Squabbling over the corpses

T1 and T3 (here and here) are squabbling again, this time over the number of war-related deaths in Iraq. Tim Lambert has long argued in favour of the credibility of the Lancet study which purported to show that some 98,000 Iraqis had died as a direct and indirect consequence of the US-led invasion of Iraq and its (ongoing) aftermath. RWDBs including Tim Blair, have derided the Lancet study as a gross exaggeration, although usually without engaging with the detailed figures and arguments.

Now a much more extensive study has been published under the auspices of the UN and the Iraqi interim administration. It shows directly war-related deaths at between 18,000 and 38,000 with a most probable figure of around 24,000 (not to mention massive and ongoing devastation of housing, industry and basic infrastructure). Predictably, Tim Blair and other RWDBs have leapt on the UN report and claimed that it totally discredits the earlier Lancet study.

In fact the picture is more complicated than that.

The Lancet study included indirect deaths (e.g. increases in infant and child mortality, murder rate and traffic accident deaths flowing from the chaotic breakdown in law and order in the wake of the US invasion). The UN study didn’t include those indirect factors in its figure for war-related deaths, as the report itself acknowledges (Analytical Report page 54 – see previous link to .pdf file):

According to the ILCS data, children aged below 18 years comprise twelve percent of the deaths due to warfare. As the data on infant mortality make clear¢â¬âas does the data on malnutrition, presented elsewhere in this report¢â¬âthe suffering of children due to war and conflict in Iraq is not limited to those directly wounded or killed by military activities.

Comparing the UN and Lancet studies is like comparing apples with bananas.

However, the UN study does examine infant, child and maternal mortality rates; it just doesn’t aggregate them into its war-related deaths figure of 24,000, which it confines to directly war-related causes i.e. violence. The UN study finds that infant and child mortality rose steeply in the 2 years or so following the US invasion (see figure 26 on page 52 of the Analytical Report). However, the increase appears significantly smaller than the Lancet study found for those factors. Moreover, to put it in proportion, there was an equally steep (although shorter) increase in child and infant mortality between 1996 and 1998, which I assume was caused mostly by the impact of the UN blockade priot to implementation of the oil-for-food program, and a much longer but slower increase coinciding with the Iran-Iraq War and the First Gulf War. The graph shows that the overwhelming bulk of the misery and death inflicted on Iraqis over the last two decades can be laid at the feet of Saddam Hussein, not the Americans.

Does this mean that the American-led invasion was justified? I doubt that anyone but a serious psychopath would have advocated invasion had they known in advance that there were no WMD and that at least 50,000 or so people would be killed directly and indirectly as a result (my rough direct-indirect combined total from a reading of the UN study). It reminds us of the fundamental truth that one should never resort to war if there is any other realistic choice, a truth I (like many others) managed to overlook in the run-up to invasion.

Nevertheless, even now I can’t reach that conclusion without long hesitation and continuing uncertainty. What would have happened had the US not invaded when it did? Undoubtedly the UN inspections would have failed to find WMD, and Germany, France and Russia (the latter two for partly self-interesed reasons given their oil deals with Saddam) would have pressed for lifting of sanctions against Iraq. If they had succeeded, we now know from the Kay report and other sources that, while Saddam didn’t have useable WMD stocks, he did still have active WMD development programs which would certainly have been cranked into high gear as soon as sanctions were lifted. Saddam with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and emboldened by facing down the Great Satan US and bluffing the rest of the world, would have been a terrifying prospect in the most strategically vital region in the world.

In any event, what counts now is what the world does from here on in. It’s important to learn from the mistakes that were made, but it’s even more important IMO for the US and other nations to remain constructively engaged in Iraq until its new democratic government is consolidated and possesses police and miitary forces large and well trained enough to prevail against Al Qaeda and other insurgent forces without outside assistance. I really don’t see any other option whose consequences wouldn’t be much worse than the current situation. One of the problems is that the US effort still appears rather inept, riddled with commercial corruption and serious (and counterproductive) human rights abuses, which tends to undermine the goodwill its efforts might otherwise be engendering with ordinary Iraqis. America isn’t markedly worse in those regards than the UN’s recent record in East Timor, Africa and elsewhere, but that’s hardly comforting.

I’m afraid there are no easy answers on Iraq; it’s an evolving and in many respects unknowable situation, whose complexities aren’t captured either by the kneejerk anti-Americanism of many on the left nor the mindless jingoism of RWDBs like Tim Blair and Arthur Chrenkoff.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2022 years ago

Good and well balanced post Ken.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

On Iraq the “world” is the US. They have 140K troops in there and have spent 160 billion so far with more to come. The rest of the world is pulling out because it is such a dog’s breakfast over there. We are no better, 950 troops? What a joke. For all our government’s rhetoric it remains just hot air not backed by action. How much money are we sending over there? Bet it is an order of magnitude, if not two, less than 160 billion.

