Monday, October 23, 2006

Understanding Death Tolls from the Anglo-tripartite Perspective

If by nothing else, the unmatched prestige of the Lancet among medical journals is measurable by the almost obedient promptness with which the heads of state of the US/UK/Australian Anglo-tripartite scuttled for their press agents upon release of the findings of the most recent Burnham survey on Iraqi deaths resulting from their latest Iraq war:

“Our best estimate is that 654,965 persons have died as a consequence of the conflict. Of these, 601,027 have died from violence.”

Being based on statistical inference, the paper asserts a 95% chance that the number of Iraqi deaths by war-related violence lay somewhere between 426,369 and 793,663 as of July 31st, 2006. Put another way, the odds of the true number of deaths lying outside this range (i.e. being less than 426,369 or—no less unlikely—more than 793,663) are 1 to 20 against. Furthermore, we non-statisticians are given to understand that “the true [violent] death toll is much more likely to be close to the 601,027 than to the lower and upper bounds of this range. “It isn't a dartboard.”

However, we don’t have access to any bookies knowledgeable of the real death toll (which is not to say that none are taking down bets), and, tempting though it may be to try to buttress the anti-war case by all means, we should be cautious of turning figure into factoid by failing to concede that the true death toll is still hidden from view. While the reputation of the journal attests to an impeccable methodology, we cannot genuinely know the underlying data to be free of bias. Who was it that said “War is epistemological hell; science its first casualty”?

More than this stunningly high figure, what we do know to be true regarding the Lancet controversy is that, once again, the medium is the message. To my mind, the crucial fact to be extracted here is that the strong possibility of a fatality count as horrifying as 655,000 has passed peer review in the most respected scientific circles in the world.

The publication of the Burnham study in conjunction with many, many other items of late tells us not the actual death toll in Iraq—but much of changing attitudes where it counts towards the sociopathic devastation of Iraqi society and destabilization of the global energy economy. It would appear that public hostility towards the Iraq project is being mobilized as never before.

Participants’ Responses

Though the standfirst to an assessment of official US, UK, and Australian responses at Reuters AlertNet speaks of “the lambasting a new report on Iraq deaths has got from hostile governments,” the expert testimony of Dr. Francesco Checchi in the actual article points more to a shaky glibness in those governments' dismissals. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine epidemiologist complains of “a worryingly unscientific trend in reporting and discussion of the effects of modern conflict on human health.” And worriedly one must concur, given Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s “rejection” of the study:

“It's not plausible, it's not based on anything other than a house to house survey—I think that's absolutely precarious.”

Still more precarious than “absolutely,” however, is Howard’s grasp on the origins of many of his own government’s official figures: Thousands of “findings” bandied about by Western governments each year are accredited by the very fact that they are based on house-to-house surveys. The Oz PM might be unadvisedly wobbling a precarious support pillar of contemporary pseudo-democracy, if he wishes to call the validity of standard statistical procedure into question.

Be that as it may, no matter how low George W’s latest house-to-house approval ratings may limbo, this commentator remains skeptical: Who, for example, could possibly show even 34% approval of Bush’s latest worryingly unscientific discussion of the effects of modern conflict on human health?

I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate.”

The allusion to Iraqi courage in the face of a H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T unleashed by Neocon warmongering under false pretexts is stunning. But the concept of an Iraq which so wants to be free, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate warrants some sort of government mental health warning to those who would make sense out of it. I’ll give it ago, anyway:

By means unspecified Iraqis could refuse the unceasing, ubiquitous violence that engulfs them; instead they bravely opt for the freedoms afforded by unceasing, ubiquitous armed conflict.

I digress. Concerning the new Burnham study the following exchange occurred on the White House Lawn:

Bush: Suzanne, the second -- the first best-dressed person here. Sorry.

Question: [A] group of American and Iraqi health officials today released a report saying that 655,000 Iraqis have died since the Iraq war. That figure is 20 times the figure that you cited in December at 30,000. Do you care to amend or update your figure? And do you consider this a credible report?

Bush: No, I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials.

Of note here is the precise context of the 30,000 figure cited at the December 12th, 2005 speech:

Question: Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators. [Emphasis supplied]

The President: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.

Revealingly a recent BBC article informs us that “His spokesman later [i.e. pursuant to the December 12th speech] said the figure was not an official one and was based on ‘public estimates cited by media reports’ - a method similar to that used by Iraq Body Count.”

Now back to the White House, October 11th. Sharp-dressed Suzanne persists in her inquiry:

Question: So the figure's 30,000, Mr. President? Do you stand by your figure, 30,000?

Bush: I, you know, I stand by the figure a lot of innocent people have lost their life. 600,000 or whatever they guessed at is just, it's not credible. Thank you.

Next question, please: Why didn’t Bush underscore the asininity of the suggestion that the figure he cited in December 2005 would—after ten months of “violence against Iraqis” in extremis—still be the same now in October 2006?

So what do we know?

