How Many Iraqis Have We Killed?

A Question of Honor

Under the title "The Iraqi Dead: Respect Must Be Paid," a shorter version of the following appeared in Commonweal magazine in their July 18, 2003 issue, and was translated into Japanese, for the TUP-Bulletin site.

"What is at stake is more than Iraqi allegiance or Iraqi recovery alone. At stake is American honor. "

"Silence and the mournful echo of remembrance...hang over this suffering land," wrote James Kitfield, who covered the war in Iraq for National Journal and was clearly shaken by what he saw: "While no accurate tally of Iraqis killed in this war exists, the dead surely number in the thousands upon thousands." [1]. Nothing will more deeply mark the American occupation of Iraq than how these dead and their survivors are treated.

Between 1,700 and 2,700 civilians were killed in Baghdad during major combat operations, according to a May 18 report in the Los Angeles Times based on the newspaper's survey of the city's hospitals. But hospital officials stressed to the Times that no official entity, Iraqi or American, has been interested in such information:

"No one has asked us for our figures—not the Health Ministry, not the bureau of registry, not the Americans, no one," said Dr. Daoud Jasim, an orthopedic surgeon at Mahmoudiya Hospital, about 20 miles south of the city center, that reported more than 200 civilian deaths. "And it was a battlefield here, with civilians caught in the middle." [2]

On June 11, the Associated Press published a hospital-by-hospital survey that confirmed at least 3,240 civilian casualties, including 1,896 in Baghdad. But the AP report covered only 60 of Iraq's 124 hospitals and only the period between March 20 and April 20. Thus,

...the count is still fragmentary, and the complete number—if it is ever tallied—is sure to be significantly higher. ... Even if hospital records were complete, they would not tell the full story. Many of the dead were never taken to hospitals, either buried quickly by their families in accordance with Islamic custom, or lost under the rubble. The AP excluded all counts done by hospitals whose written records did not distinguish between civilian and military dead, which means hundreds, possibly thousands, of victims in Iraq's largest cities and most intense battles weren't reflected in the count. [3]

Strikingly few American newspapers saw fit to publish even a summary of the AP survey.

There is no official American count of Iraqi casualties nor, so far, any plan to prepare one. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Cassella explained to the AP: "Our efforts focus on destroying the enemy's capabilities, so we never target civilians and have no reason to try to count such unintended deaths." Cassella added that the Iraqi military's use of civilian disguises and civilian shields would make an accurate count of civilian casualties impossible. [3]

Information about military casualties is even more fragmentary. The U.S. military told the Wall Street Journal that as of April 10 at least 2,320 Iraqi soldiers had been killed in the battle for Baghdad alone. [4] A week earlier CBS reported the estimate of "several officers" in the U.S. military that 4,000 Iraqi troops had been killed on the road from the Euphrates to Baghdad. [5] To these numbers must be added the Iraqi military dead in the early, fierce fighting for Umm Qasr and Basra in the South, the later fighting for Mosul and Kirkuk in the North, little-noted battles to seal Iraq's western border with Jordan, and various other bloody engagements. No even preliminary total is available.

hat is the ratio of civilian to military casualties in Iraq? On May 1st, President George W. Bush strongly suggested that military casualties were far greater than civilian, thanks to the precision of American weaponry:

In the images of falling statues, we have witnessed the arrival of a new era. For a hundred years of war, culminating in the nuclear age, military technology was designed and deployed to inflict casualties on an ever-growing scale. In defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation.

Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war; yet it is a great moral advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent. (Applause.) [6]

To the extent that the President's words were true, they deserve applause; but leaving aside the fact that at this writing Saddam Hussein seems to have escaped, combat is not the chief cause of civilian death in war. "Ninety percent of war casualties are civilian," Geoff Davis, director of the Peace Studies program in at the University of Natal in South Africa, recently told the Christian Science Monitor, "and most of them die as a result of famine or the breakdown of medical facilities, not in combat." [7]

Most researchers estimate military casualties in Gulf War I at 10,000 to 15,000. [8] Civilian casualties were higher: 17,500, according to a Columbia University study. 3,500 civilians died as collateral casualties during the shooting war; after the shooting, to quote a report about the study in Time magazine, "an additional 14,000 died of waterborne diseases as displaced populations used contaminated rivers for drinking and bathing." [9] A Carnegie-Mellon study cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer estimates the same 3,500 dead during the fighting but a much greater 111,000 afterward. [10]

Despite precision weapons, the casualty curve of Gulf War I may well be repeating in Gulf War II. In May, the World Health Organization confirmed in two Basra hospitals seventeen cases of cholera, a waterborne disease that kills quickly by inducing uncontrollable diarrhea. When Anglo-American air strikes took out the electrical grid that powers the Basra water plant in the first days of the war, residents were driven to gather water from the polluted Shatt al-Arab river. [11] In late June, the New York Times reported that the inability of the occupation forces to halt looting (or sabotage) of the Baghdad power grid has resulted in recurrent power outages that in turn have led to huge backups of sewage: "In some areas on the east side of Baghdad, some streets have been flooded for entire blocks with overflows of sewage." [12]

Given the size of U.S. field estimates of Iraqi military casualties, given the scope of the water system destruction and the documented outbreak of cholera, given careful efforts like those of the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, it scarcely seems reckless to make a preliminary guess that Gulf War II will cost twice as many Iraqi lives as Gulf War I did. Reckoning Gulf War I casualties at the low-end consensus figure of 30,000 (12,500 military plus 17,500 civilian), it would then seem conservative to estimate that 60,000 Iraqis may die as a result of the current conflict.

