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we don’t do body counts




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big guns against small arms
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Despite the claim of the head of US Central Command at the time, General Tommy Franks, that ‘We don’t do body counts’, the US military does collect casualty figures. But since 1991 the figures have been kept secret according to Professor Richard Garfield of Colombia University.

A recent study published in The Lancet estimated that at least 100,000 excess civilian deaths had occurred since the 2003 invasion; that most were caused by violence; and that most of those violent deaths were caused by coalition air strikes.

It’s not an unlikely figure but it was quickly (and not surprisingly) rubbished by the government whose misrepresentations of the study were widely quoted as serious methodological flaws. Counting the dead in war is always difficult (pick up any half a dozen books about the first world war and the chances are you will see half a dozen different set of figures); and casualty figures (dead or injured or both) are always questionable. The dead in war are a political issue – numbers matter.

Recently a campaign Count the Casualties has been launched and is calling for the UK government to commission an inquiry into Iraqi casualties since the US/UK invasion in March 2003. The proposal is that an inquiry should be set up to establish with the highest possible accuracy how many Iraqis have died or been injured during this period, and the causes of these casualties; that it should be conducted by researchers independent of the UK or US governments and should be subject to a stringent peer review process, so that all parties can have confidence in the findings. The inquiry, the campaign suggest, should also be charged with making recommendations on how to conduct such assessments in future conflicts. This later suggestion is not an objectionable objective but a curious one nevertheless. Should we really be preparing an efficient system for counting corpses the next time the British government decides to drop bombs and fire missiles at some unfortunate country? Knowing how many people British and US military activity killed in Iraq (and what about Afghanistan? Kosovo?) is not valueless but is perhaps part of a value system we ought to grow out of. Would the war have been ‘better’ if ‘only’ 50,000 people were killed or 19,722 which is the Body Count’s current figure?

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