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September 13, 2003


Richmond Holdren

Very cogent analysis of Iraq Body Count. I think the intentions of the critic are hugely significant in evaluating any critique of civilian deaths in a war. If the critic is a genuine pacifist or a person who believes civilian deaths are unacceptable under any circumstances, and understands and accepts the fact that his position means being in favor of allowing genocidal tyrants to continue murdering with impunity, then perhaps I can respect his position, even when I strongly disagree with it. On the other hand, if he is merely a charlatan with an agenda trying to damn the actions of the United States and her allies under any circumstances (e.g., Pilger, who's been putting out propaganda miming the Stalinist Hanoi party line for years) then any respect vanishes, for the insincerity behind the critique is clear. Such a critic is no pacifist; he is nothing but a moral fraud.

Tim Newman

Still, even they may be more accurate than travelling door to door to count Iraqi casualties.

Tim Newman

Sorry, the last post was supposed to contain the following URL:



Some of Oliver's points are well made here.

But isn't there something a bit disturbing about the way that supporters of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem only to become engaged in the issue of civilian casualties when trying to shoot down some report on the death toll?

It's all very well to point to the motivations and objectivity of anti-war groups making these calculations, but if noone else is going to kick up a fuss on the issue...

In this sense the pro-war side are every bit as guilty of trying to stamp out any full picture of the horror Iraq went through - and continues to go through - for its liberation, as the anti-war side was of ignoring the horrors of Saddam's Iraq.


When it comes to Iraq, Pilger's truth bears little resemblance to reality. And let's not forget Pilger's previous solution for inconvenient facts that don't fit his rigid ideological template - ignore them entirely.


Erk? The URL's in my comment above vanished (any tricks other than the usual a href etc etc linkage?)

Pilger lying in Iraq: http://www.spectator.co.uk/article.php3?table=old&section=current&issue=2003-06-28&id=3252

Pilger ignoring inconvenient facts in Bali


Readership of blogs like this one: in the hundreds or the thousands.

Vieweing figures for Pilger's lies: probably in the millions.

Thus the "truth" that will prevail is Pilger's.

Anticipatory Retaliation


The whole problem with any, and I mean ANY, count like this is that will be decades before meaningful numbers even become possible. For instance, estimates of American military casualties in the Korean war range between roughly 30 and 50 thousand. And that's for a bunch of folks that the paperwork had presumably been filed for.

Intelligence estimates of losses can be made quickly, but they are, by their very nature, uncertain, unverified and provisional. The thing about any sort of "activist" body count is that the data collection tends to be quite biased, very emotionally driven and based on terribly incomplete data - and is still presented as a factual truth. How many of the readers remember that the "initial" 9/11 body count was about 7,000? That number was scoffed at by a number of people and a number of snide remarks were made during the downward revision process. A similar skepticism about IBCs results, methodology, intent, objectives and genuine honesty would be quite refreshing.

If one wants a true accounting of the costs of liberation. A true, genuine, factually legitimate accounting. It's going to be years and years before such a thing is possible. Any shorter term report is simply opportunistic and very nearly axiomatically incomplete.

Jackie D

barqarz, I suspect Oliver needs to change his configuration of the comments so that they are HTML-enabled. (If you need help with this, Oliver, let me know.)

"In this sense the pro-war side are every bit as guilty of trying to stamp out any full picture of the horror Iraq went through - and continues to go through - for its liberation, as the anti-war side was of ignoring the horrors of Saddam's Iraq."

