Having appeared in early 2004, what remains most important about this detailed analysis from IBC is that, while some of it is now outdated, most of it remains as pertinent today as then, particularly in regard to official disinterest and (perhaps a little less so) media priorities.
The sad milestone of 10,000 civilian deaths, as recorded by IBC, was cited across the political spectrum (though not necessarily with attribution).
As predicted, this milestone proved to be all too transitory.
4. What You Don’t Know Can’t Harm Us: The Official Burial of Information
4.1 The USA : Full Spectrum Ignorance
US political leaders have rarely commented on civilian casualties in Iraq . This is as true of Democrats as it is of Republicans.
Howard Dean, who is dubbed by some commentators as an ‘anti-war’ candidate for the presidency, distinguished himself in a speech in Iowa on November 3rd by saying: “There are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn't be dead if that resolution hadn't been passed and we hadn't gone to war.”1
The implication of Dean's statement (that only the 400 killed coalition forces are “people”, and that therefore the thousands of killed Iraqis are sub-human and not worthy of mention), should bar him from ever holding office in any civilised nation. A recent examination of the web-sites of the democratic candidates for the Presidency revealed that only one of them, Denis Kucinich, makes any reference to civilian casualties in his critique of the Bush war and occupation. Apart from Kucinich, every White House contender is a willing, unforced, colluder with the official downgrading and dismissal of Iraqi deaths.
The official response from the White House and the Pentagon has in fact shifted between different positions, all nonsensical, and inconsistent with one another.
On April 12th, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, David Frost of the BBC suggested to Secretary of State Colin Powell that an early Iraqi figure of 1,254 civilian deaths was relatively low. Powell responded, “I would say that's relatively low.”2
In August, Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad:
If you go back to what we achieved here, which was the liberation of 25 million people in less than three weeks, with fewer civilian casualties and less collateral damage than any war in history . . . the loss of innocent life is a tragedy for anyone involved in it but the numbers are really very low.3
These two statements seem to accept that an accurate figure for civilian deaths is known and accepted, and can be evaluated as “low.” But the evaluation does not bear scrutiny. As Derrick Z. Jackson pointed out in the Boston Globe,
The total of civilian deaths, whether they be 3,200 or 10,000, is low compared with conventional wars a half-century ago. But for a decade the Pentagon promised to end wars as we knew them with laser-guided surgical strikes of only military targets. The military cannot have it both ways, promising unprecedented precision at the same time it downplays mistakes through historical context. The alleged precision makes the casualties look less like an example of Bush's kindness than William Calley's out-of-control forces gunning down up to 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. Just one Iraqi civilian death is horrible blood on our hands given that the attack on Iraq appears to have been based on a lie. Yes, Saddam Hussein killed thousands of his own people. But an American massacre does not make things right.4
When more convenient, a different argument is adopted, highlighting the supposed difficulty of estimating civilian casualties. At a press briefing in Baghdad on August 4 th 2003, US military spokesman Col Guy Shields said there was “no accurate way” to keep a record of civilian deaths:
Well, we do not keep records for the simple reason that there is no really accurate way. There's times when we have conducted operations, and we're pretty certain that there are casualties, and we'll go back and check. And there's nobody there… In terms of statistics we have no definite estimates of civilian casualties for the whole campaign. It would be irresponsible to give firm estimates given the wide range of variables. For example we've had cases where during a conflict, we believed civilians had been wounded and perhaps killed, but by the time our forces have a chance to fully assess the outcomes of a contact, the wounded or the dead civilians have been removed from the scene. Factors such as this make it impossible for us to maintain an accurate account.5
5 Cited in Hearts and Minds: Post-war Civilian Deaths in Baghdad Caused by U.S. Forces Human Rights Watch, Oct 2003.[PDF]
Platitudes about the impossibility of obtaining an accurate count in all instances tend to be repeated whenever strong documentary evidence of specific cases is made available. Rather than engaging with the actual details on the table, the supposed impossibility of achieving a total count of all deaths is somehow presented as an excuse for not accounting for any deaths. The illogic of this argument is extreme. If applied to 9-11 it would have justified not attempting any count of the dead at ground zero – on the grounds that a totally accurate count could never be guaranteed.
4.2 The UK : “Satisfied” to be in the dark
Llew Smith, a UK Labour MP, recently wrote to the UK Defence Minister Adam Ingram, and got the following reply:
Whilst the Ministry of Defence has accurate data relating to the number of UK service personnel that have been killed or injured during Operation Telic (the invasion of Iraq), we have no way of establishing with any certainty the number of Iraqi casualties.
In a further question, Smith asked the Defence Secretary if he would examine reports of Iraqi deaths from eyewitness correspondents embedded with the military in the invasion of Iraq; request the Coalition provisional authority to make a survey of deaths reported in hospitals in Iraq, from 19 March to 1 May, arising from military conflict; and make the estimating of Iraqi military deaths part of the aim of interrogation of Iraqi military commanders in custody. Mr Ingram's reply stated:
Any loss of life, particularly civilian, is deeply regrettable, but in a military operation the size of Operation Telic it is also unavoidable. Through very strict rules of engagement, the use of precision munitions and the tactical methods employed to liberate Iraq's major cities, we are satisfied that the coalition did everything possible to avoid unnecessary casualties. We do not, therefore, propose to undertake a formal review of Iraqi casualties sustained from 19 March to 1 May.”
Smith goes on to conclude: “Surely this is both an inhumane and unacceptable position. As at least part of our aid to postwar Iraq must be targeted at assistance to families left without breadwinners who have been killed or seriously injured by the invasion, then our planners are going to have to calculate the numbers of families left destitute by their loss.”6
We would add that, no matter how many times we have examined the “therefore”, in “We do not, therefore, propose to undertake a formal review of Iraqi casualties,” we cannot see how this sentence follows from the sentence which precedes it. Could one, for instance, imagine a rail company refusing to undertake identification of the people killed in a train crash on the grounds that it had done “everything possible to avoid accidents such as this”? The UK government's position is, literally, senseless.