Day of the Dead

Thursday, November 4th, 2004

By macabre coincidence, Election Day fell this year on the Day of the Dead, Mexico’s festive homage to its departed souls. A new study delineating the staggering cost of our occupation of Iraq — and the futility, undebated during the campaign, of waging an ever-widening “war on terror” with bombs and missiles — have rendered the coincidence way too apt.

The Day of the Dead has delivered four more years of George Bush, but even if John Kerry had won, we likely would have gotten four more years of war. An antiwar constituency found itself rallying around a candidate who shared their values 30 years ago, but grimaced uncomfortably about them today. Most of the world would like us to do better, especially in light of the study published a week ago in the British medical journal Lancet.

How much blood do we need on our hands before we actually notice it? How many Iraqi dead does it take to trouble the national conscience? And why is it again, exactly, that “we don’t do body counts”?

I know why: The strategy for subduing Iraq, for winning the war on terror, requires the wholesale killing of civilians, not intentionally, perhaps, but numbly, impatiently, because they’re in the way.

Our lodestar seems to be Saddam Hussein himself, who gave us plenty of moral wiggle room. He murdered, we’re told, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during his 24 years in power. As long as we stay sufficiently this side of the tyrant’s numbers, we can assure ourselves we’re the good guys.

Smart PR decision, it turns out, not doing body counts, because the death toll caused by coalition forces in the last year and a half puts us well ahead of Saddam’s annual kill rate — possibly exceeding 100,000. Most of those dead are women and children.

This number, which is far higher than estimates based on press accounts (as made by, is the result of a systematic survey designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University, and conducted by a team of courageous Iraqis. These researchers risked their lives talking to nearly 8,000 people in 988 randomly selected households in every sector of the country over a three-week period in September.

In essence, the researchers asked about the deaths of resident household members both prior to and since the March 2003 invasion. Among a random subsample, they also asked to see death certificates to verify the answers. “We’re quite sure people didn’t make up these deaths,” Les Roberts, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist and co-author of the Lancet article, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “These are something quite tangible. Lots of the people wept as they described the deaths.”

Based on the findings, the researchers were able to estimate a death rate before and after the invasion. The after rate — excluding the data from the shattered city of Fallujah, which would have skewed the overall results, so much greater was the death toll there — was 1.5 times higher than the before rate, which extrapolates to about 100,000 “excess” dead.

Furthermore, most of the pre-invasion deaths were from heart attacks, strokes and the like, whereas afterward, according to the Lancet article, “violence was the primary cause of death. Violent deaths were widespread . . . and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children. The risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher . . . than in the period before the war.”

And most of the deaths were the result of coalition air strikes, leading the study’s authors to conclude that “Civility and enlightened self-interest demand a re-evaluation of the consequences of weaponry now used by coalition forces in populated areas.”

I’m inclined to word that conclusion just a tad more hysterically: This is slaughter, Mr. President! In the name of God, in the name of Allah, call it off. What strategic end is worth what we’re doing to the Iraqi people? What consequences do you think will flow from it?

Your mandate for this war, sir, is based on gross ignorance — that the collateral carnage we’re churning up is minimal, that Iraqi deaths matter less than American, that because we don’t do beheadings we aren’t barbaric.

A hundred thousand dead, sir. And counting. When does a conscience kick in? When do we become worse than Saddam Hussein?