The inevitable numbers game resumes in Iraq

Posted: Mar 24, 2003 12:00 AM
Even if civilian casualties in Iraq are light, expect a great deal of attention to the subject in the days ahead. In a numbers-obsessed society, focusing relentlessly on the deaths of innocents -- and inflating the numbers, if necessary -- is a conventional way of undermining support for war. This helps explain why dozens of civilian-casualty articles sprouted in the news media within hours of the first shots in Iraq, even before coalition ground forces swung into action.

The news agencies of our chief non-allies -- France, Russia, China and Germany -- were quick off the mark. Agence France Presse may have established the modern world record for fastest print coverage of dead bystanders with "U.S. Strikes Leave Civilian Casualties in Baghdad: Official" (Thursday, 3:42 a.m. EST). The Iraqi regime, of course, is eager for high numbers. A New York Post report Friday said civilians trying to flee Basra were blocked by Iraqi troops who, according to Kuwaitis, were hoping to increase civilian casualties.

We have been through this before. On Fox News during the war in Afghanistan, Brit Hume wondered whether reporting about civilian deaths was getting out of hand. These casualties, he said, "are historically, by definition, a part of war, really." Mara Liasson of National Public Radio chimed in: "War is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable."

All civilian casualties are tragic. But Hume was asking why these casualties had emerged as a major story line. This emphasis may have reflected the usual press resentments toward U.S. forces in wartime (lack of candor, lack of access). But it also reflected the anti-war movement's success in convincing the mainstream press that civilian deaths were a big story.

A New York Times article ("Flaws in U.S. Air War Left Hundreds of Civilians Dead") relied heavily on the findings of workers with Global Exchange, which the Times identified as "an American organization that has sent survey teams into Afghan villages." In fact, Global Exchange is a hard-left, anti-war, pro-Castro group whose numbers on war victims should never be taken at face value. Many groups on the left repeatedly insisted that civilian deaths were scandalously high. But that's what they say during every war. Typical headlines included "Civilian Casualties Mount in Afghanistan" (the World Socialist Web Site) and "U.S. Raids Draw Fire for Civilian Casualties" (Common Dreams News Center).

The most publicized analysis came from Marc Herold, a professor of economics and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire, who claims that between 3,700 and 4,000 Afghani civilians died in the war. Herold, an anti-war leftist, said the U.S. military is mostly white and willing to drop bombs on populous areas, thus "sacrificing the darker-skinned Afghans." Admirers credited Herold with meticulous and original analysis of many sources during 12- to 14-hour days on the Internet. Some people loved Herold's numbers because they were said to show that the U.S. killed more innocent people in Afghanistan than Osama bin Laden killed in New York. But several analysts accused Herold of questionable and ideological treatment of the numbers: double counting, confusing combatants with non-combatants and, in the words of one commentator, "blind acceptance of deliberately inflated Taliban accounts."

Other less publicized estimates of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are far lower than Herold's. The Los Angeles Times put the number at 1,067 to 1,201. The Project for Defense Alternatives said 1,000 to 1,300. Reuters estimated 1,000 dead.

A similar numbers game developed after the Gulf War -- large estimates scaled down by calmer analysis. The radical group Greenpeace claimed as many as 15,000 Iraqi civilians died, Saddam Hussein's government said 20,000 to 50,000, and the American Friends Service Committee/Red Crescent went way overboard and claimed 300,000 civilians died. Accepted estimates are far lower. Human Rights Watch estimated 2,500 to 3,000. A long analysis in Foreign Policy magazine put the number of Iraqi civilian dead at 1,000.

Now the numbers game will resume. The Iraq Body Count Project ("the worldwide update of civilian casualties in the war on Iraq") will be counting deaths for us in what the project calls "the onslaught on Iraq." It is endorsed by Marc Herold and says it will be using his methods. Don't say you haven't been warned.