Monday, June 26, 2006

Iraq's Death Toll

According to research conducted by the Los Angeles Times and published on the front page of yesterday's paper, over 50,000 Iraqi deaths, mostly civilians, have been documented since the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Times examined records from Iraq's Health Ministry, which has collected information on war-related deaths from the nation's hospitals; from the Baghdad morgue; and from various other government agencies around the country. The documented total, although much higher than President Bush suggested last year, is still significantly lower than the actual number of war-related deaths due to the absence of statistics from Kurdish-controlled regions and obviously understated figures from some of Iraq's most violent provinces.

The Times article states:

The Baghdad morgue received 30,204 bodies from 2003 through mid-2006, while the Health Ministry said it had documented 18,933 deaths from "military clashes" and "terrorist attacks" from April 5, 2004, to June 1, 2006. Together, the toll reaches 49,137.

However, samples obtained from local health departments in other provinces show an undercount that brings the total well beyond 50,000. The figure also does not include deaths outside Baghdad in the first year of the invasion.

The documented cases show a country descending further into violence.

At the Baghdad morgue, the vast majority of bodies processed had been shot execution-style. Many showed signs of torture--drill holes, burns, missing eyes and limbs, officials said. Others had been strangled, beheaded, stabbed or beaten to death.

The morgue records show a predominantly civilian toll; the hospital records gathered by the Health Ministry do not distinguish between civilians, combatants and security forces.

In Just and Unjust Wars (p. 30), Michael Walzer writes,

When we say, war is hell, it is the victims of the fighting that we have in mind. In fact, then, war is the very opposite of hell in the theological sense, and is hellish only when the opposition is strict. For in hell, presumably, only those people suffer who deserve to suffer, who have chosen activities for which punishment is the appropriate divine response, knowing that this is so. But the greater number by far of those who suffer in war have made no comparable choice.

The chapter in which this passage appears is titled "The Crime of War." As Walzer makes clear, it is a serious matter to begin a war because, once it is begun, all manner of evil--much of it unpredictable and uncontrollable--is let loose. In Act IV, Scene 1 of Henry V, Williams puts it this way:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

Of course, Williams speaks only of combatant casualties. How much more severe must the reckoning be with respect to innocents who die in war "if the cause be not good"?