Save the Iraqis

Thursday, February 10th, 2005

A hundred thousand Iraqi dead were recently buried — on page five. Bear with me. I think we need to dig them up.

I’m haunted, you might say, by a relentless optimism that if enough Americans could just notice that number, let it gnaw at the margins of their conscience — long enough to say, “Come again? How many? A hundred thousand?” — something would give, somewhere, in the mandate George Bush claims he has to “bring freedom to the world,” at a price cruel beyond reckoning to the recipients.

A hundred thousand.

The story came out just before the election. Ours, I mean. Maybe the timing was bad. Media skeptics and Bush supporters cried foul. Scientists are trying to influence the outcome with, harrumph, facts. Yeah, fat chance. Anyway, the story had a short shelf life and zero impact. A couple days later, we leveled Fallujah.

In case you missed it, here’s what happened: During the month of September, a team of Iraqi and American investigators talked to some 8,000 people from nearly 1,000 households in every region of the country, asking how many family members had died both before and after the invasion. They were led by Les Roberts, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University with extensive experience researching war-related mortality. He has worked in eight war zones; in the past, his findings have had significant policy and humanitarian impact.

The electrifying results of the Iraq study, that the civilian death toll is far higher than previous estimates, were published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed British medical journal Lancet, and since it came many scientists have verified the validity of the researchers’ methodology. The study’s only incorrectness is political.

Roberts told me the other day he decided to undertake the study out of a concern that he was hearing nothing in the news about deaths among Iraqi civilians from the secondary causes common in war-torn areas. “I was sure I’d be talking about diarrhea and women dying in childbirth,” he said. That’s how it usually is in the Third World.

Shockingly, his courageous researchers found almost nothing of the sort. Indeed, Iraq is not (or was not) the Third World. It was prosperous and highly functioning society; its citizenry were well-educated. They knew, for instance, to boil their drinking water. People weren’t dying in large numbers from disease; if they had been, the findings may have generated a humanitarian response. Alas, Iraqis turned out to be dying from the wrong causes.

“I did not think violence would be the main cause of deaths, and that the coalition would be the main killers,” he said.

Say what? If you believe in the war, this is where it gets hard, where denial kicks in. This can’t be true. We’re bringing democracy — “freedom” — to Iraq. Witness the ink-stained V’s that Iraqis flashed after voting last month. America’s political ideals have the same global appeal as Coke, Big Macs and Hollywood action thrillers, and now the Iraqi masses can enjoy all of these commodities. Hurray for American largess!

A hundred thousand civilian dead. Mostly by our bombs, shells and missiles. This is not reported, ladies and gentlemen. Especially our ongoing daily, nightly, air war over every part of Iraq, and the armada of fighter jets and attack helicopters in constant deployment, ready to deliver Hellfire missiles and laser-guided smart bombs of 500 to 2,000 pounds at a moment’s notice.

This is mostly how we hunt insurgents, by taking out buildings and neighborhoods. Our model is the tuna-fishing industry. Save the dolphins? Save the Iraqis!

Here, for instance, from, is a terse account of how it works: “During the strike (last fall), two 500-pound bombs were dropped on a target reported by Coalition Press Information Center officials to be a confirmed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi terrorist meeting. Two F-16 Fighting Falcons performed a simultaneous GBU-38 release on the same target in central Iraq. The bombs precisely hit a two-story building while reportedly causing . . . minimal collateral damage.”

What Roberts and his team had the effrontery to do was, in essence, look a little more closely at the cumulative effect of all this “minimal collateral damage,” plus the occasional maximal damage that occurs when the smart bombs miss their targets. We’ve dropped maybe 20,000 bombs on Iraqi cities since Saddam’s overthrow. Thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, have paid the ultimate price.

“I’m a big believer that good information always tugs at the heart strings of folks and on net produces more good than harm,” Roberts said.

I’m still hoping he’s right.