Does the Actual Number of Iraqi Deaths Matter?

Timothy Burke argues that the debate over the accuracy of the numbers in the recent Lancet (or, as Kieran Healy insists, Burnham et al) study of excess deaths in Iraq misses a crucial point:

[A]s I understand the declared objectives of the American effort in Iraq, the exact number of civilian casualties is not altogether that important, save perhaps for the symbolically important question of whether more would have died under Hussein’s rule than under occupation. Even that can be well sidestepped with a certain amount of cliched rhetoric about omelettes and eggs. The problem here is that the civilians ARE the objective: not killing them, but protecting them. Not just protecting their lives, but their well-being, their ability to live freely and securely under the rule of law. If that’s the objective, 50,000 or 300,000 or 600,000 all strike me as deeply worrisome numbers, just as once you cross the threshold of “many millions”, the moral gravity of the Atlantic slave trade is forever established. More millions doesn’t do anything more than put a few more weights on a scale that is already firmly crushed to earth. So there is one sense in which the sturm und drang of the last week seems to me another “numbers game”, and not a terribly illuminating one in terms of defending the case for the war.

There’s much to be said for this point of view, both morally and tactically. Still, the omelettes-egg analogy achieved cliche status for good reason.

Has there ever been a war, however just, where civilian deaths didn’t rise from the antebellum rate? The American War for Independence ended the assorted tyrannies of King George III. Our Civil War ended the scourge of slavery. World War II freed much of Europe from the boot heel of the Fascists (although put many others under the boot heel of the Communists). In all these cases, though, the short-term cost in blood was high, indeed. Arguably, none were worth it in terms of benefits to the generation that fought the war.

Further, Burke’s argument would be much more powerful in the case of a purely humanitarian intervention. If, for example, we had decided (or were to decide in the future) to send troops to the Sudan to end the slaughter in Darfur, it would be hard to justify an increase in the number of innocent deaths. But the war in Iraq was not primarily undertaken to make the lives of the Iraqi people better. It was justified, first and foremost, on national security grounds. The Coalition partners decided that the risk to their interests of allowing Saddam Hussein to continue wielding power in the heart of the Middle East had grown too high. Further, even the “nation building” mission–which has created the lion’s share of the casualties in question–was aimed achieving long term effects in the region more so than the short term happiness of the local population.

Aside from the moral dimension, the issue of “excess” deaths in Iraq matters in terms of our ability to defeat the insurgent-terrorist enemy. As the casualties mount, confidence in the Iraqi government and the willingness to continue to put up with foreign troops diminishes. This is the case, ironically, despite the fact that the deaths are being caused almost entirely by the intentional action of those we are fighting rather than from hamhanded use of aerial bombing by our side.

The comparison with the slave trade is also inapt. Taking human beings hostage against their will and forcing them to perform uncompensated labor violates our basic moral principles. By contrast, our forces in Iraq are risking their lives to protect Iraqi innocents from terrorists who are targeting them to score political points. That we have not yet achieved–and, indeed, may never achieve–our goal of a stable democracy in Iraq does not call into question whether it was a worthwhile endeavor.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    …save perhaps for the symbolically important question of whether more would have died under Hussein’s rule than under occupation.

    I believe the recent Lancet study, whether you agree with its numbers or not, explicitly stated that their count of 655k was above and beyond the expected death rate had Saddam stayed in power.

  2. Cernig says:

    Shorter James –

    “If you set out to drown a horse in an incompetent effort to make it drink, that does not call into question whether it was a worthwhile endeavor… or whether your veterinarian’s license should be revoked!”

    Regards, C

    P.S. What happened? Did Greg Tinti use Karl Rove’s mind-control ray on James Joyner? Did Greg eat James and is now blogging under his name? Where is Greg now? More in the National Enquirer tomorrow!

  3. Anderson says:

    The Coalition partners decided that the risk to their interests of allowing Saddam Hussein to continue wielding power in the heart of the Middle East had grown too high.

    Way to sanitize the historical record.

  4. JJ says:

    the war in Iraq was not primarily undertaken to make the lives of the Iraqi people better. It was justified, first and foremost, on [American] national security grounds.

    Your point is then, James, that the only relevant variable is American lives potentially saved because of the war and whether 30.000 or 600.000 or a couple of million Iraqis die is irrelevant, yes?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: There were multiple reasons for the war, all of which centered around Saddam Hussein. Like “slavery” in the US Civil War, all the other cited reasons stemmed from that central fact.

    Cernig: We badly underestimated the sectarian hostility in Iraq, to be sure. That’s hardly comparable to the intentional moral misdeeds of slavery.

    JJ: In the grand scheme of things, yes. We fight wars to enhance our own security. So far, it doesn’t look like we’ve accomplished that and we’ve opened the bottle which previously contained the genie of nasty sectarian violence. The fight’s not yet over, though, and it may well prove to have been worth the cost when all’s said and done.

  6. Don McArthur says:

    “…Does the Actual Number of Iraqi Deaths Matter?…”

    Just to the, you know, dead Iraqis.

    Geesh, talk about academic detachment. What’s next, thrill killing?

