As amazing as the low Coalition casualty figures are, the tiny number of Iraqi casualties is even more remarkable:

According to the Vietnamese government, 2 million North Vietnamese civilians and 2 million South Vietnamese civilians died in the Vietnam War. Human Rights Watch estimates that in the Persian Gulf War, “the total number of civilians killed directly by allied attacks did not exceed several thousand, with an upper limit of perhaps between 2,500 and 3,000 Iraqi dead.” In the Kosovo war, HRW identified “ninety separate incidents involving civilian deaths during the seventy-eight day bombing campaign. Some 500 Yugoslav civilians are known to have died in these incidents.”

There are no official civilian death figures for the current war, but estimates in today’s newspapers range from 600 to 1,100. That includes people killed or used as shields by Iraqi troops. The number of civilians killed by errant coalition bombs or missiles could be half of that. It could be less; it could be more. Either way, it’s well below the figure for the Gulf War and way below the figures for previous wars.

And, indeed:

Compare this to the number of people Saddam has killed at home and abroad. According to the Federation of American Scientists, in the Iran-Iraq War, which Saddam started, “[E]stimates suggest more than one and a half million war and war-related casualties. … Iran’s losses may have included more than 1 million people killed or maimed. The war claimed at least 300,000 Iranian lives.” HRW says Saddam’s slaughter of the Kurds included “the mass murder and disappearance of many tens of thousands of non-combatants—50,000 by the most conservative estimate,” and “the use of chemical weapons against non-combatants in dozens of locations, killing thousands.” Then there was the invasion of Kuwait, and the annihilation of Shiites in Iraq’s southern marshes. According to HRW, “Numbering some 250,000 people as recently as 1991, the Marsh Arabs today are believed to number fewer than 40,000 in their ancestral homeland. Many have been arrested, ‘disappeared,’ or executed.” As for Saddam’s current kill rate, HRW reports, “It is not possible to determine with certainty the number of people executed by law or government order in Iraq each year. For the past two decades and with depressing regularity, the reported figures for those executed have run into the hundreds each year and, in some years, have reached several thousand.”

Simply put, the number of innocent people who are dead because we ousted Saddam is dwarfed by the number of innocent people who are dead because we didn’t. The use of American force is on one side of the ledger, and mass killing is on the other. Trends in military and media technology make this dilemma increasingly likely where belligerent murderers rule. You can keep your hands clean, or you can keep many more people alive. It’s up to you.

Puts things into perspective, no?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.