety off his M-16, his finger still curled around the trigger. He twitched it imperceptibly. "That close," he said. Had I not been there, but just my Iraqi colleagues or had the driver panicked and reversed or even had they been just a little farther away, no doubt I would not be writing this now. An ending that unfortunately many Iraqis have already suffered, shot at checkpoints and roadstops by jumpy troops, mistaken for possible suicide bombers, bombed by aircraft with faulty targeting information. All those things have indeed happened.

But how often, really? The answer: not very often, in fact. And not nearly often enough to make the 150,000 U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq the leading scourge of Iraq's civilians. That dishonor goes, hands down, to the insurgents. Even one incident is bad, of course, and there have been many. But civilian killings by U.S. troops are not nearly as common as the critics of the war in Iraq would like us to believe. It has become an article of faith among them that American troops have been slaughtering Iraqi civilians indiscriminately, and that one of the consequences of the war has been an unconscionable loss of life among the civilian population. It just isn't true.

The most recent entry in this campaign is a report released on July 19 by Iraq Body Count. This Web-based group ( compiles news accounts of casualties in Iraq and tabulates them. "If journalism is the first draft of history, then this dossier may claim to be an early historical analysis of the military intervention's known human costs," the report's authors write. They tally 24,865 civilians reported killed between the invasion on March 20, 2003 and March 19, 2005. News reports of casualties in Iraq are often notoriously unreliable; Iraqi officials have no systematic means of disseminating and verifying casualty information, which is typically gleaned by the press from policemen and witnesses at the scene. The U.S. military generally refuses to give any civilian casualty information. Reported death tolls vary widely for the same incident. But leaving aside the reliability of this data, it's highly dubious to suggest, as this report clearly intends to do, that these deaths were the fault of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The text of the report is decorated with pull quotes from news accounts of checkpoint killings and aerial bombardments. Even if U.S. troops didn't kill all these people, they're telling us, these civilians would not have died were it not for the U.S. presence. Is it the policeman's fault when the hostage taker kills his hostage?

In fact, a fair reading of the report's own data could support a completely contrary conclusion. Were it not for the insurgents, there would scarcely be much of a civilian death toll in Iraq now. A few isolated cases, yes, but nothing like the 8,000 civilians the Iraqi government says have died so far in 2005 from insurgent attacks. Fully 30 percent of the civilian fatalities Iraq Body Count records took place prior to May 1, 2003, when U.S. troops were actively engaged in the invasion and in subduing remnants of Saddam's army. During that military campaign, large numbers of Saddam Fedayeen and other irregular forces foght back from the cover of civilian dress, a violation of the laws and customs of warfare. Those who died were inevitably declared civilians by their loved ones. And such forces in most places represented the bulk of the resistance against the invasion; the uniformed Iraqi military for the most part deserted and fled. And Saddam's forces, both uniformed and not, systematically took refuge in schools, mosques, hospitals, and civilian neighborhoods, using those places as firebases--a guarantee that civilians would be killed in the process. In many places, coalition troops held their fire and slowed their advance for fear of causing greater civilian loss of life. In all, 6,616 civilian fatalities are listed by the report. Even if you make the dubious assumption that all of them were truly civilians, it is not surprising that so many died. Given the tactics of the enemy, it's surprising that so few did.

Another big chunk of the fatalities recorded in the report took place in April and November of 2004, mostly in Fallujah during the two U.S. military operations to subdue that community. No journalists were permitted in Fallujah, except where embedded with military forces, so all news accounts of fatalities were based on contacts made with Iraqi stringers in Fallujah, or on telephone contacts to the hospital there. Even Iraqi stringers were mostly locals; outsiders were forbidden entry by the insurgents. The hospital was an insurgent stronghold, even at one point used as a fire base, and its officials were insurgent propagandists; they insisted, for instance, that every single casualty they treated had been a civilian victim, a claim so implausible as to remind one of the hilarious pronouncements of Saddam's henchmen before and during the invasion. Iraqi stringers in Fallujah were nearly all local residents of the community, whose sympathies were entirely with the insurgents; their reports were next to worthless when it came to death tolls. At one point in April 2004, when Fallujah hospital officials were claiming more than 900 dead (a figure too incredible even to make it into the Iraq Body Count report), NEWSWEEK arranged for intermediaries to photograph the freshly dug graves in the cemetery, and we counted the headstones. There were 40 we could see, and Muslims do not normally wait around to bury their dead. Certainly there were probably other gravesites; but not 900 or even IBC's 600 for April 2004.

Consider the graph in the report detailing monthly deaths. It shows deaths attributed to US-led forces (again, using news report-compiled data of dubious validity) as dropping into the low two-figures for most of the war, excepting the Fallujah periods (and other less dramatic upticks for operations in Samarra and elsewhere). Again, even if you assume that all of these civilians were really civilians--which is difficult considering the insurgents are never uniformed except when masked in beheading videos--those are not huge numbers, especially considering the size of the undertaking, the number of soldiers, and the level of attacks. In December 2004, for instance, 15 civilians are listed killed by U.S.-led forces; during that same month there were 70-80 attacks per day on U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to confidential security reports compiled by coalition military sources that if anything underestimate the level of attacks. And in that same month, "anti-occupation forces, unknown agents and crime," as the report puts it, took the lives of 848 civilians.

