Iraq Civilian Casualties? Who Knew?

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Last month media coverage of Iraq was dominated by the stressed out Marine in a Fallujah mosque unfortunate enough to be caught on camera shooting dead an apparently unarmed and wounded man. That event was all over the national media, with plenty of hand-wringing about combat stress and rules of war to remind us that this was not the way America behaves at war; this was a painful transgression. U.S. ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte even took the rare step of publicly expressing America's regret over the shooting, although there was also widespread support for the Marine shooter in the domestic media.

But even as the killing of a single Iraqi, purported to be an insurgent, in a Fallujah mosque dominated almost a week of U.S. media coverage, the claim in the report in the respected British medical journal Lancet that the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the U.S. invasion may number as many as 98,000 rated hardly a mention even in news outlets that had been relatively critical of the war. The Lancet study, of course, was a scientific guesstimate based on incomplete data — the U.S. and its coalition partners have never kept a record of Iraqi civilian deaths. The Economist recently provided its own, more conservative estimate: 40,000 civilians dead.

A significantly lower total is reported by the organization Iraq Bodycount, which has tabulated news reports that show a total of around 15,000 civilian casualties since the war began. Even if that lower total was accurate, it suggests that Iraq has suffered at least five times the impact of 9/11 — and the fact that its population is one tenth that of the U.S. would magnify the impact to more like 50 times that of 9/11.

If the civilian death toll can be routinely dismissed as an unfortunate by-product of war, an even more uncomfortable aspect for the U.S. of the Lancet study is the conclusion that the majority of the violent deaths had been caused not by terror attacks, but by U.S. air strikes. The use of air power in urban areas has become a routine part of the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, and such attacks are typically reported as "air strikes against rebel positions." But civilian casualties are pretty much inevitable when air power is used in cities, despite the best intentions and technological capabilities of those dropping the bombs. That's precisely why the rebels hide out among the civilian population: They know better than to isolate themselves as a target for their enemy's superior firepower, instead forcing him to inflict casualties on the civilian population in order to kill enemy combatants, thereby creating a force multiplier for the insurgency. And it's a relatively safe bet that the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq has reinforced the insurgency.

But as Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs points out, the U.S. media has for the most part ignored or downplayed not only the Lancet study, but the issue of civilian casualties more generally. The New York Times has been involved in a running debate with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, not published except on the activist group's web site, on the paper's reporting of the question of civilian deaths in Fallujah. And in a perceptive commentary in the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing suggests that part of the reason much of the media has avoided some of the more uncomfortable stories out of Iraq is that during the U.S. presidential election season, the Bush and Kerry campaigns presented opposite views over whether Iraq was going well or badly, and that quickly meant that any news reporting focused on negative aspects of the U.S. presence in Iraq were quickly framed as partisan in intent, and therefore requiring "balance" as a domestic political story might. Unfortunately, as Massing suggests, the media has found itself shaping its Iraq coverage through the prism of U.S. domestic politics rather than a sober analytical assessment of the trend lines on the ground.

Without serious coverage of the issue of civilian casualties, Iraq may be harder to understand for those following it through the U.S. media. But itís an important element of the story that we ignore at our peril.