I haven't posted for two or three days, partly owing to pressure of work but mainly because I was unusually lost for words. A friend pointed out that if I was considering writing a spoof Guardian editorial complaining that the US response to 9/11 was all going wrong, that al-Qaeda was thriving, that US-Israeli obduracy was encouraging them, and that the administration should be sacked ... er, not to bother, because The Guardian had already done it.
Satire even on the most horrifying of subjects is not necessarily out of bounds; there is a famous, apt and moving cartoon by David Low about the Holocaust. But I still wouldn't have been able to match the shamelessness of The Guardian's assertion that now 'there is a terrorist threat in Iraq where none previously existed.' Is its leader writer really not aware that Saddam Hussein orchestrated terrorism throughout his rule? Has The Guardian not heard of the attempted assassination in 1982 of the Israeli ambassador to London, Shlomo Argov, the actual assassination also in London of former Iraqi prime minister Abd al-Razzaq Said al-Nayif, the hospitality granted to Abu Nidal's organisation and to the terrorist hijackers of the Achille Lauro? The defeat of Baathist tyranny has not created a terrorist threat: it has thrown light on a coalition among Stalinists, Islamists and gangsters that was previously covert, all of them drawn to attack liberty on what President Bush rightly noted was the front line in the war against terror.
Faced with this type of reasoning, it's almost a relief to turn to John Pilger's column in the New Statesman (link requires subscription, and I wouldn't recommend it, so I don't give it): at least it will never contain any surprises. This week Pilger touts his new film, to be shown on ITV on Monday week, entitled Breaking the Silence: truth and lies in the war on terror. He condemns what he calls the 'great crime in Iraq' ... and the rest you know.
Iraq has indeed been the scene of countless state crimes and scarcely imaginable brutality in the last two decades. But the name Saddam Hussein appears nowhere in Pilger's article. To read Pilger, you'd think the US and UK had launched unprovoked aggression against a civilian population. And that, of course, is – precisely, bizarrely, perversely – what Pilger means by 'truth'. He complains:
American and British forces smashed their way into Iraq with weapons designed to incinerate and dismember human beings.
Coalition forces 'smashed' their way into Iraq in the first instance to kill one human being (I use that term in its generic rather than descriptive sense), Saddam Hussein. It was desperately unlucky that they failed to do so. Yet their very attempt refutes the charges Pilger insinuates: our side was so mindful of avoiding civilian casualties that we attempted to conduct and conclude the war in a single strike against a man who had broken, tortured, imprisoned and impoverished a nation. Pilger's 'truth' is neither an observed nor a reasoned one but a statement of single-minded conviction of how things must be.
He cites the assurance of a young western political activist, whom he describes as an 'international human rights observer', that the Coalition deliberately targeted Iraqi civilians. If true, this makes it difficult to explain why British troops, when contending with terrorists in Basra who hid among the civilian population, did not simply take reprisals against civilians rather than expose themselves to unnecessary danger. Yet to Pilger if there is no independent evidence for the conclusion he knows he will arrive at, and if indeed the very notion violates what we know of the way the world works, he'll carry on asserting it anyway:
In any [!] case, the sheer ferocity of the assault on elusive Iraqi defenders could not fail to kill and injure large numbers of civilians. According to a recent study, up to 10,000 civilians were killed.
That's all the information he gives to substantiate his charge of Coalition criminality. There is nothing else. He doesn't even give the name of the study, let alone an account of its methodology.
Pilger's reticence is diplomatic, for it's not difficult to work out what he's alluding to. Three months ago The Guardian ran this piece of, well, front-running:
At least 5,000 civilians may have been killed during the invasion of Iraq, an independent research group has claimed. As more evidence is collated, it says, the figure could reach 10,000. Iraq Body Count (IBC), a volunteer group of British and US academics and researchers, compiled statistics on civilian casualties from media reports and estimated that between 5,000 and 7,000 civilians died in the conflict.
Iraq Body Count claims, as of today, that civilian deaths amount to a minimum of 6,122 and a maximum of 7840. I suppose Pilger is stating the literal truth when he describes even the latter figure as 'up to 10,000' - but if Iraq Body Count can't substantiate its earlier claim of 10,000 it's not for want of trying. The organisation is many things, but it is certainly not independent, nor is it engaged in research. Its purpose and procedures are derived explicitly from the unscholarly and unprofessional work of Marc Herold, an associate professor of women's studies at the University of New Hampshire. Herold affected to have constructed a database of civilian casualties during the war in Afghanistan, yet his double- and even triple-counting of media reports, coupled with his refusal to share his data and sources with those he feared did not share his political beliefs, destroyed his credibility as a serious or even half-way competent statistician.
Iraq Body Count retains Herold as a consultant. It's thus unsurprising that they fail to see what's wrong with this statement of their methodology:
The minimum [quoted figure for Iraqi civilian deaths] can be zero if there is a report of "zero deaths" from two of our sources. "Unable to confirm any deaths" or similar wording (as in an official statement) does NOT amount to a report of zero, and will NOT lead to an entry of "0" in the minimum column.
