October 25, 2010 |LIKE THIS ARTICLE ?Join our mailing list:
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The nearly 400,000 documents on the Iraq War released by Wikileaks last Friday has stirred an unusual flurry of attention to the persistent brutalizing of civilians during the war, a topic forsaken by the major news media when the conflict was raging. But the English-language newspapers provided with the documents in advance — the New York Times and the Guardian (London) — are again misunderstanding the scope of the war’s mayhem.
The revelations about the U.S. military turning a blind eye to abuse of detainees and the rampaging of private security contractors, most of them American firms like Xe (aka Blackwater) are disturbing, to be sure, if not exactly surprising. The pattern of American commanders’ misleading statements or outright dishonesty, which Wikileaks’ release of documents from the Afghanistan war last summer already amply demonstrated, is now becoming a military tradition. But the headlines, for once, focused on the death tolls of civilians. This is refreshing, since the Times and other major news media in the U.S. have only grudgingly addressed Iraqi suffering, and even then in peculiarly misinformed ways.
For all their value, the newly leaked documents will, unfortunately, reinforce the lower estimates of Iraqi mortality. The reports raise the number of civilians killed by about 15,000 over the estimate of Iraq Body Count (IBC), a London-based NGO. IBC’s count, however widely cited, is accumulated by scanning mainly English-language news media reports. It’s a crude method, given that not all deaths are reported in the news media, the number of reporters and their interests change over time, and most of the press was stuck in Baghdad during the most severe violence in 2004-07. IBC itself acknowledges that they are probably low by a factor of two, meaning their count should be 200,000 and the new data would make that at least 215,000. Even then, IBC does not count “insurgents” or security forces, or non-violent deaths that are attributable to the war.
The news reports stirred by Wikileaks’ documents accepted the low IBC count as the baseline and did not bother to suggest that other, more credible estimates have been much higher. The lead story in the Times said that the new count “suggest numbers that are roughly in line with those compiled by several sources, including Iraq Body Count.” Those “several” other sources, likely the U.N. office in Baghdad and the Brookings Index compiled by Michael O’Hanlon (which the Times runs as a regular op-ed), use roughly the same method as IBC and the military, so it is hardly validating to find them in agreement. The Associated Press stories were also using the low numbers.
Counting casualties is a tricky business, especially in the midst of a nasty sectarian war that was essentially enabled by an occupying force. The methods used by IBC and the others are “passive” surveillance: they rely on reporting (from journalists, morgues, and now soldiers) that is not able to capture more than a fraction of all fatalities. For example, only those killed who are not immediately known (and taken by family) go to a morgue. As noted, journalists were mainly in Baghdad, but most violence occurred elsewhere. And the information released by Wikileaks are from U.S. soldiers in their “after action” reports, meaning that they had to be involved in or near to the violence, and had to report it correctly (identifying the dead as civilians, not all insurgents, and they were wont to do), if indeed they did so at all. Other violence would go unreported.
The most important point here is that by using passive surveillance, one never knows what deaths are being missed. The Times admitted these shortcomings: “The reports were only as good as the soldiers calling them in.” But it still left the impression that the death toll likely stood at about 115,000 civilians.