Leading article: This shocking figure reveals the true cost of the war

Share

Numbers have been a source of contention in coverage of the Iraq war since well before the US and British invaded Iraq. The number of troops that would be required, not just to remove Saddam Hussein, but to secure the country afterwards, was a matter of debate, although few now dispute it was far too few to accomplish the mission successfully. The quantity of lethal weapons and materiel that Saddam was said to possess was the subject of equally fierce argument.

And while the US and British military authorities have been meticulous in releasing figures for the number of their own soldiers killed, they have been not been nearly so precise about counting the wounded, prompting accusations from servicemen's charities that they had sought to conceal the real scale and gravity of casualties. As for the number of Iraqis killed and wounded in the past three and a half years years - surely a key measure of the cost of the war to the supposed beneficiary of the invasion - the US and British authorities have until very recently remained scandalously silent.

Having decided, so the US authorities said at the outset, it would be too difficult to log figures for Iraqi casualties with any accuracy, the Pentagon started slipping out estimated numbers of Iraqi dead a year ago. Last December, President Bush gave a figure of about 30,000 for Iraqi civilian deaths. This was below the then estimate given by the Iraq Body Count project, which has been compiling figures from news reports and eye-witness accounts since 2003, but the discrepancy was not enormous. At least not when set against the number of Iraqi losses estimated by a US university medical study two years ago.

This study, reported - and by implication validated - by the British medical journal, The Lancet - argued that Iraqi casualties had been grossly underestimated. Applying a different methodology, which relied on household sampling, rather than news and other reports, the epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins University, extrapolated a figure of 100,000 Iraqi lives lost in the first 18 months after the invasion. So shocking was this figure that it was widely dismissed in official circles as unreliable or hyped for political reasons. This same group has updated its study, using similar methodology but with a larger sample. This has produced an estimated Iraqi death toll in the war to date of a catastrophic 655,000. This is more than 13 times the current Iraq Body Count figure of between 44,000 and 49,000.

Some part of the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that like is not being compared with like. The IBC figures are based on reports of actual deaths clearly linked to the conflict. The Johns Hopkins study, again reported in The Lancet, uses the results of its sampling to project numbers of deaths across the whole country; it then compares this figure with a figure based on death rates before the war. Its definition of war-related deaths is, therefore, rather broader, in that includes people whose deaths may be linked to the conflict less directly. The availability of guns, the shortage of medical staff, the increased incidence of disease due to poor hygiene, and other, perhaps psychological, reasons must all contribute to Iraq's soaring higher death rate.

We fully expect this latest study to become as great a source of political contention as its predecessor. Some will conjure up a picture of 655,000 Iraqis - 2.5 per cent of the population - gunned down in combat; others will denounce the figures as hyped by opponents of the war. A more sober judgement would be that, while the new figures contain an element of hypothesis, the true cost of the war in Iraqi lives is vastly higher than the invading countries have estimated. And the damage to Iraq's long-term future is higher still.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album