What will be the impact of these deaths on Iraqi society? Granting that every human life is of incalculable value, the socioeconomic impact of mass death varies with the size of the population suffering a given loss. Iraq at 24 million people is just one-twelfth the size of the United States at 290 million. If Iraqi war deaths in the current war are reckoned at 60,000, then Iraq in the months to come will be staggering from a socioeconomic blow equivalent to that of 720,000 dead in the United States (60,000 X 12).

In writing the numbers 60,000 and 720,000, I do not intend simply to embarrass the Bush Administration (what would be the point?) but, if anything, to motivate it. The Weekly Standard, a conservative journal much read in Administration circles, recently wrote of the Iraq Body Count Project (, an ongoing effort to collate published reports of Iraqi casualties:

It's almost as if some people want Iraqi civilians to die. So eager are they to score political points that you can almost see them licking their chops as they desperately seek out any reports—however sketchy—of Iraqi casualties. For their political agenda, the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi. [12]

This may well be true of "some people," but is the success of the American occupation of Iraq not well served by a good faith effort to win the allegiance of the occupied by honoring their dead? Does The Weekly Standard think that the provisional, American-run government of Iraq need pay no attention to this matter at all?

Critics and advocates of the war do not differ in their hope that the occupation may redeem the terrible losses that the war has inflicted on Iraq by leaving behind a free, prosperous nation in which human rights are at last acknowledged and protected. But what is at stake is more than Iraqi allegiance or Iraqi recovery alone. At stake is American honor. Will it be said—years from now, perhaps even months from now—that in the first preemptive war in American history, Americans did not ask and did not want to know how many Iraqis they had killed and did not consider it their responsibility to so much as notify the orphans, the widows, and the bereaved parents?

Granting that there is no reason for an army to try to count unintended civilian casualties in the heat of combat, the United States as Iraq's only government cannot excuse itself from the the basic duty that any respectable government must discharge toward the dead—the duty, namely, to bury the bodies, notify the survivors, and publish the names. What is called for is nothing that would be the equivalent of the laying of a memorial wreath. What the military and the civilian dead alike are owed is no more than a semblance of what would be done for plane crash victims in the United States. But at the moment that little is not being done, and the omission—a default of simple decency—can scarcely fail to discredit the American liberation of Iraq.

Jack Miles, a MacArthur Fellow (2003-2007), is senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

[1] "Baghdad's Liberation," James Kitfield, National Journal, April 12, 2003.

[2] "Baghdad Death Toll Assessed. A Times hospital survey finds that at least 1,700 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 injured in Iraq's capital during the war and aftermath," Laura King, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2003.

[3] "First tally puts Iraqi civilian deaths at 3,240," Niko Price, Associated Press Writer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 10, 2003.

[4] "The Assault on Iraq: Mounting Civilian Casualties May Sap Good Will in Baghdad," David Bank and Helene Cooper, The Wall Street Journal, 10 April 2003.

[5] "Good News From the Front," William M. Arkin, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2003.

[6] "President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended. Remarks by the President form the USS Abraham Lincoln At Sea Off the Coast of San Diego, California,", May 1, 2003.

[7] "Bid to stem civilian deaths tested," Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 2003.

[8] "The Iraqi death toll is said to be large but the exact figures still is unknown," Hans Greimel, Asssociated Press Writer, Associated Press Worldstream, April 17, 2003; "Iraqi military death toll is as mysterious as Saddam's whereabouts," Deb Riechmann, Associated Press Writer, Associated Press, April 8, 2003; "U.S. Losses Light as Iraqi Toll Surges in Baghdad Fighting; U.N. Group Warns of Long-Term Effects on Civilian Populace," Vernon Loeb and Jonathan Weisman, The Washington Post, April 8, 2003.

[9] "How Many Iraqis Have Died?" Jeffrey Kluger, With Reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington, Time, April 21, 2003.

[10] "The battle over civilian casualties," Tom Infield and Jessica Guynn, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 2003.

[11] "Cholera Strikes Basra, Epidemic Feared,", May 7, 2003.

[12] "Thieves and Saboteurs Disrupt Electrical Services in Iraq," Edmund L. Andrews, New York Times, June 21, 2003.