The fact remains that the “liberation” of Iraq was an invasion. No-one is denying Hussein was repugnant and deserved to be taken down, but liberty cannot be imposed – otherwise it is no better than dictatorship. Liberty has to come from within, not from without. It was the Iraqi’s people responsibility to remove Saddam. Not America’s. Not Australia’s.

If the Middle East was to be re-made internally it was through Persia that it was going to happen. Now with the full might of the US military parked next door, the tyrannical theocracy is making naked grabs for power, denying moderates a place on the ballot and developing nuclear weapons.

Iran and Lebanon posed the best chance for liberty to come from within and remake the Middle East. Yet, courtesy of neoconservative idealogy we have tried to remake the Middle East from without. As an experiment in the last several years it has been one big lie, one massive f*** up and a continuing mess.

I do not blame the US military at all. They did their job. They destroyed the Iraqi military as a threatening force. Managed to do it in a couple of weeks too – which is testament to their professionalism and effectiveness. I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the US Administration. The post-war was conducted without any care for separation of military and civil matters. It was managed inefficiently and with a perspective of politics first. It has been a sham – and it has been the Iraqi people who have suffered doubly for the Bush Administration’s incompetence and ideological policy.

I want to hear the Iraqi, Persian and Lebanese idea of freedom and liberty – not the anglosphere’s imposition of what it deems suitable.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

So, Cam, it’s all the fault of the US administration? Not a single word on the insurgents/militants/terrorist/murdering-thugs that are going about blowing ordinary Iraqis up in their bid to secure power for their tribal militias?

Knock me over with a feather.

And, Ken, Chrenkoff has made himself a very big name simply by pointing out the good news from Iraq overlooked by the MSM.

I’m not claiming a left wing conspiracy of silence – often times, the media’s apparent aversion to good news is simply because stories like a new clinic opening or another power station coming on line aren’t sexy.

But Chrenkoff has put in a fantastic amount of time and effort into balancing the ledger on reporting in Iraq, and I reckon it’s a bit unfair to dismiss his work as ‘mindless’ jingoism.

2022 years ago

Al: With the Iraq occupation there’s plenty of blame to around; it’s like a magic pudding.

And golly, there’s so much to respect in Chrenkoff’s ledger balancing. “They started it!”

2022 years ago

“It shows directly war-related deaths at between 18,000 and 38,000 with a most probable figure of around 24,000 (not to mention massive and ongoing devastation of housing, industry and basic infrastructure).”

It has been a while since I studied statistics, but I’m not sure that that is correct. Any figure within the range of the confidence interval (here that is 18,000-29,000) is equally as likely as the other. 24,000 is no more or less likely than 18,000 or 29,000 based on that data.

For the Lancet study, 98,000 is no more or less likely than 8000 or 194,000.

If the Lancet study produced a figure of, say, 98,000 (96,000-102,000) people could be forgiven for referring to it as supporting a claim of “100,000 dead”. But the range of possibilities in the actual study is just far too broad to give it much utility.

It is ‘scientific’ because it quantifies the uncertainty associated with the figure, but just because it is scientific does not mean that it can make a reasonable contribution to the debate. An opinion poll with +/-30% would be ‘scientific’ but you wouldn’t use it as a guide to who’s popular.

Someone with more expertise in statistics feel free to correct me.

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
2022 years ago

TJW, you’ve got it mixed up. Assuming that the deviation is symmetric, then the average value (98,000 in the case of the Lancet study) is the most likely. The further one moves away from the average value, the chance of this value being the real one is decreased.

Hopefully that made sense.

Jim Birch
Jim Birch
2022 years ago

The two studies aren’t in conflict, statistically speaking, which makes you wonder if some commentators are mentally equipped to handle the topic. The Lancet study had wide confidence levels; the UN/Iraqi study reduces the confidence levels significantly.

TJW, statistics used to estimate population characteristics from samples lets you make statements like (eg) “there is an chance of 90% the true figure lies between 10,000 and 40,000.” In normal distributions, figures in the middle are more likely and extreme values are less likely.

2022 years ago

“…simply by pointing out the good news from Iraq overlooked by the MSM.”

Most of his happy happy joy joy stories are culled from the MSM.

You just want them all wrapped up in a big bow and given to every kid for Xmas, don’t you Al? A nice cuddly invasion hey? And you’d squeal like a wounded pig if anyone did the same with “Bad News From Iraq.”

