Credit the newsmaking scientists at Johns Hopkins with this: They know a political opportunity when they see one. This latest Iraq war-death estimate — 655,000, four times higher than anyone else’s — is released a few weeks before Election 2006, just like their last Lancet study, which appeared right before the 2004 election. Here we are again, watching science meet anti-war politics.
Yesterday the study got generous coverage in The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Why that happened is unclear, because the scientists — the lead author this time is Dr. Gilbert Burnham, last time Dr. Les Roberts — burned the media in 2004 by irresponsibly hyping a supposed death total of 100,000. The signs of politicization were clear enough: One author admitted to politically motivated timing. Lancet editor Richard Horton called the war “grievously in error.”
And sure enough, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan showed, the study actually proved no such figure. Sampling Iraqis around the country by interview, the authors’ survey really determined that the death toll in 2004 was somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000. As Mr. Kaplan put it: “This isn’t an estimate. It’s a dart board.” Every other credible group or analyst put the number in the range of 15,000-30,000. The 100,000 estimate was nevertheless declared to be “conservative” by these political scientists.
This time, once again, the stated 655,000 number is not the actual finding. The study actually reports that between 393,000 and 943,000 died. Even the lower end of that range would be shocking if true: It is about three times higher than anyone else’s. But why would we trust scientists who already hyped their findings for undoubted political reasons?
The independent British organization Iraq Body Count reports 44,000-49,000 deaths, which is probably too low. President Bush’s “about 30,000” in December was obviously too low.
The Iraqi group Iraqiyun reported 128,000 between the invasion and July 2005, which is probably closer to the mark. Extrapolated to the present, the figure would be in the high 100,000s or low 200,000s. But nearly 400,000 couldn’t possibly be the answer.
The terrible human toll of war can only be viewed in its context, in account of the awful moral dilemmas in the decision to go to war and the compounding dilemmas which ensued afterward. Of course, the study’s anti-war pushers want just the opposite to happen. They want to strip the terrible number of its ambiguous context and shame reasonable people into forgetting the moral and political dilemmas which prompted this war in the first place.
Some are even trying to make it seem like Saddam’s rule was somehow more beneficent and less bloody. “Human Rights Watch has estimated Saddam Hussein’s regime killed 250,000 to 290,000 people over 20 years,” reported the Wall Street Journal’s Neil King Jr. yesterday. This conveniently omits the one million casualties of the Iran-Iraq war. And thus our Iraq debates descend to madness, where otherwise intelligent people are left to think we’re no better than a murderous dictator.