BETH OSBORNE DAPONTE is concerned that the White House has not told Americans how it will avoid massive deaths to civilians in an invasion of Iraq. Her concern should be alarming. Daponte was the woman who a decade ago was nearly fired by the government for her estimates on the Iraqi civilian death toll in the first Gulf War. ''Right now, it's just like it was in 1991,'' Daponte said by telephone. ''People were sold on the idea of clean war.''
Daponte showed how dirty the first war really was. She was an analyst in the Census Bureau's international division, whose normal job is to estimate the populations of other nations. Up until then, the senior President Bush, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and the Pentagon refused to make any public estimates of the Iraqi dead.
Daponte, a Middle East analyst, was assigned to come up with an estimate. She estimated that a total of 158,000 Iraqis were killed, with only 40,000 of them being soldiers in battle. The far greater death toll came afterward; Daponte estimated that 70,000 Iraqis died through easily preventable diseases that were suddenly made lingering and lethal by the bombing by the United States and its allies of water and power supplies, sewage systems, and roads.
Of the estimated 158,000 deaths, Daponte concluded that nearly 40,000 of the victims were women and 32,000 were children.
After the Associated Press ran the estimate in January 1992, Daponte was told by the Census Bureau that she was going to be fired on the basis of issuing ''false information,'' ''untrustworthiness,'' and ''unreliability.''
The Census Bureau backed down after Daponte received swift and strong support from civil libertarians and statisticians. A year later she published an even more refined report with even more grotesque numbers. In a study published in the quarterly publication of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, Daponte estimated the final death toll to be 205,500. The war itself resulted in 56,000 deaths to soldiers and 3,500 to civilians. Another 35,000 people died in internal postwar fighting. The biggest single number of deaths again was to civilians after the destruction of the nation's infrastructure: 111,000.
In Daponte's second analysis, the number of women who died from health effects of the war went down, to 16,500, but the number of children who died soared to 70,000. In addition, 8,500 senior citizens died. If that number is anywhere close to true, that means that far more Iraqi children died than Iraqi soldiers.
Daponte now teaches population and policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Her estimates tell a story of two wars. ''What I showed was that it was true, we did minimize casualties from direct war effects,'' she said. ''There were relatively few deaths from hitting wrong targets. But what I also showed was the indirect casualties could be much greater. It is no different than as when the infrastructure of a city with the population of Washington or Boston is taken away by an earthquake.''
Those deaths occurred in what was a war meant only to force Iraq out of Kuwait and back behind its own borders. The war that the junior President Bush is threatening promises to strike deep into the heart of Iraq. Any sane person would bet that the civilian casualties this time will be much worse.
Because of that prospect, Daponte thinks the White House owes the nation projections of the damage to Iraq so Americans can make their own calculations of whether we have done everything to avoid war. Projections will be tough to come by: The White House has returned to Bush family control, and Dick Cheney has moved up from secretary of defense to vice president. Secrecy has already been established as a hallmark of the Bush administration, and if the Census Bureau back then was prepared to squash truth seekers like Daponte, one can assume that the current corps of government demographers are already looking over their shoulders.
''If you are not having a discussion about civilian casualties, we are probably not having a true discussion of whether this war is the best thing we can do,'' Daponte said. ''If our goal is to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, I haven't seen any detailed plans on how we do that without destroying the infrastructure for the people of Iraq. . . . The idea of deaths in the drumbeat toward war just isn't there. It isn't part of the discourse on either side. It's as if the less that it is talked about, the assumption is zero deaths.''
Daponte said if Americans make the leap into war with that kind of calculation, ''that's the incorrect leap.'' When she says ''we need to be very careful about not buying everything that the government is saying,'' she is her own best evidence. When she did her calculations a decade ago, the government's response was to ''kill the messenger. They wanted to keep that discussion off the table.''
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company