The fact is poor old bloody Iraq has been fucked around for several centuries by the Ottomans, the Brits, the Yanks, the Baathists and then the Yanks again, along with locally-generated exploding fundies, and now it’s a real shit heap.

Pointing out what’s going wrong is at least a step towards fixing it. But pointing fingers at those who point this out will do nothing to make Iraq better.

2022 years ago

Shouldn’t those steps “towards fixing it” be reported, Nab? Wouldn’t that help “make Iraq better?”

Anyway, I’ve expressed elsewhere my support for what Chrenkoff does but I do think it boxes him in to a worldview that admits of no deviation from American policy. That’s a limitation no journalist or academic should accept over the very long term – if at all.

Politics is everything – if REALpolitic is not the basis for one’s analysis of what’s going on it might not only turn out to be wrong but counterproducive. A thousand good news battles can be won – and they should be reported (as an ensemble if that’s your thing) – but a war won they don’t necessarily make.

I’m still of the view, however, that Chrenkoff is playing a role in allowing people to calibrate what they think the balance (of power and probabilities) really is over there. For now, I still rate that as a worthwhile, not mindless, contribution to both online journalism and politics itself.

Media Watch have now covered Chrenkoff two weeks in a row – a lot for someone whose praises they think Albrechtson should never have sung. Weak stuff.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

Oh spare me the moral indignation, Nabs. For the left, and that includes a large and influential component of the MSM, the only important outcome is to see the United States humiliated. That’s why ‘what’s going wrong’ is so much more important to them than ‘what’s going right, and how can we build on these successes’.

Just like you look at Chrenkoff’s efforts as venal propaganda for the US administration and its deputy sheriffs in Whitehall and Canberra, so it is that I look at all the bad news as serving it up on a silver platter for the other side.

My point of view is simple. There are the good guys and the bad guys at battle here. US Marines? Good guys. Splodey tards? Bad guys. Got it?

So what about the Iraqi civilians? Well, to them belongs the hearts and minds that will decide who wins. Islamist warlords, ably assisted by foreign provocateurs, or democracy. And the media will play a major part in their decision.

Such a black and white point of view allows a person to examine the current terrorist campaign as a battle to be fought and won. The situation only gets muddy when complicated by having to rationalise away axiomatic anti-Americanism as some sort of conspicuous compassion for the plight of the Iraqi people.

You see, my ‘good guys’ have a mission. That is, a plan with an identifiable outcome that defines victory. We see Iraq as a democracy under a (predominantly) secular constitution. When the hearts and minds are against terrorist jackasses, their day is done. They and their fellow murderers will have to find another country to infest. Terror will have lost, and the tactic of blowing up commuter trains or flying planes into packed office buildings will be written off as pointless. Fingers crossed, and Iraq will at last begin to enjoy a new era of security, freedom and prosperity – well remembering who it was that threw bloody hurdles in their way.

Similarly, I have a simple description of defeat.

It would look something like this: The US slinks away in disgrace with its tail between its legs. The left will be well content that their bete noir has been given another good slapping. And, just like the happy ‘screw you’ the anti-war set served up to the South Vietnamese in the 1970s, their recognition for the plight of Iraqi victims will be short lived.

Worse – much worse – the message will be loud and clear. International terror will be vindicated. Expect lots more to come.

So what’s your vision of victory and defeat, Nabs? Surely you must have some sort of mission statement? Not simply throwing your hands in the air with a blowoff line about how the whole fucking thing is fucking fucked. Otherwise I’d be inclined to offer you a piece of advice I recall well from my days in uniform.

Lead, follow or get out of the way.

Yep. We’re moving into ‘with us or against us’ territory. I believe that bad news for one side is good news for the other. Now I know that you probably consider your point of view to be far more nuanced and subtle than this, but it doesn’t change the facts.

You see, every picture of Iraqis picking the pieces of their children out of the gutter next to the latest homicide-bomber atrocity is a propaganda victory for the other team. Oh, sure, it’s the Ba’athist thugs or their Shiite counterparts in al Sadr’s cadre of fanatics that actually detonated the bomb. But really, who’s to blame? From the simple conspiracy theories of CIA involvement in 9/11 to the deep thinking of Eddy Said, the trail always leads back to Uncle Sam, doesn’t it?


And why wouldn’t you believe that we’ve finally reached the much heralded quagmire in Iraq. Let’s check the current crop of headlines, shall we.

