Too Many

“We estimate that, as a consequence of the coalition invasion of March 18, 2003, about 655, 000 Iraqis have died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation”

Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey, published in The Lancet.

Bedtime reading to give any humanitarian interventionist nightmares. Like Norm Geras and Andrew Sullivan, I would not have supported the invasion had I been able to foresee the level of violence and chaos that would ensue and endure in Iraq after the toppling of the Baathist regime. Like Geras, I don’t know if there’s anything that could have brought me to actively oppose the invasion and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, to essentially advocate that his rule be maintained, and I agree with Geras that too many have died and are dying with Iraq. There is something gross and detestable about trying to parse a quantitatively “acceptable” death toll and I understand his reasons for not wishing to comment on the results of the Lancet report. I think, however, that those of us who supported the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein on humanitarian grounds, however reluctantly and with however much trepidation, need to address this study and think hard about its implications.

Of course too many have died and are dying. Of course there is something grotesque about weighing the numbers of dead. Of course we could not have foreseen what would happen, either in the case of action or inaction. But politics is about making choices, about weighing risks, about calibrating the possible against the possible rather than the perfect. Rather than endorse an overthrow that risked chaos and the resultant bloodbath, we may have to face up to the suggestion that, at least in hindsight, we should have supported the safeguarding of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Civilian death and ethnic cleansing must surely be two of the most important markers of relative human suffering and violation of human rights. It sounds perverse, it is perverse. But, however horrifying, we must face up to at least the possibility that advocating the “saving of the Baathist regime,” as Geras puts it, might have been, in the most reductive sense, the right course of action.

And so to rather grim business. I’ll offer the same caveat that Geras does. I’m about as far from a statistician as one can get. But I can at least pose questions. First, there seems little reason to me to question the study’s main findings – that is, the extent of deaths since the invasion. The keepers of the Iraq Index over at the Brookings Institution are skeptical, saying the numbers are far too high, and they have been studying Iraq far more closely than most. But the population sampling techniques used by the study’s authors – interviewing samples of Iraqis regarding the death of relatives and extrapolating from the results – are similar to those used to estimate the number of deaths from conflict in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and so forth. (I imagine the same types of methods have been used to estimate death tolls from the Holocaust.) One can’t be skeptical about one without being skeptical about the others. The methods appear to be widely accepted among statisticians and at the risk of a fallacy of authority The Lancet is a widely respected medical journal and the study was funded by MIT and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. I wonder if any of these types of studies has ever been more conclusively verified against death certificates and medical records but I understand how difficult this would be in an ongoing conflict.

In any event, an important point about the results is that they do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Again, it’s perfectly understandable why the researchers didn’t try to make this distinction (the respondents would probably lie and the question itself might jeopardize their security) but this also means that the results do not give the number of civilian deaths. In the chaos of Iraq, this is a hard distinction to make anyway and it seems clear that civilians are being targeted and killed in terrible numbers. But this study simply addresses excess mortality without attempting to make distinctions about who the dead were.

Furthermore, the study seems to take as its baseline for “pre-invasion” mortality the months between February 2002 and the start of the invasion in March 2003, assuming that, had there been no invasion, the monthly mortality rate would have remained the same. That’s not a particularly safe assumption given the history of Saddam Hussein’s regime, especially when the months in question were those in which he was under intense international security (not a particularly prudent time for a massacre). And it of course excludes mortality rates for the years before the invasion that saw the Anfal campaign against the Kurds and the brutal suppression of the Shiite uprising from which mass graves are still being found, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died of malnutrition and lack of medical supplies thanks to Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with international weapons inspectors and so lift the sanctions that were the basis of the containment regime.

One can also object to assessing the value of the invasion in terms of simple body counts. As Hannah Arendt noted, there are many things far worse than death. Saddam Hussein is no longer free to inflict them on his people. Yet his tyranny has given way not to popular democracy but to chaos, a bloodbath between aspiring tyrants. If no outside power can stabilize a post-authoritarian, pre-democratic society and do it with some level of basic decency rather than unflinching brutality (the current occupiers of Iraq have been both brutal and flinching) then I see nothing for the future but a politics of despair.

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3 Comments on “Too Many”

  1. Evan Says:

    Wow. Sobering indeed. And I give you credit for unsparingly probing your own doubts and prior convictions.

    Is it safe to assume that you are comfortable renouncing the fundamental premise of a piece you wrote in The Jerusalem Post a number of months back in which you, and a rather unknwon hack co-author, argued against Robert Kaplan and his case for stability over democracy, stability as the baseline for anything positive?

  2. hw Says:

    No, this hack author is not prepared to repudiate that premise. Democracy must be the goal and basic test of legitimacy for all nations and any decent society. Kaplan favors stability as the sole good. Democracy cannot, of course, exist without stability and I recall that the hack authors in question acknowledged that every state must provide security to its citizens as a basic element of a free democratic society. Kaplan’s argument was that a push for democratization, in any form, was a threat and that stability in and of itself, whether it be provided by a murderous strong man or not, was all we need concern ourselves with, was in fact the source of legitimacy. This is nonsense. Decency and legitimacy for any government derive from the consent of the governed and a recognition of the basic freedom and integrity of the individual. If we give that up there won’t be anything left.


  3. […] In light of this, this, this, and this, you should read Oliver Kamm’s tireless defense of his position on Iraq.  Although I can’t say that I agree with everything Kamm writes, or even most of what Kamm writes, he does make a compelling case here that in the against the engrossing swirl of second-guessing deserves to be heard. Explore posts in the same categories: Iraq […]


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