January 04, 2012

On the Casualties of War (Updated)

John Tirman has an important if flawed op-ed in today's New York Times. He urges U.S. military and political leaders -- as well as the general public -- to be honest about civilian casualties in war. Tirman argues that U.S. military officers need to be wary of civilian casualties for strategic reasons, and here the two of us are in violent agreement. Tirman also argues that the U.S. public and its leaders need to consider the total human cost associated with war for moral reasons, and here too we are in violent agreement. Whenever I speak about the war in Iraq -- whether it is over dinner with friends last night or on NPR a few weeks ago -- I always make sure I mention the terrible loss of Iraqi lives. We Americans have to be honest about this. Last night, someone asked me if I thought the Iraq War had been worth it, and though I said the Iraq war had accomplished certain things (the fall of Saddam, a nascent democratic system of government), it most certainly had not been worth it. The three pieces of data I went on to cite were a) the $1 trillion spent, b) the 4,484 U.S. military lives lost, and c) the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives lost. I could have gone on to cite coalition casualties, the Iraqi refugee crisis, and wounded soldiers and civilians, but you get my drift: I am sympathetic to the aim of Tirman's op-ed.

But then Tirman writes this:

In 2006, two separate household surveys, by the Iraqi Ministry of Health
and by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, found between 400,000
and 650,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq as a result of the war. At the
time, however, the commanding general in Iraq put the number at 50,000
and President Bush had claimed in late 2005 that it was just 30,000.

As Tirman has to know, that Johns Hopkins / Lancet survey was incredibly controversial when it was released and remains controversial today. It relied on cluster sampling, in Iraq, at the height of that country's civil war. I cannot think of a poorer environment in which one could do that kind of survey. Yes, it was peer-reviewed, but an academically sophisticated methodology cannot compensate for poor data. (Garbage in = garbage out.) Both Gen. Casey and Pres. Bush were likely much closer to the mark, as the iCasualties figures from the very height of the war in Iraq -- 2005-2007 -- are way lower than the figures from either of the studies Tirman cites. (And if Tirman thinks the Iraqi Min. of Health had the capacity, in 2006, to accurately measure the cost of the war on the Iraqi civilian populace, he needs to spend more time in peacetime bureaucracies in the Arabic-speaking world. I apologize for painting with such a broad brush, but those with experience dealing with large state bureaucracies in Egypt or Syria know of what I speak.)

Tirman's op-ed is basically a call for the United States to use violence more selectively, and it's a pity he overstates his case (as tends to happen in New York Times op-eds), because I agree with him. As has been demonstrated time and again, the use of indiscriminate violence in civil war environments confuses the population, scrambles incentive structures for behavior, and tends to inflame the population against the force using the violence. Selective violence is much more effective.

That's the strategic argument. The moral argument is that the U.S. public needs to understand the total human costs associated with its wars. That may lead the United States to be more selective as to when it applies U.S. military power abroad and how it does so. On the other hand, it might also lead the United States to think carefully about how it ends its wars as well. There is a fashionable sign in my neighborhood, for example, that reads "End the War in Afghanistan." I assume this sign is meant to read "End U.S. Involvement in the War in Afghanistan," because I myself am unsure as to whether or not the U.S. withdrawal will ameliorate or worsen the conflict there. Progressives like Tirman should keep that in mind: the U.S. military is only one actor in environments like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. presence is not the only driver of conflict. It is even possible -- whisper it -- that increased U.S. combat presence and operations might actually serve the interests of the civilian population in some cases. That's certainly the case, at least, in most stabilization operations.

Anyway, my congratulations to John Tirman for this important op-ed.

UPDATED: One of the folks in the comments section points out that Tirman directed the funding for the Lancet/JHU study. Well, that explains it! (I wish he would have disclosed this small but significant point in his op-ed.) Tirman apparently believes between 800,000 and 1.3 million Iraqis were killed in the war, which is a simply incredible claim. No one else puts the number that high. The Associated Press (110,600), the Iraq Body Count Project (103,536 — 113,125), and the Wikileaks logs (109,032) all put the number much, much lower. At what point does someone admit that their numbers just might be off and that their own study had deep flaws? I mean, only 87,000 death certificates were issued in the worst years of the war (2005-2008). Tirman might be the only guy left who references the Lancet/JHU study as having been sound.