Iraq: the Human Cost


U.S. must face huge death toll of Iraqi civilians

By Gilbert Burnham and Les Roberts
October 9, 2007

Not wanting to think about civilian deaths in Iraq has become almost universal. But ignorance of the Iraqi death toll is no longer an option.

An Associated Press poll in February found that the average American believed about 9,900 Iraqis had been killed since the end of major combat operations in 2003. Recent evidence suggests that things in Iraq may be 100 times worse than Americans realize.

News report tallies suggest that about 75,000 Iraqis have died since the U.S.-led invasion. But a study of 13 war-affected countries presented at a recent Harvard conference found that more than 80 percent of violent deaths in conflicts go unreported by the press and governments.

City officials in Najaf were recently quoted on Middle East Online stating that 40,000 unidentified bodies have been buried in that Iraqi city since the start of the conflict. In a speech Sept. 5, Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, stated that there were 500,000 new widows in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group similarly found that the Pentagon undercounted violent incidents by a factor of 10. Finally, last month, the respected British polling firm ORB released the results of a poll estimating that 22 percent of households had lost a member to violence during the occupation of Iraq, equating to 1.2 million deaths. This finding roughly verifies a less precisely worded BBC poll last February that reported 17 percent of Iraqis had a household member who was a victim of violence.

So multiple polls and scientific surveys all suggest the official figures and media-based estimates in Iraq have missed 70 percent to 95 percent of all deaths. The evidence suggests that the extent of underreporting by the media is only increasing with time.

Being forthright about the human cost of the war is in our long-term interests. How can military and civilian leadership comment intelligently about security trends in Iraq, or about whether any security policies are working, if they are not detecting most of the estimated 5,000-plus violent deaths that occur each week? Can American plans for the future of Iraq be respected within Iraq if they do not openly address the toll that they imply? Avoiding the issue of Iraqi deaths will likely come back to haunt us as young people in the Middle East grow up with ingrained hostility toward America.

In The Zimmermann Telegram, Barbara Tuchman describes the resentment in Japan over the 1913 California Alien Land Law designed to prevent Japanese immigrants from buying land. This resentment almost enabled Germany to persuade Japan to attack the United States during World War I and probably helped set the stage for it to happen a quarter-century later. We cannot yet tell what consequences will arise from our invasion of Iraq.

Discussion of trends and policy effects based on meaningful and validated measures such as median income and death rates would make our leaders more accountable and leave us better informed. Deliberately ignoring the number of dead Iraqis is not an option worthy of the United States and is not in our enlightened self-interest.

Gilbert Burnham, M.D., is Professor of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Les Roberts is an Associate Professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.