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

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible