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The 'Credible' Human Toll of War

Another Iraq-Vietnam Link: Many Killed By US War

Robert Naiman

I was quite delighted that President Bush brought up the topic of the relationship between the U.S. war in Iraq and the U.S. war in Vietnam. I was about to bring up the subject myself.

Just Foreign Policy has been working to put the question of the overall scale of Iraqi dead since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 back on the table. To this end, we created an online estimate of Iraqi dead, by extrapolating from last year's Lancet study - which estimated more than 600,000 Iraqi dead - using the trend provided by the tally of deaths reported in Western media that is compiled by Iraq Body Count. Our count now stands at more than a million.

President Bush dismissed the Lancet study as "not credible." Of course, this was a meaningless statement. Honest people call something "not credible" when they have some defensible basis for doing so - another reference point about which they have a defensible basis for being more certain. If I say it is raining and you can look outside and see no rain coming down, you can say my statement is "not credible." If I say I am ten feet tall you can dismiss my statement as "not credible" based on your life experience of meeting different human beings and seeing that all of them were nowhere near ten feet tall. You could also consult a standard reference to see how tall the tallest recorded human was.

But if I present a science-based estimate that a million Iraqis have been killed, you can only dismiss this as "not credible" - if you are honest - if you have some objective basis for doing so. The Lancet study is the only scientific study that exists, so it makes sense to take this as a starting point - not the prejudices of the President of the United States, who obviously 1) has presented no scientific evidence 2) has a direct stake in the matter 3) has a track record of blatant dishonesty on important questions of public policy.

The fundamental question here is not what the exact death toll is - that of course will never be known - but what is its order of magnitude. Is it on the order of many hundreds of thousands, as the Lancet study suggests, or is it on the order of less than a hundred thousand, as the President of the United States would have us believe?

In considering the question of scale, in addition to considering the scientific evidence, it is quite relevant to consider what we know about other wars. And the comparison to Vietnam is particularly appropriate.

The official Vietnamese government estimate of Vietnamese war dead - including combatants and civilians - was about 5 million. One can say that the Vietnamese government had motivations for overstating the case - although when this number was released in 1995 the Vietnamese Government admitted that they had kept their estimate secret during the war for fear of demoralizing the population. For the purposes of this rough calculation, let's consider a range from two million to five million (this is the range given by Wikipedia, for example.) Let's say that the population of Vietnam during the war was about 40 million (roughly the 1970 figure, so this overstates the population a little, thus understating the resulting percentages.) Then, very roughly speaking, between 5% and 12% of the population was lost in the war.

Now let's consider Iraq. Its population in 2003 was about 25 million. The Just Foreign Policy estimate would indicate that 4% of the population have lost their lives. If it's true that less than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, then less than .4% of the pre-war population have lost their lives (still a horrific outcome, obviously.)

This calculation proves nothing, of course. It simply suggests that the order of magnitude of the Just Foreign Policy estimate is in the same ballpark as generally accepted estimates of the death toll in Vietnam, and therefore, is not wildly implausible, in the absence of some argument as to why we should not compare estimates of the death tolls between the two wars.

Here's another comparison to consider: how many Iraqis have fled their homes? The standard estimate is four million - two million inside the country, two million outside. The Just Foreign Policy estimate would suggest that there has been 1 Iraqi killed for every four that have fled their homes. If the true death toll were an order of magnitude lower, than 1 Iraqi was killed for every forty who fled their homes.

Why is this a relevant comparison? Because it is well known that people are very reluctant to flee their homes. In his book "The Myth of Rescue," William Rubinstein gives a simple explanation for why Jews did not flee Hitler's Germany prior to Kristallnacht - they didn't want to go. They were waiting for a decisive sign that they needed to leave - which Kristallnacht gave. By the outbreak of war, 90% had left Germany. (Many subsequently perished - because they did not flee continental Europe.)

One thing that will cause people to overcome their reluctance to flee is fear of imminent death. One thing that proves that the threat of imminent death can no longer be ignored is the death of someone close to you.

And in fact, if you look at say, Iraqi refugee accounts from Jordan that have appeared in the U.S. press, you find that death of a family member often preceded flight.

This comparison, again, proves nothing. It simply suggests that the Just Foreign Policy estimate is not, in fact, wildly implausible.

If anyone wishes to challenge our estimate, let them do so - on the basis of data.

In the meantime, we encourage people to cite it.

Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy.

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