How Many Iraqis Have to Die Before We Care?

News Abroad

Mr. Palaima teaches war and violence studies at University of Texas at Austin.

What do war statistics mean to us?

Imagine how Americans would feel if they were exposed to the same rate of insurgent attacks that are now occurring in Iraq. Six of the Iraqi provinces that have been declared safe have had four or more attacks per 100,000 people in the last month.

Let's say that in Austin, Texas, where I teach, during the month of September, 25 explosions and killings and maimings took place in our neighborhoods. Imagine you knew that in larger cities such as Houston and Dallas the number of attacks had reached upward of 300 all the way to a 1,000, and that authorities showed no signs of being able to stop them.

How safe would you feel about going out to work or to vote - or sending your children off to school?

Statistics about what is going on in human societies can mislead us, but only if we let them. We will not see the truth, if we lack the imagination and human sympathy to think through in concrete terms what the statistics are telling us. Yet our capacity for putting ourselves in the place of others varies according to what we ourselves have experienced or have taken real pains to learn.

This is made tragically clear in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's classic study, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. The trauma associated with killing in combat and our understanding of what killing means varies according to our proximity to those who are killed and how they are killed. It is one thing to kill enemy soldiers with high-altitude bombs or long-rang artillery, quite another to shoot an enemy across a rice paddy with an M-16 in a firefight, and still another to kill an enemy face-to-face at close quarters.

It is yet another thing to plot bomber pay loads in the air campaign, as Robert McNamara did in the bombing of Japan in 1945. The enemy dead and even our own dead are numbers on a page, and one can draw statistical conclusions from them about how the war is going. McNamara summed it up later when working on Vietnam: "Things you can count, you ought to count. Loss of life is one."

Most of us who are even further distanced from the killing should think carefully about statistics from the zone of war. We need to figure out what they mean.

The New York Timeshas given us statistics about insurgency attacks in Iraq, gathered by the Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc. They show 2,429 attacks took place throughout Iraq in September, 997 in Baghdad. Still, President Bush supports Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Allawi's opinion that 14 or 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "are completely safe." Allawi believes that elections could be held in 15 of the 18 provinces. And the president maintains we are on track to free elections in January.

A conservative website was immediately suspicious of any statistics brought forward by the New York Times and analyzed them with great care, even computing attacks per 100,000 people province by province.

The website's conclusions mirror Allawi's: the level of violence is of no concern in 12 of the 18 provinces. In the last month, 2,400 attacks have occurred within an Iraqi population of 24 million. Iraqis, then, should feel safe because they and their families have only one chance in 10,000 of being victims of an insurgent attack.

People who reason like this have never imagined what a random car bomb exploding on a city street - or unexpected mortar fire, or a hidden road mine, or a sudden American air strike - can do to the individual and collective human psyche. And they do not understand insurgent strategy. As with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, insurgents concentrate on key and highly visible points and urban centers and attack in outer provinces just enough to create unease. This maximizes the fear felt everywhere.

Using the same reasoning as Bush and Allawi, we would stress that only three terrorist attacks have occurred in America in the last 37 months: in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. Therefore, Americans living everywhere else should feel absolutely safe.

Why don't we? And why are we being told Iraqis do?


This article first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman and is reprinted with permission of he author.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Put Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the rest of the chickenhawks on a one way flight to Baghdad. Then "America" would "care".

Arnold Shcherban - 10/11/2004


First of all, there are firmly grounded suspicions and facts that the number of direct victims of Saddam's repressions was greatly exaggerated by current White House administration with the purpose that, I hope, I don't have to explain to such an educated man as you are.
If that is so, then your assertion about this number being much greater than the number of victims of the US invasion and continuing occupation becomes groundless.
(That is aside of the Moshe's convincing moral argument.)

And what could be more ridiculous to say than that US "supported" Stalin and Mao-Tse-Dung in the way analoguous to its support for Saddam!
Just the comparison itself has no validity at all:
the importance of the US-USSR or US-China relations and
the respective policies was immesurably greater for this country and for the world, as a whole, than the
US-Iraq relations and policies.
Furthermore, the US "supported" Stalin the way it supported Saddam, i.e. by sending arms and military equipment only because the USSR turned out to be a
a circumstantial ally for the countries of Western Europe, which were this country's really natural allies, in general, and the US, in particular; only facing the "imminent and real danger" - the Nazi Germany's world-wide agression and the imperialist struggle with another deadly, at the time, enemy - Japan - that was Germany's strongest military partner.
Being actually, not pretentiously, threatened, the US, as once was very characteristically remarked by Churchill, would support a Devil itself, to beat a Monster.
On the other hand, its support for Saddam over Iraq-Iran
war (which according to the latest "information", and in polar contradiction with the info fed into public mind then) that was instigated by Iraq was not forced by the neccesity at all, since Iran had not and could not threaten American interests to any degree comparable to
the US enemies's during WWII, who not only threatened, but were at "hot" war with this country in 40s.

