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October 24, 2005

The mess that is Iraq

One of these days, the number of US soldiers killed will reach a milestone of 2,000. The media will take solemn note of this event. Of course, the very fact that the focus is only on US troop deaths is a measure of how insular the media coverage is. The 2,000 mark of non-Iraqi coalition forces (mainly US and UK) deaths passed 2000 sometime ago with no fanfare and is now approaching 2,200. (See here for current totals.) And, of course, the total deaths of the fledgling Iraqi security forces, presumably allies of the coalition forces, are not usually reported (although you can see the current number which is about 3,500 here), nor are the huge number of civilians killed by the ongoing war. Estimates of the last category currently lie between 26,000 and 30,000. And when one adds the injured to all these totals, one gets a sense of the immense cost of this war.

At a meeting last month, part of the Cindy Sheehan Camp Casey cross-country bus tour, at which I spoke, I showed a graph similar to this of the rate of non-Iraqi coalition casualties of the war, on which were marked so-called landmark events, things that were signaled by the US government as significant turning points in the war. The latest political move in this sequence, not shown on the graph, was the referendum on the new constitution in Iraq, another touted 'landmark on the road to democracy in Iraq', which occurred just this month. (Graph is from The Intelligence Squad Reports, where you can see the original graph.)

What was significant was that the graph is a straight line, showing that none of these events had caused any significant shift in the intensity of the attacks on the US occupation.

This struck me as significant because as many of you may have noticed, the deaths of US troops in Iraq has ceased to be a national news story in the media. It is now mainly a local story and is reported in the local media when a hometown soldier or marine is killed. Since this is a rare event in any given community, this may have led many to think that the violence in Iraq is abating and that all the political maneuvers that are so exhaustively reported are having a calming effect.

The website that tracks coalition forces deaths shows that far from abating, the rate of deaths goes on, a steady drumbeat of violence. In fact, the present month seems to have the highest rate of coalition forces deaths since January of this year.

Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent has a long report in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter that paints a dismal picture of the state of affairs in Iraq and suggests that despite the determined efforts by the US and UK governments to paint all these political developments as significant improvements, they may only be making things worse. He writes:

A deep crisis is turning into a potential catastrophe because President George W. Bush and Tony Blair pretend that the situation in Iraq is improving. To prove to their own publics that progress is being made they imposed on Iraq a series of artificial milestones, which have been achieved but have done nothing to end the ever-deepening violence. The latest milestone was the referendum on the new constitution - the rules of the game by which Iraq is to be governed - on which Iraq voted on October 15. The document was rushed through with the U.S. and British ambassadors sitting in on the negotiations. The influential Brussels-based think tank, the International Conflict Group, warns in a very sensible report that because the five million Sunni Arabs see the constitution as legitimizing the break up of the country the referendum will insure that "Iraq will slide towards full-scale civil war."

Cockburn continues with a sobering and devastating assessment:

The need for the White House to produce a fantasy picture of Iraq is because it dare not admit that it has engineered one of the greatest disasters in American history. It is worse than Vietnam because the enemy is punier and the original ambitions greater. At the time of the invasion in 2003 the USA believed it could act alone and win. … It is a defeat more serious than Vietnam because it is self-inflicted like the British invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser in 1956…A better analogy is the Boer War, at the height of British imperial power, when the inability of its forces to defeat a few thousand Boer farmers damagingly exposed Britain's real lack of military strength and diplomatic isolation. (my emphasis)

I will write more about Cockburn's analysis of Iraq. It is not pleasant reading.

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Comments

I think the graph is obscuring some of your text.

Posted by Liz V on October 24, 2005 10:54 AM

re: Liz's observation: it looks fine in Firefox. Just a datapoint :).
(Also, very interesting graph!)

Posted by Erin on October 24, 2005 11:43 AM

I think that it was a browser specific problem, specific to Explorer. I think I have fixed it now. Let me know if it is still looking weird.