During the war, official information from the Iraqi side was - how can I put this? - characterised by an inverse relation between the passion with which it was articulated and the veracity with which it was constructed. Reports based on such extravagant imaginings could hardly have been handled by Coalition spokesmen with anything other than a statement of inability to confirm deaths - of either Iraqi civilians or allied servicemen. How can you confidently assert that an incident led to no deaths when you are unable to verify that any such incident took place at all, or even work out what your source could possibly mean?
The 'volunteer group of academics and researchers' culling these reports was not further described by The Guardian, and thus its relevant expertise was left unexplored. Members of this group include, however, two professors of music, a lecturer in music, a graduate student in music, the holder of a doctorate for a 'holistic critique of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte', a retired lawyer and event co-ordinator of 'Musicians Opposing War', and a retired librarian. Other members include a lecturer in international relations, an Anglican ordinand, another musician, and a research psychologist. The last of these - John Sloboda - is the leader of the group and a founder member of the Network of Activist Scholars of Politics and International Relations (though 'activist scholar' is as meaningless a juxtaposition as a 'cat-loving scholar' - the adjective is irrelevant to the noun - and Sloboda is in any case a psychologist, not a political scientist).
With the single possible exception of the last named (to whom I shall give the benefit of the doubt), the notion that a group like this is competent to engage in the task it claims to have discharged is fanciful. There is not a single statistician among them. Its personnel in most cases lack even a tangentially relevant area of expertise. Its methodology is a joke. What unites its members is a single animating conviction that war in Iraq was wrong. They are the type of 'independent researchers' that can declare without irony, on a web site supposedly dispensing reliable statistical data:
He is also co-author of "Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development" (2003, 4th edition, Prentice-Hall) and has been extremely concerned about the lack of response to this issue from the musical community. The recent appearance of organizations like Musicians United to Win Without War (Russell Simmons, Rosanne Cash, Michael Stipe, Dave Matthews, Peter Gabriel, Suzanne Vega, and others) is a welcome occurrence and hopefully only the first of many more that will follow.
I said that the leader of the project, Professor Sloboda, was possibly the holder of some relevant technical expertise in statistical analysis, but against that is the evidence of his own potted biography, which declares:
He is currently Web Resources Manager for Peace News, and is undertaking consultancy work for the Oxford Research Group.
Regular readers of this blog might recall the Oxford Research Group. Last November it published a report entitled Iraq: Consequences of a War, by Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. The report demonstrated well in advance what the constituency it was aimed at was determined to conclude in the event of war:
[R]ecent revelations about the Coalition's preparations for war and attitude to civilian casualties present disturbing evidence of aggressive intent that may yet have political and legal consequences.
A civilian death toll of at least 10,000 should be expected but this may be a low estimate, given the experience of urban warfare in Beirut and elsewhere.
Let's look at this dispassionately. This entire process of estimating data casualty rates in the Iraq war is founded on claims of independence and relevant expertise that are hollow. The conclusion was established before the war was even started, just as Marc Herold was determined to establish that more Afghans died in the war than Americans (and many other nationalities) died in a single morning exactly two years ago. And even then they have to spin their own data to come up with the number they first thought of. It's dishonest; it's disreputable.
I've expended some space on this issue because the IBC, to my knowledge the only organisation claiming to have statistics for the war throughout Iraq, is being cited as an authoritative source by those who should know better, as well as by John Pilger. Many web sites, including those of bloggers, carry the IBC's counters. Yet the fraudulence of this campaign lies not only in an incapacity to handle data and conduct disinterested research. More important, it lies in the moral obtuseness, evidenced by Pilger's article, that condemns as 'criminals' the democratic leaders of the United States and Great Britain while literally not even mentioning the man who turned Iraq into a national prison, a national torture chamber, and a national killing field.
This isn't just a matter of failing to see the totality of human suffering. It's far more serious than that. Pilger waxes indignant at the suggestion - made to him by John Bolton of the State Department, who really does have a more important job than to make common sense observations to someone who's never going to appreciate them - that the number of civilian casualties was remarkably low for the extent of the allied operation. Yet this is strictly true: US and UK forces managed to overthrow and excise a brutal regime while going to extraordinary lengths - lengths that greatly increased the danger to themselves - to avoid civilian casualties. Even if the maximum figure for civilian deaths as cited by Iraq Body Count is true, that is almost precisely one half the number of corpses found in a single mass grave dug and filled by the Baathist tyranny at Al-Mahawil. If we hadn't deposed Saddam, that type of thing would have gone on not just this year and next, but for another generation under the appalling sons.
The civilian deaths our bombing caused were tragedies in the genuine sense of the term, for they were unintended. They were, and remain, a moral burden for our leaders, yet I have no doubt the US and UK took the right and moral course. To draw an analogy between the deaths we inadvertently caused and did much to prevent, and those that Saddam planned and ordered and in some cases personally carried out is outrageous, for it overturns our most basic moral intuitions. If our justice system were unable to distinguish between murder and an accidental death in a car accident it would fall apart.
Yet John Pilger eschews even that position. In March he condemned the 'American elite' for being the new Third Reich. He now thunders:
Blair tells us constantly that he believes what he says, and perhaps he does. Several of the defendants at Nuremberg offered the same plea, and so have other state murderers at the Hague. Like them, Blair should have his day in court.
Truly, a man who believes this will believe anything at all.