‘Rice on flying visit as bodybags mount in Iraq’

‘Battle-scarred village near Syrian border nurses its wounds after U.S. offensive’

‘Iraqi rebels better armed than we first thought, say US marines’

‘Civilians flee town as fighting escalates’

‘Iraqi insurgents step up attacks as US forces wage offensive’

‘Violence mars Rice’s Iraq visit’

’38 executed as Rice enters talks’

‘Iraqis bear brunt as killing rages on’

etc, etc, et bloody cetera. A litany ‘all wrapped up in a big bow’ you might say. Trouble is, it’s always been reported that way, pretty well since the day major combat operations commenced. Who could tell the difference?

Chrenkoff has to dig long and hard to ferret out the positives.

The current situation threatens to be another Tet offensive. The insurgency has lost, lost, lost. Everything they’ve attempted to prevent has come to fruition. Indeed, their campaign to derail democracy is costing them dearly. Latest reports show Sunni sentiment shifting away from al Zarquawi and towards getting their share of the democracy pie. But the press is running red hot on serving up the bad news.

The consequences of their zealousness can be seen in clear relief with the unfolding catastrophe of Newsweek’s ‘Qurans in the toilet’ episode. Now would be a good time for careful fact-checking, measured words, and a fair balance of the good with the bad. Unfortunately, there is precious little good news confronting us on our nightly bulletins or morning fish wrappers.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Al Bundy. Yes it is the Administrations fault. There is no shortage of resources in Iraq, nor is there a shortage of money being spent on Iraq. If those two aspects are not culminating into a stable Iraq, the question is why? Answer is poor policy from the US Administration. It is being handled incompetently.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

Hmm, sounds like a severe case of armchair expertise goin’ on there, Cam. What would you suggest the US should do at this point in time?

I mean, you could probably run a successful small business, let’s say a factory, right? Especially if you had ample capital and a sound background in the business. Yeah?

Now suppose some of your employees routinely sabotage the plant. Oh, and passers by routinely lob grenades in through the foundry door. And they tell your workers that their families will be killed unless they cease working for you. Oh, and rather than noting your good efforts, the local press peddles the suggestion that, really, you’re only getting what you deserve.

Dunno ’bout you, but I’d find it pretty torrid going.

Anyway, since you seem to have the good oil on what constitutes good or bad management of the situation in Iraq, perhaps you could help me out. Should the US:

Hasten the handover to the Iraqi govt?
Slow that transition down?
Speed the delegation of military commands to Iraqi generals?
Halt that process?
Withdraw troops?
Reinforce existing troops?
Run a more positive information operation? (that’s censorship and propaganda to you)
Let al Reuters and friends run unchecked?

Other suggestions welcome. I’m sure CENTCOM would appreciate the benefit of your wisdom.

Me? I think they’re doing a good job in the face of massive difficulties, all the time faced by suspicion and visceral hatred…and that’s just from the Western press.

Criticism is easy, buddy. Constructive criticism? Ah, now there’s a different and far more difficult kettle of fish.

2022 years ago

Thanks Ken Miles and Jim Birch and sorry for falsely ‘correcting’ you Ken Parish. I was going to go and look it up in my introductory statistics text but it would probably take me several hours to do and I really couldn’t be bothered. So your advice saved me time.

Are close confidence values better than ones that are very far apart?

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
2022 years ago

TJW, it would be better to have smaller confidence intervals, because we would be able to make a better guess about the real value.

With more data, the confidence intervals could be reduced, but the data collection does put the interviewers in physical danger.

law student
law student
2022 years ago

ken, i apologise for my anonymous attack yesterday about marking essays. i’m not one of your students but i live with one and cdu law students are not happy campers at the moment

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

The end of semester period is inevitably stressful, what with numerous assignments due, revision for imminent exams etc. I’m not aware of any other reason why a CDU student should be unhappy at present. Maybe your partner might want to keep in mind the fact that many lecturers deliberately make their subjects 100% final exam because it involves much less work for them. I’ve prescribed two essays in Intro to Public Law worth a combined 50% of the final mark because I think it’s a much fairer assessment and a much better learning experience. But it’s a major imposition in terms of workload when you’re trying to teach a subject with 250 enrolled students from all over Australia, not to mention teach another subject with 50 or so and co-ordinate still a third subject with 150-odd students, and also co-ordinate the entire external law program at the same time. Your eyes tend to glaze over and your mind goes blank after you’ve marked 20 or 30 essays in a row on the same topic without a break. The morons who talk scathingly about academics working a 17 hour week have obviously never been to CDU. That said, I still prefer it to the frustrations and stresses of almost 20 years of private practice, and it does allow me the flexibility in considerable measure to choose my hours of work (I often mark and prepare on weekends and at night). Bottom line? You’re forgiven.