matthewgood/mblog Out Into The Light> The Civilian Casualty Fable in Iraq
Commentary by Aslan, 11/26/05, 10:46am. Comments (6)
One of the foundation blocks of anti-war protest against the United States in Iraq is civilian casualties, which viscerally represents a country in ruin, a tragic human face on Bush’s warmongering. This perspective, of course, ignores the civilian carnage during the reign of Saddam Hussein (see Fuzzy Moral Math) and instead focuses on the perceived chaos in Iraq today. And this newfound concern for Iraqi civilian life is not only a staple of the anti-war Left, it is a convenient club wielded by mainstream Democrats in Washington, who argue that chaos in Iraq represents failed policy.
With so much emphasis on Iraqi civilian death, one would expect the casualty statistics to be very well understood. An uncritical audience, for example, might be inclined to accept at face value the Lancet (a British medical journal) analysis estimating 100,000 civilian casualties, a "study" that has been widely discredited by credible groups on both sides of the debate. Yet the public is still inundated with high casualty numbers, and anti-war protesters continue to carry signs tallying up the massive numbers of civilian dead.
There is indeed a mind-blowing story about collateral damage that needs to be told, but that story is one in which we honor the extraordinary achievement of the United States military: two years of combat since the fall of Baghdad, much of it urban warfare, with less than 1,000 civilians killed as a result of U.S. action:
What is the source for these numbers? The most comprehensive study of civilian casualties is available from a group opposed to the Coalition intervention in Iraq called Iraq Body Count. This summer, the Iraq Body Count project published an analysis of casualties in the Iraq War that must be admired for its meticulous documentation.
This study reports 24,865 civilian deaths in the first two years of the Iraq War, an apparent ringing endorsement of the "Iraq in chaos" position. But a curious statistical anomaly jumps right off page one: over 81% of the civilian casualties are men. Even stranger, over 90% of civilian casualties are adults in a country with a disproportionate percentage of the population under 18 (44.5%). This contradicts a basic tenet of the civilian casualty argument, namely that we are describing collateral damage during a time of war. Collateral damage does not differentiate between male and female, between child and adult. A defective smart bomb falling in a marketplace, stray bullets ripping through bedroom walls, city warfare in Fallujah – all these activities should produce casualties that reflect the ratio of men to women or adults to children that prevail in Iraq as a whole.
This question is particularly relevant when one side in the conflict does not wear uniforms, is predominantly adult and of one gender, and engages in a practice of concealing its combatants within the civilian population. The statistics are further distorted if the Iraqi security forces – essentially the free Iraqi military on the side of the U.S. coalition – are classified as civilians, as they are in this study.
Consider the reported vs. expected gender and age distribution in the Iraq Body Count analysis:
Note: Statistical analysis of confirmed demographic data is projected over the total reported civilians killed. National gender and age data comes from here, here, here and here.
If the death of innocent civilians is at issue, then the gender/age data can be used to estimate the percentage of actual civilians killed. Below, the data for female and underage casualties provides the basis for determining a true, pure civilian "body count" figure of 7,976.
Before any additional analysis, it must be noted that this figure is breathtaking in its limited scope; a nation of 26 million people enduring two years of warfare, much of it urban, has a civilian survival rate of 99.97%. Consider that in one day, September 11, 2001, the United States incurred almost 40% of this number. Also consider that, in the United States of America, you have the exact same risk of dying if you drive a car (survival rate = [1 - two-year car fatality totals/population] or [1 - ((42,815+42,643)/291,000,000)] = 99.97%).
There is further risk of distortion in the Iraq Body Count report related to the timing of casualties. Casualties that arise from the initial invasion of Iraq, for example when the 3rd Army swept into Baghdad in April of 2003, are an expected and tragic consequence of major military action, which had near universal American support at the time. The subsequent focus on civilian casualty counts over the ensuing months is an exercise of a different nature, one designed to portray a ruthless or disorganized army of occupation that is inflicting devastating collateral damage on the civilian population in its hunt for terrorists and non-uniformed combatants. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the fatality distribution over time reveals:
The only way to describe the actions of the U.S. Military in its role of "occupier" is a compassionate and careful army that avoids collateral damage despite its dangerous mandate to hunt for terrorists and non-uniformed combatants hidden within the civilian population. It is nothing short of miraculous that our Armed Forces have been able to eliminate as many terrorists and enemy combatants as they have with so little actual collateral damage. Many seasoned military men, in fact, bemoan the increased danger such modern warfare represents. A cogent argument can be made that mixing warfare and compassion is not wise, but under no circumstances can American warriors be faulted for lacking compassion.
The low level of actual casualties, developed and explained in the Appendix below, is stunning. Over the course of the Iraq invasion and "occupation," only 14.8% of reported fatalities represent actual civilian fatalities caused by U.S. action. Even more remarkable, since the fall of Baghdad the U.S. has been directly responsible for only 3.8% of fatalities reported, as many deaths over almost two years as Saddam averaged in 10 days.
Note: The calculations in this chart are described in the Appendix below.
For those who claim the United States is indirectly responsible for the several hundred deaths a month caused by insurgents and criminals, they would do well to note two facts: 1) just over 32% of the fatalities in the chronological table represent civilians, and 2) that this figure is a 93% decline from the monthly average piled up by Saddam Hussein over 24 years (see Fuzzy Moral Math).