Posted by Mano Singham on October 24, 2005 11:57 AM

I agree with your comments that the administration, echoed by the media, are downplaying the horrendous cost of this war in human lives and capital. You alluded to the number of wounded in your piece - this number is over 10,000 and growing. Many of these soldiers have terrible injuries, with loss of limbs or severe disfigurement. In addition are the psychological and health damages to many of the soldiers who will come down with PTSD, or possibly some variant of Gulf War Syndrome. And of course, no one ever mentions the number of wounded Iraqi police and citizens (I have never seen an estimate of this number, but it could reasonably be 10 times the number of deaths). This only adds exponentially to the growing current and future cost of this ill-advised war.

Posted by Robert C Sherrick on October 24, 2005 12:43 PM

Everytime I hear about PTSD, I feel obliged to mention this article (http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_11_08_a_trauma.html). There are some serious questions regarding its effectiveness and whether very well intentioned people are actually making the stress these soldiers feel worse.

Posted by on October 24, 2005 05:37 PM

Why do we separate out the 'coalition' deaths at all?

Why does no one care how many Iraqi civilians have died?

Was it over a year ago? I think it was, when anti-war student groups postered campus. One of the posters listed how many American deaths there had been so far and asked if this was worth it. One poster on a kiosk on the quad was covered in angry graffiti, angry because so many thousands of civilians had died - and so this very anti-war poster had alienated a potential ally.

It... it just bothers me.

There was an Onion headline back during the tsunami tragedy ... something like "Tsunami Death Toll Reaches 18 Americans"

Sometimes there is truth in satire.

Posted by Marie Vibbert on October 26, 2005 11:08 AM

You should show the rate of coalition deaths as your Y axis, that would provide a clearer depiction of the lack of change througout. The increasing line you use, with cumulative deaths, is effective in a purely propaganda-sense because in fact the rate of deaths appears to be stable, with slight dips at various time points.

Posted by on October 26, 2005 10:47 PM


Anonymous: if the cumulative graph may be misleading since people could misread it as an increasing rate of death, then the rate vs. time graph could just as easily be misread as a steady cumulative death toll. Showing both graphs side by side might be clearest.

But you seem to suggest that the “lack of change” is not really a problem, and should not be portrayed as one. Shouldn't the goal be to stop the violence? If that were achieved, both graphs would show it clearly - the cumulative graph, by leveling off; and the rate graph, by dropping to zero.

Posted by Paul Jarc on October 27, 2005 02:43 AM

My point was that the lack of change was a problem and that none of the major political events that were supposed to be signposts of improvement have actually had any effect on the rate of deaths. If they were having a positive effect, the graph should level off and become flat, or at least the slope should deccrease, as you point out.

Showing the rate of deaths on the Y-axis would be an equivalent way of giving the same information, and would even be clearer for this purpose, but in my experience, the concept of rate of changeis not well understood by the general public and is more likely to be misinterpreted than the total.

Posted by Mano Singham on October 27, 2005 08:50 AM

Robert makes a good point about the overall cost of the war - not only the heroes who have been lost, but also the ongoing toll of physical and mental (PTSD, TBI) injuries. As the country "moves on" and stops focusing on the war, it is sad that the importance of each life is getting ignored.

Posted by Brannan Vines on July 24, 2010 04:59 PM

United States has new President and UK has new Prime Minister. Let us just be hopeful that different approach about Iraq will be implemented this time. Violence should be stopped and American troops can go home and live with their families.

Posted by Pearl on July 31, 2010 10:37 AM

I agree with Marie... why do the civilian deaths not get more attention? Between 26,000 & 30,000?? These are innocent people - that is an incredible tragedy! I am also saddened by the deaths of the troops - they are giving their lives for this country but human life is human life. I wonder how many of the thousands dead are children?? War is tragic in so many aspects, and not just death. The effects on the survivors are many and far reaching: broken families, wounded, dismembered, disabled, and let's not forget one of the biggest effects on the survivors... P.T.S.D.

Posted by Yaji Tramontini, MA, MFT: Treat-Anxiety-Naturally on August 18, 2010 06:36 PM