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Keeping Track in Iraq

At Commonweal magazine, Ron Osborn critically examines some models for counting Iraq war death.

The October online posting by WikiLeaks of nearly a thousand classified Pentagon documents (the “Iraq War Logs”) shed new light on the vexed issue of Iraqi deaths during and after the 2003 invasion. According to articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, the Bush administration, despite its claims to the contrary, did in fact keep a running count of Iraqi fatalities, entering 66,081 civilian deaths into the Iraq War Logs between January 2004 and December 2009 (out of a total of 109,032 recorded violent Iraqi deaths).


Yet the war logs yield no clear evidence that the U.S. government made any systematic effort to record all Iraqi deaths. Reports of Iraqi fatalities seem to have entered almost inadvertently into the Pentagon’s files as part of the daily bureaucratic grind of the occupation. General Tommy Franks’s now infamous declaration, “We don’t do body counts,” remains true, by every indication, as far as U.S. war policy is concerned.


This means that those 66,081 civilian deaths entered into the war logs likely represent a great undercounting of actual deaths. There are several reasons why.

Read those reasons here. Osborn concludes:

The best evidence we currently have suggests that the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of the U.S. invasion and the sectarian violence it unleashed is probably more than 400,000. A very high percentage of these deaths are civilian deaths.


The fate of the innocents of Iraq should be a matter of particularly sober introspection and moral concern among those Christians who defended the invasion as a “just war,” fully in harmony with Christ’s life and teachings and necessary in order to “preempt” a future terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. A central tenet of the just-war tradition (and full disclosure requires that I make clear my own commitment to an ethic of Christian nonviolence in the Radical Reformation tradition) is that wars be strictly proportional, not causing greater harm than the harm they seek to prevent or redress. Another requirement is that wars be fought not merely for “the national interest” but always for the highest good of all people.


Purely in terms of lives lost, 400,000 Iraqi deaths would be 9/11 multiplied by a factor of 134. We should remember this when we grieve the 2,977 victims of the terrorist acts of 9/11 and the more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers killed in the war. These are individuals whose names we know with absolute certainty and whose lives we pledge not to forget. But for every one of them there exist dozens of Iraqis—many of them civilians—killed in an unjust war: fellow humans whose deaths we can hardly expect to remember if we do not agree to count them.

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