Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Addressing the Iraq Body Count objections to the Lancet study

Many people have pointed to Iraq Body Count as a reason to discredit the Lancet study. The recent comments by IBC (here) do not discredit the study. They raise some questions, questions that should be followed up on. However, if it was considered to be a "debunking" of the Lancet study, it would be woefully inadequate due to its many assumptions.

This is one of the biggest problems people have made in looking at the Lancet study. They forget that

1) Iraq was under crippling sanctions for twelve years,
2) they were invaded,
3) their government was removed, replaced, appointed, then elected - that's four major changes in governance.
4) they're on the brink of civil war

Additionally, one should notice another point. Services for the living should take precedence over counting the dead. If the government is facing huge challenges, and is competent, you should expect tracking of deaths to be a very low priority. If the government is facing huge challenges and isn't competent, you shouldn't trust any statistics they produce in the first place.

The objections raised by Iraq Body Count all ignore these crucial points, and depend upon the reader's belief that something that is sufficiently horrible will be well known. There is a perfectly natural, human tendency to disbelieve that something terrible can be true, and to disbelieve that it could be true, but unknown. That's all the more reason to dig in deeply, when we see unpleasant news, so we can determine the truth.

Their first objection is that this would mean a lot of people dying, quickly, with no one taking official notice of it. This is surprising... or it would be, if Iraq did not have a steadily worsening security situation. But with security getting worse, with the number of deaths growing, it also seems as likely that the tracking is getting proportionately worse, as well.

The question this raises is "Could it really be that bad?" and it is a question that deserves an answer. While we might rebel at thinking that it could be this bad, that makes it that much more critical that we find out, rather than dismissing the only clue we have that maybe it is that bad.

So: this objection is based upon an assumption, the assumption that death tracking is good enough that we'd know about these things. It is not a valid assumption. It might be true; we should try to find out if it's true. But you can't make that assumption safely at this time.

Their second objection: government estimates of people treated for wounds is too low.

First, remember: we can't expect great accuracy from the government.

Second: This article, from the Washington Post, suggests that the Iraqis are afraid to go to the hospital, and that if they do go, they might end up getting killed.

Notice that there's a kind of double-whammy, here, too. People killed at the hospital, or who die from their wounds because they fear going to the hospital, are another death, and one less wounded person, skewing the estimates of dead-to-wounded ratio. It could also skew other numbers; if a person was ripped up by a bomb, but is then pulled from the hospital and shot, what does the death certificate list? If it lists death by a bomb, then it masked the true cause of death.

I also question IBC's assumptions about the number of wounded. They feel that, for every two gunshot deaths, there should be one wounded person. That is a ratio that's impossible to justify, unless you know the circumstances of the deaths. If two rival factions are shooting at each other, sure, you expect dead and wounded people. But if a lot of these deaths are deliberate murders, you expect very few wounded people... a person shot and left for dead is likely to be shot until the attacker is certain the victim is dead, and likely to be left in a place where help will not arrive in time to administer lifesaving treatment.

Again, the issue here is that we don't want to believe it could possibly be this bad. Surely, if there were this many wounded, there couldn't be some combination of poor tracking, and lack of treatment, leading to many more deaths, that we didn't see a lot more wounded people being treated.

And that's a call for us to try to find out if it could be that bad... not to look away from our only clue that maybe it is.

Their third objection is that huge numbers of men would have been killed. And?

I mean, yes, maybe huge numbers of men have been killed, and no one noticed it for the same reason that no one took notice of the huge numbers of people killed. I don't even understand why they call this a "reality check".

Their fourth objection is that, if this study is correct, there are some 500,000 missing death certificates.

I'm sorry, but I can't help imagining someone making this objection:

"Come on, Iraq might be on the brink of civil war, with a weak, disorganized government that can't even keep the lights on, and it might be facing horrendous challenges, but there's no way on God's green earth that it could have failed to locate and count 500,000 pieces of paper from all across the country!

"I mean, after all, those death certificates are written locally, and you can't imagine that there could possibly be any problems getting them from all across Iraq to some central location where they can be tallied!"

Yeah, it doesn't sound too bright, does it?

Look, if there were 500,000 missing death certificates in America, today, yes, that would stagger my imagination. We have no major problems preventing the collection, transmission, tabulation, etc., of death certificates, I'm sure we have some government employees tasked with tracking those deaths, and we're not in a situation in which pushing papers seems like a stupid waste of time.

But we're not talking about America, or the UK; we're talking about Iraq.

This is an objection that is based upon the first one, and is rests on the same assumption: that the death tracking system works well. It might, but it's foolish to assume that without proof.

Their final objection is that it would appear that coalition forces killed more Iraqis during the past year than they did during the "shock and awe" part of the invasion.

That would be surprising. That it would be surprising does not mean it would be untrue. In fact, as security deteriorates, and as the soldiers find themselves attacked more and more often, we would expect them to fight more in defense, and kill more people.

This is another objection where it would be terrible if it's true, but that's all the more reason to investigate to find out if it is.

There's this part of their final comments on their objections, which I'm quoting, because it infuriates me.

Could five such shocking implications be true? If they were true, they would need to be the result of a combination of the following factors:

  • incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries, on a local, regional and national level, perfectly coordinated from the moment the occupation began;

  • bizarre and self-destructive behaviour on the part of all but a small minority of 800,000 injured, mostly non-combatant, Iraqis;

  • the utter failure of local or external agencies to notice and respond to a decimation of the adult male population in key urban areas;

  • an abject failure of the media, Iraqi as well as international, to observe that Coalition-caused events of the scale they reported during the three-week invasion in 2003 have been occurring every month for over a year.

In their first point, they talk about "incompetence and/or fraud", and suggest it must be "coordinated". This is senseless; if the death and injury tracking process is broken in enough places, there doesn't need to be any coordination; you'll see systemic failure. And it's not like the government has had nothing better to do than track deaths and injuries!

In their second, they blame the victims for not getting treatment, ignoring the possibility that, due to security issues, they might not be able to get treatment. Even if they try to get treatment, if a hospital is out of supplies, they might end up dying in the hospital, rather than surviving to become wounded. It's a statement that is made from the comfort and safety of a peaceful country, assuming that Iraq is sufficiently similar to make such a comparison.

In their third, they act as if it's surprising that people haven't noticed huge numbers of men dying, when they haven't noticed huge numbers of people dying; the two problems are identical.

And finally, they say that the media hasn't noticed that the coalition is fighting more and more in a nation with deteriorating security, and slipping towards civil war. Have the media been reporting that there is a lot more violence involving the coalition in Iraq? Then they've been reporting all that needs to be said for people to conclude more people are dying as a result. "More fights = more deaths" isn't likely to make the evening news.

Look: I like and respect Iraq Body Count. They started caring about people being killed in this senseless war long before it was popular. They're doing a difficult job with minimal resources and doing a damn good one.

But this set of objections is based upon a set of assumptions that simply can't be taken for granted.

We have no reason to suspect that the government can track, or even notice, deaths and injuries; we have no reason to suspect that there haven't been huge numbers of wounded, with many turned into corpses.

I would like to see someone address these issues; they are important questions. If we could find out that the Iraqi government was tracking deaths and treatment of injuries well, and if we could find out that most Iraqis felt safe going to a hospital, then we would have reason to question the Lancet study.

But we can't assume those things. We can't use them to let ourselves look away. We need to find the truth.

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