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.