Having read the Burnham study alongside the garbage above even we, the epidemiologistically incompetent and epistemologically struggling, can still stand upon the sturdy conclusion that Burnham’s peer-reviewed estimate of 655,000 excess deaths is refuted only laboriously and by cunning experts, if at all, whereas the impossibility of Bush’s December 2005 “30,000” is the non-brainer’s no-brainer. The approximate total of Iraqis killed, including civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators, and Michael Jackson T-shirt vendors cannot have been merely 30,000, when the Iraq Body Count (IBC) figure at the time was also approximately 30,000. This is because the IBC figure

  • Refers only to civilian deaths. The total number of deaths would have to at least add to that number all the combatants, insurgents, Iraqi armed forces and military police killed. IBC claims “There are no reliable accounts of Iraqi military or combatant deaths, either official or unofficial.”, but we can safely assume significant numbers of combatant casualties resulted from the initial invasion and are told on a daily basis of insurgent attacks against Iraqi armed forces and police. (As an aside, what is the rationale/excuse behind ignoring combatant casualties? What exactly is the purpose and relevance of IBC’s civilian death count if it fails to take Iraqi society as a whole into consideration? Without wanting to come across as dismissive of the efforts of IBC, this crucial aspect of the project’s design makes me wonder whether official pro-war sources might not be better-advised to drop the tally of US troops killed altogether; speaking only of the US civilian death toll in Iraq and claiming all-round success.)
  • “Refers to reported deaths - which can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.” (Quoted from IBC’s Quick-FAQ; emphasis in original) There is neither historical precedent nor rational basis for assuming that the greater part of casualties will be reported in the English-language media. On the one hand the latter’s mobility is severely restricted; on the other, there simply is not enough English-speaking public appetite to consume individual news items covering all Iraqi fatalities. A ratio of IBC reported deaths to overall deaths would be useful here: Are half the deaths reported (this would bring the total up to roughly 90,000-100,000, plus considerable combatant deaths). Are one in three, five deaths reported. One in 11/12 would bring us up to the Burnham extrapolations.
  • Records only deaths that meet a string of criteria set forth in A Dossier of Civilian Casualties 2003-2005 (such as casualties having been reported twice in English-speaking internet media). The dossier also submits the following (to my mind) embarrassing admission: “We have not made use of Arabic or other non English language sources, except where these have been published in English. The reasons are pragmatic. We consider fluency in the language of the published report to be a key requirement for accurate analysis, and English is the only language in which all team members are fluent. It is possible that our count has excluded some victims as a result.” This begs the question: does not this “pragmatism” preclude the project’s academic credibility? A study of Iraqi civilian casualties reported in the “media” that largely excludes reports in Arabic is quite simply not a study of the conflict itself at all; it is merely another US media study.
  • “Relies on the professional rigour of the approved reporting agencies” (again, quoting the dossier above). While it is conceded that reliance on any old internet source would produce different figures, this commentator fails to see why the more eminent “approved reporting agencies” such as Associated Press and FOX News are deemed trustworthy, given the “professional rigor” witnessed thus far in the saga. Not that anyone has forgotten, but the major “reporting agencies” aggressively disseminated all the fabrications used to garner what little popular support the war could count on. Moreover, granting exceptional articles, there can be no doubt that mainstream English-language internet media have, up until now, conformed to a rigid political agenda very much in the service of perpetrating Neocon aggressors. Of priority on this agenda is the gross understatement of the human costs of an unnecessary conflict motivated by greed and global despotism. The assumption that the mainstream media provide overall non-partisan documentation in this regard, and hence can be relied on for war statistics, merits at best a spluttering sound made with the salient tongue and lower lip. The important thing is to make sure it’s a vicious one that can be heard.

Similar and even more troubling points were put across in two commendable January 2006 articles on Medialens.org, “Paved With Good Intentions - Iraq Body Count - Part 1” and Part 2.

Et Tu, Body Count?

The particular informative intentions behind iraqbodycount.net, are, for the moment, not clear and not to be assumed. Nor do they matter.

What matters in this context is that

  • Transparent and democratically flexible macro-political processes do not usually emerge from the strangulations of wartime history.
  • Au contraire, governments as we know them perceive a strategic need to integrate misleading death tolls into the overall war effort (i.e. depending on what “leaders” consider expedient and/or prudent, they will exaggerate, blow out of all proportion, understate, or suppress the information they have, as they have always done).
  • Any wartime government with “open-society” pretensions needs to and will unfailingly monitor news media, particularly its own and kindred. This will include a systematic effort to keep track of media-reported deaths.
  • Mass communication institutions in the Western World (and beyond), rather than being “subservient” (to government) or “complacent” as is oft naively claimed, are integral organs in the state apparatus. (Who would speak of the liver as being subservient to the brain?) Content will therefore exaggerate, understate, or omit death tolls along tightly coordinated lines of “national security” policy.
  • The present aggressor governments, by keeping score of media-reported deaths, are automatically watching the lowest false figure they can “claim” without having to dictate “professional standards” to the press outright (which they can and will also do should a perceived motive arise). If some independent agency happens to be doing this for them, so much the better.

So many words! And all to express the bleeding obvious:

The US/UK/AUS governments are interested in citing the lowest casualty figures they can get away with; these happen to be published by Iraq Body Count (43,937 - 48,783 at the time of writing). They are undoubtedly false.

I leave you with the only sapient official response to the Burnham study coming from the Anglo-tripartite:

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett “No-one disputes that there have been many deaths in Iraq and all of those deaths are regrettable and tragically many have been deaths of civilians, that doesn't mean one has to accept every figure that someone comes up with.”

[Emphasis supplied]