The Iraq Body Count report goes through some interesting contortions to downplay the degree to which violence against civilians is predominantly caused by insurgent activity. U.S.-led forces alone, it says, killed 9,270 civilians, or 37.3 percent of the total (although it does not note at that point that 30 percent of that 37.3 percent was in the first six weeks of the war). Anti-occupation forces it blames for only 9.5 percent of the total, 2,353 civilians. Crossfires between insurgents and U.S. forces claim another 2.5 percent. And then most of the other deaths it attributes to "predominantly criminal killings" (35.9 percent) and "unknown agents" (11 percent). But it turns out that unknown agents are defined in the report as "those who appear to attack civilian targets lacking a clear or unambiguous link to the foreign military presence in Iraq. This may include some overlap with the groups above as well as with criminal murders." In other words, terrorists and insurgents. And the "predominantly criminal killings" are all those recorded in mortuaries, subtracting the normal pre-war murder rate from the totals.

Talk about lies, damn lies and statistics. It's abundantly clear to anyone who has been in Iraq that the great majority of those murders are political assassinations, and most of those are by anti-occupation insurgents against any and everyone connected no matter how remotely to the U.S. occupation or the Iraqi authorities, from ministers to off-duty policemen to cleaning ladies. The "unknown agent" behind a roadside bomb that kills everyone within blast range is hardly Joe Hood, and certainly not Joe GI. No where in this report do we see any mention of the astounding atrocities committed by the insurgents--the triple suicide car bombing at a sewage treatment facility that killed 40 children in 2004, or another suicide bombing last week that killed 28 children, lining up in both cases to receive treats from U.S. soldiers (only one of whom was killed, in the second instance). In fact, a much fairer rendering of IBC's own statistics would suggest that at worst 9.8 percent of these fatalities could be attributed to U.S.-led forces, another 32.5 percent to the fog of war, crossfires and the like, and the remaining 42.3 percent to insurgents and terrorists. And even that assumes, falsely, that all of these civilians were really civilians.

More pernicious still is the now-famous Lancet report, ( "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey" at journals/lancet/article/ PIIS0140673604174412/abstract) which the respected British medical journal billed as "the first scientific study of the effects of this war on Iraqi civilians." Produced by epidemiologists and public-health professionals and based on a hastily taken field survey in various locations in Iraq led by Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health researcher Les Roberts, this peer-reviewed article purported to show that 98,000 more Iraqis died in the 18 months after the war, based on death rates in the same areas in the year before the war. Further, the leading cause of death was violence, and Iraqis (other than those in Falluja) were 1.5 times more likely to die after the invasion, than before it. Few of the news reports on this study, however, noted what even the study itself did: that the margin of error for these statistics renders them practically meaningless. In the case of the death toll of an additional 98,000 persons, the authors call this a "conservative estimate" based on the data, but also report a 95 percent Confidence Interval (CI), of from 8,000 to 194,000, essentially a range of error. In other words, there is a 95 percent chance that the excess deaths were between 8,000 and 194,000. And the CI or Confidence Interval was 95 percent that the risk of death had increased by from 1.1 times to 2.3 times after the invasion; 1.5 times being a midpoint-- again, a range that renders it meaningless. That CI was so broad simply because the survey's sample was relatively small. As one of the report's peer reviewers, Sheila Bird, wrote in a comment in The Lancet, "Wide uncertainty qualifies the central estimate of 98000 excess deaths, so that the survey results are consistent (just) with the true excess being as low as 8000 or as high as 194000." But she goes on to say that outside data and expert opinion make the 98,000 figure more likely, citing specifically the data from (where else?) Iraq Body Count.

Again this is before even considering whether those killed might have been civilians or civilian-dressed insurgents. The Lancet report does confirm for instance, that, "Many of the Iraqis reportedly killed by U.S. forces could have been combatants." And it added "it is not clear if the greater number of male deaths was attributable to legitimate targeting of combatants who may have been disproportionately male, or if this was because men are more often in public." Take another much-cited study, by the group CIVIC headed by anti-war activist Marla Ruzika, who was herself killed in Iraq by a suicide bomber (a detail not usually mentioned in the many anti-war websites that laud her work). CIVIC's field surveys counted 1,573 men killed compared to 493 women in the first 150 days of the war -- and 95 percent of them died in the first two weeks.

All of these reports are far too politically motivated for their researchers to use their own data fairly. The Lancet for instance took the unusual step of posting its study on its Web site in advance of publication, on Oct. 29, 2004, clearly in order to be disseminated in advance of the U.S. elections--as the journal even implicitly acknowledges. In a way, the U.S. administration has itself to blame. The military has refused to issue estimates of Iraqis killed in military operations--as Gen. Tommy Franks famously declared, "we don't do body counts." (Mindful no doubt of how in the Vietnam War, U.S. body counts of Viet Cong dead at some point exceeded the country's population.) And when there have been killings of civilians by U.S. troops, military investigations have typically been whitewashes, usually with no effort even made to interview Iraqi eyewitnesses. This was the case, for instance, in a military review of the aerial bombing of a wedding party in Qaim, Iraq, on May 19, 2004. Survivors interviewed by journalists included some of the wedding musicians and numerous relatives of the bride and groom, who both were among the 40 dead. The military insists to this day that they hit an insurgent staging area out in the desert, based on "actionable intelligence", and it concluded its investigation without having interviewed any of the Iraqi eyewitnesses. Small wonder so many people are willing to believe the nonsense being peddled by anti-war statisticians about the human cost of this awful war.