I’m very glad that Daniel has taken on the job of addressing the statistical arguments around the Lancet study because, quite honestly, I’m not up to it (though I did spend part of yesterday trying to get impromptu tutorials from friends on concepts like “confidence interval”). Reading the text of the Lancet piece, I was struck by three points especially. First, they let us know exactly what they did, so that critics can address their claims. Yes, there’s a highly controversial headline figure which the Guardian and others seize upon, but what the study actually says is that they asked such-and
such questions of suchand-such people, and extrapolation of the responses would generate such-and-such a number. Second, they notice a big difference between the numbers of people apparently shot by US troops (hardly any) and the numbers killed by aerial bombardments (lots). Third, they remark on the fact that the coalition forces have an obligation to find out for themselves how many civilians have been killed but have shown hardly any interest in doing so.
I’l like to say a little more on the second and third of these points. The use of air strikes in civilian areas forseeably results in increased civilian deaths. Going into a built-up area with troops to raid a (possibly booby-trapped) house used by insurgents exposes soldiers to greatly increased risk of death or serious injury; calling in an airstrike doesn’t. But we know from other theatres that such strikes often kill numbers of bystanders. The risk of the operation is transferred by deliberate and systematic policy from soldiers to bystanders. Such a policy runs contrary to traditional views about who should bear the risk of operations: we can’t insulate civilians completely but where there’s a choice soldiers both in virtue of the role they occupy and the fact (here) that they are volunteers should take on more exposure in order to protect civilians. It is hard to escape the thought that were co-nationals of the people dropping the bombs the ones in the bystander position, different methods would be used. Is the current policy illegal under the laws of war? Hard to say: its defenders are prone to invoke a tendentious and self-serving interpretation of double effect. Whether the policy constitutes a war crime or not, if it doesn’t then so much the worse for the laws of war (which ought to be changed).
The other issue the Lancet study draws attention to is how little interest the Coalition has shown in gathering accurate data. If the study is flawed, one would think that critics would show some humility and reflect on the fact that the researchers risked their lives to get the information. Unfortunately, the Coalition’s lack of interest in discovering the facts is shared by bloggers and other commentators who otherwise loudly proclaim their solidarity with the Iraqi people and write about “liberation” and the moral failings of the war’s critics.
It is worth quoting the final paragraph of the Lancet report:
US General Tommy Franks is widely quoted as saying “we don’t do body counts”. The Geneva Conventions have clear guidance about the responsibilities of occupying armies to the civilian population they control. The fact that more than half the deaths reportedly caused by the occupying forces were women and
children is cause for concern. In particular, Convention IV, Article 27 states that protected persons “. . . shall be at all times humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against acts of violence . . .”. It seems difﬁcult to understand how a military force could monitor the extent to which civilians are protected against violence without systematically doing body counts or at least
looking at the kinds of casualties they induce. This survey shows that with modest funds, 4 weeks, and seven Iraqi team members willing to risk their lives, a useful measure of civilian deaths could be obtained. There seems to be little excuse for occupying forces to not be able to provide more precise tallies. In view of the political importance of this conﬂict, these results should be conﬁrmed by an independent body such as the ICRC, Epicentre, or WHO. In the interim, civility and enlightened self-interest demand a re-evaluation of the consequences of weaponry now used by coalition forces in populated areas.