Immediately after the US/UK invasion, there was a brief opportunity for civil society to establich the human cost of the war. The initiatives which rose to that challenge, or attempted to, are reviewed here.
Their efforts, like IBC's up to that time, were to prove incomplete not only from lack of resources and reliable data, as the article discusses, but because only a single phase � the invasion leading to 'regime change' � of the war was over.
2. Distinctions between projects strengthen rather than weaken the enterprise.
There are two main distinctions that need to be made among the different projects which seek to estimate casualties:
1. Scope — comprehensive or limited.
“Comprehensive” projects aim to work towards providing an estimate of all civilian deaths caused by the Iraq War. “Limited” projects aim to provide an estimate which is deliberately limited in some way, either in timescale, geographical location, type of records or cause of deaths.
2. Sources — direct or indirect.
“Direct” projects obtain data from on-the-ground sources in Iraq (such as hospital or mortuary records, photographic and forensic evidence, and interviews with family and neighbours). “Indirect” projects rely on secondary sources (such as media and news agency reports, including published reports, usually in the form of summaries, of “direct” projects by NGOs and others).
Due to real-world limitations of time, money and human resources, there is an inherent conflict between these two approaches. The more direct a project is and the fuller and higher quality its evidence, the less practical it is for it also to be exhaustive and complete; and the more comprehensive a study aims to be, the less likely that it can also be as detailed and as fine-grained in the evidence it collects as a “direct” project.
This makes it pointless to ask which is “better”. Different types of project are needed. Direct projects can provide evidence of forensic quality (which would, for instance, be able to establish facts about the deaths of named individuals, the exact circumstances of the death, and where direct responsbility might lie for compensation or reparation). Indirect projects can draw on evidence from a range of sources to arrive at estimates of global cost or impact, which will be of importance to political, military, and strategic debates. Putting all the projects together can strengthen their total impact.
Another difference relates to the difficulties of achieving “total” completeness or “absolute” directness. These are unachievable, and possibly meaningless, concepts. Neither an indirect study such as ours, nor any “after-the-event” investigation will eventually arrive at a definitive and totally accurate count. A theoretically “perfect” count would require, at the very least, a totally accurate census of the Iraqi population on the eve of the war, and DNA profiling of each individual. It would also require the entire land area of Iraq to be covered with continuously running video recorders, whose data had all survived the war. However, the absence of such “perfect” data place limitations which are no different to the limitations that hamper any historical or legal investigation. Investigations must do the best they can on the basis of the available evidence, gradually improving the scope and reliability of the estimates. Combining different sources of evidence from different projects can strengthen the evidence base.
We detect, in some media discussions, a degree of confusion about the whole “counting the dead” agenda which often comes about by focusing on some particular shortcoming of individual projects. Any project may always be criticised for not meeting some standard it cannot achieve and never set out to achieve. It is always possible to criticise a direct project for not being complete, or an indirect project for lacking “scientific” standards of evidence. Any project can ultimately be criticised for not being “total” or “absolute” in the sense outlined in the previous paragraph. The cumulative effect of this type of comment is to help create in the public mind a general (and false) impression that we can know nothing reliable from the projects that have been undertaken to date, or might be undertaken in future, and therefore that the whole enterprise may be discounted. This conclusion may be convenient for some, but is not supported by the evidence.
A good example of media-generated confusion comes in a New York Times article filed by John R Broder from Qatar on 9th April, at the height of the slaughter of civilians in the battle for Baghdad. In this report a Central Command spokesperson was cited as saying that “the number of Iraqi dead were certainly high, but ultimately unknowable”. In the same report, Mark Burgess, a researcher at the Center for Defence Information in Washington (CDI - see below), was quoted as saying that various attempts to estimate casualties suffered from “dubious methodologies”. The article finishes by quoting Mr Burgess as saying “We just don't know and we might just as well make up a number”. What follows shows that there is a great deal that is knowable from the attempts so far undertaken.