  7. legion says:

    Cernig: We badly underestimated the sectarian hostility in Iraq, to be sure. That’s hardly comparable to the intentional moral misdeeds of slavery.

    James,
    That’s only valid if the underestimation was unintentional, or if competent planning & execution could have been expected to lessen the hostility (and tangentially, the deaths). But considering that senior military planners were explicitly directed _not_ to plan for the aftermath (in direct contradiction of the Joint Staff’s explicit mission, I might add), there is a case to be made for this administration’s criminal culpability in any “excess” Iraqi deaths.

    While that still doesn’t equate to the evil of slavery, it is beginning to get “comparable”…

  8. James Joyner says:

    legion: “senior military planners were explicitly directed _not_ to plan for the aftermath ” ?

    I’ll need a little more context for that one.

  9. civilbehavior says:

    James Joyner.

    Context for “not-planned-for-afermath” is explicitly laid out in new book “HUBRIS”. Names dates, documents etc. . Read it and weep.

  10. James Joyner says:

    cb: I’m afraid I can’t take too seriously a book written by Isikoff and Corn with the title “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.” You have something from a somewhat more neutral source?

  11. DC Loser says:

    James – I’m sure you’ll find similar stories in “Fiasco” or “Assassin’s Gate.”

  12. Michael says:

    We badly underestimated the sectarian hostility in Iraq, to be sure. That’s hardly comparable to the intentional moral misdeeds of slavery.

    Which brings up a philosophical question: Where exactly does one drawn the line between intentional moral misdeeds, and willful ignorance of the consequences of one’s deeds?

  13. legion says:

    Well James, I distinctly remember reading this quote from Gen Pace, back when he was Vice Chairman, in 2003:

    Pace also told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that the Bush administration had put off much of the planning for the aftermath of the Iraq war — launched on March 20 — out of concern such planning would bring on the conflict.

    “We did not want to have planning for the post war make the war inevitable. We did not want to do anything that would prejudge or somehow preordain that there was definitely going to be a war,” he said.

    Even then, I remember nearly shouting in my rage. I’ve been on a Joint Task Force staff. I’ve still got the unclassified training materials. And I know (and so does Pace) that Phase IV Post-Combat planning is _explicitly_ part of our duties. Nobody in uniform – not Pace, not the JCS staff, not Tommy Franks or anyone on his CENTCOM staff – nobody can just decide not to do it.

    Interesting side note – you can’t find regular news archives of that story online anymore. reuters doesn’t even seem to have it. But you can see the whole context on other news sites like, disturbingly enough, in China. However, here’s an old Knight-Ridder article that supports this.

    In March 2003, days before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American war planners and intelligence officials met… to review the Bush administration’s plans to oust Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in Iraq.

    Near the end of his presentation, an Army lieutenant colonel who was giving a briefing showed a slide describing the Pentagon’s plans for rebuilding Iraq after the war, known in the planners’ parlance as Phase 4-C. He was uncomfortable with his material – and for good reason.

    The slide said: “To Be Provided.”

    Longstanding Army doctrine calls for beginning reconstruction in freed areas of a country while fighting rages elsewhere. It also calls for a shift in military forces from combat troops to civil affairs, military police and the like.

    “Unfortunately, this did not occur despite clear guidance to the contrary,” Army Col. Paul F. Dicker wrote in an assessment.

    Instead of providing a plan and enough troops to take control of Iraq, officials, advisers and consultants in and around the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office bet on Iraqi exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, who assured them that Iraqis would welcome American troops as liberators.

    Gen. John Keane, the vice chief of the Army staff during the war, said some defense officials believed the exiles’ promises. “We did not see it (the insurgency) coming. And we were not properly prepared and organized to deal with it . . . . Many of us got seduced by the Iraqi exiles in terms of what the outcome would be,” Keane told a House committee in July.

    Rumsfeld’s office “was utterly, arrogantly, ignorantly and negligently unprepared” for the aftermath of the war, said Larry Diamond, who was a political adviser in Baghdad from January to March of this year.

    The article is long, but worth looking through. Numerous sources, including CIA, DIA, the State Dept’s INR, as well as the Joint Staff itself repeatedly told senior officials abot the need for post-combat planning, but were ignored. And again, the military doesn’t have the option of not doing this – it would have to be ordered not to do it. And according to numerous recent accounts, that’s exactly what Rumsfeld did.

  14. Cernig says:

    In common homicide, a plea of ignorance or negligence may effect the sentence, but it won’t prevent a guilty verdict.

    James seems to want us to hold “Princes” to a different standard from commoners, again. They can’t be nobles if they are employed by the electorate.

    Regards, C

  15. James Joyner says:

    Cernig: In common homocide, we convict those who pulled the trigger or ordered the trigger pulled–not policemen who didn’t prevent more murders.

  16. Cernig says:

    James. Exactly! Which is how the Left can hold the Bush administration culpable for ordering the trigger pulled and still support the troops who have been given an impossible police task to perform.

    Regards, C

  17. anjin-san says:

    Bush started the war based on a premise that is obvious BS. A lot of people have died. You may be comfortable with the blood that is now on our hands, but I, for one, am not.