I'm not quite sure what US "support" for Mao-Tse-Dung
you meant, but this country had never proivided military or financial aid, for that matter, to Mao-Tse-Dung's China, especially in order for the latter to fight a war against any other country or kill its internal enemies.
(That's not say, the US does not do it on regular basis
for many other states around the world, when it matches
the interests of its financial and political elite.)
Therefore, both of your analogies, in this regard, are
hardly applicable.

N. Friedman - 10/8/2004


Understand that in Chris' world, the world of human rights law and Anti-Americanism, the US is always at fault whether or not we are involved and whether or not we are attempting to undo a mistake from the past. Now note: while I think the Iraq war is likely a disaster, I recognize the that the US is not a static entity. Chris clearly rejects the idea of change. Instead, Chris' view is rather religious. The notion of original sin comes to mind.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/7/2004

I do not know what the evidence is that Iraqis believe that it was worth the cost, other than polls that ignore large sections of the country. However, I am more than willing to cede the point, not that it changes my argument in any way. As I have said, the issue should not be that it is okay so long as the death toll is less than it was under Saddam.

Incidentally, you hit the nail on the head when you say that "We can certainly question whether the war's value to the U.S. was worth the cost in American lives."

As an American, I have a hard time understanding how people could think the war was worth the tremendous cost given what we know now.

John H. Lederer - 10/7/2004

That is a bit like saying that the majority of deaths under Stalin or Mao Tse Tung, occurred when the U.S. "supported" them.

True if you are willing to take a very broad view as to what "supported" means.

Moreover Saddam's death toll post the tenuous U.S. support during the Iraq-Iran war is monstrous enough -- estimated at 180,000 kurds in the Anfal "final solution" launched after signing the Iranian cease-fire, the estimated 60,000 shiites killed post 1991, and the estimated 60,000 + residents of Baghdad killed or "disappeared" post 1991.

John H. Lederer - 10/7/2004

It seems to me that there are very few Iraqis that have any doubt but that the war was worth the cost to them.

We can certainly question whether the war's value to the U.S. was worth the cost in American lives.

However, questioning whether the war is worth the cost in Iraqi lives, seems to me a question that the Iraqis have the moral vote on.

chris l pettit - 10/6/2004

isn;t it ironic that the "death toll" that we speak of was almost totally achieved when Iraq was being supported by the US? Those mass graves? From the 80's prior to the first Gulf War. Those dead Kurds and Iranians? Same thing. Who was in charge at theat point? Many who are in charge now. This is power politics, pure and simple, and the number of US and Iraqi dead don't matter one bit to those in charge, and the majority of the US public is unfortunately to ignorant, miseducated, and self interested to care.



Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/5/2004

You raise a good point. However, I do not believe that is relevant to the issue of whether Americans should care how many Iraqi civilians are killed by our bombs. After all, no nation should want the bar to be so low that it is okay so long as the number is lower than a brutal dictators’. Furthermore, I belief that Americans in general have such a warped image of this conflict, I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of them would have no idea how many Iraqis have dies, many of them would not care, and perhaps a vocal minority would cite a number fewer than 10.

If you believe that this war was worth the cost, those Iraqi deaths will be put into context. If you are against the war, even one is too many. Regardless of where you stand, it would be nice if the media would actually report the numbers so far as they are able to gauge.

John H. Lederer - 10/5/2004

The death toll is far less than it was under Saddam's regime.

Is that relevant in assessing the effect on Iraqis?

Jonathan Dresner - 10/4/2004

Compare our horror and shock at roughly a half dozen serious bombings/attacks in the last 12 years: World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, Atlanta Olympic Park, clinic bombings, anthrax, DC Snipers, 9/11.

That's the equivalent of what Iraqis face on a monthly basis (possibly weekly, depending on how you do the math). The vast majority of us were not even seriously inconvenienced by these attacks, but they have serious cultural and psychological repercussions, not to mention the revised legal and security procedures they incurred.

The dread of random violence is one of the great themes of contemporary life, from Cold War missile annihilation to urban 'street crime'; this needs to be integrated into our cultural and political history.