James, I'm sure it suits you to believe that, but please. For years, the anti-war side has downplayed or downright ignored the horrors of Saddam's Iraq, and indeed tried to blame some of the worst horrors -- the children who died as Saddam Hussein hoarded humanitarian aid in warehouses, starving his people and depriving them of medicine -- on the US and the UN. Check out the web chats that Salam Pax did this week, wherein several obviously anti-war questioners tried to lead him into condemning the US ("Didn't the Bush administration exaggerate how bad things were?") while also trying to get him to let Saddam off the hook ("Obviously things in Iraq under Saddam weren't THAT bad if you had internet access."). Of course Salam Pax was happy to set those people straight about just how bad things were, and that the Bush administration hadn't exaggerated anything about the horrors of the Baathist regime. You could almost smell the disappointment of the apologists as they were faced with the truth. Somehow, I still don't think they bought it. (I can well imagine John Pilger trying to tell Salam Pax how wrong he was about how things were for Iraqis under Saddam.)

This kind of nonsense has been going on for years. The pro-war side of things always accepted that human casualties would be part of any war; it is hardly as if the thought didn't occur to any of us. Some of us have actually fought in wars and/or lost loved ones to them, believe it or not. Not parading every dead body on television doesn't mean it's not accepted that innocent people have died.

Franco Alemán

Great post, and badly needed, Oliver. Thanks.

I still remember, right before the war started, how some "activist legal professor" or something like this was interviewed in a radio station in Spain (which is where I'm writing from) about whether Bush, Blair or Aznar could be taken to the ICC if war started. Of course, he was absolutely for it. The weirdest moment of all was when the host innocently asked whether Saddam himself could be a candidate for being tried at the ICC, and whether the group the professor was representing would advocate this route as an alternative to war. After several seconds of silence during the professor seemed to be thinking, he said: "hum... er... well... yes, I guess he could be tried there", in a sort of casual voice.

He *guessed*. He sounded as someone who hadn't thought about it before.

Chris Brooke

Once we remove the smears by association (with Herold or the Oxford Research Group) and the jeers at the thought that music PhD students might not be able to sift through media reports and classify them according to simple rules, the main criticism reported here -- as by every other critic of the Iraq Body Count I've come across -- concerns the way in which those compiling the count treat reports that say that someone is "unable to confirm" something reported by someone else. And it's true: the rule they use probably isn't ideal, but it's not clear what an ideal rule might look like.

But the worry as articulated by Oliver here (as by earlier critics, such as Josh Chavetz in the OxBlog) is that the controversial counting rule would lead to uncritical use of reports from, e.g., the Iraqi authorities, and that's quite a good worry, it's worth noting that according to this page from the IBC site -- http://www.iraqbodycount.net/editorial_june1203.htm -- only about 130 of the (then) 7200 reported fatalities owed their place in the database solely to information provided by Iraqi press briefings. So if this is your big concern, just deduct 130 from any IBC figure you hear reported, and you will sleep easier at night.

IBC deserves credit, in any case, for being transparent about the methods they are using, and for providing a reasonable amount of detail abut the contents of their database and the sources on which it is based. The project promises to turn over all of its data to a university archive some time in the future, so academic researchers (and perhaps even professional statisticians!) can chew over their figures, check, double check, and supplement with further sources of information. For what it's worth -- not much, perhaps -- my guess is that future historians will find the data archive far more valuable than some of the comments here suggest, and that they certainly won't end up dismissing the exercise as "fraudulent", "dishonest" or "disreputable", three of the dismissive words being thrown around here, and which seem to me to be far too strong.

It's true that the people constructing the database are antiwar partisans -- but if we were to dismiss the utility and validity of data like this just because the people who compiled it have an agenda of their own, there wouldn't be that much data left for the social sciences to chew over. If it's good data, it's good data, and I think this is probably significantly better data than the project's critics would have us believe.


Pilger is almost as demented as michael moore though not as dangerous.

George Peery

Anyone with a bit of objectivity understands that civilian casualties in the recent war were miniscule by historical standards and in comparison with other wars.

My position (“revisionist”, I suppose) is that many of the coalition’s present difficulties can be traced to the very dearth of collateral damage -- including Iraqi civilian casulties -- during the combat of March and early April.

The Iraqi people, I’m suggesting, simply don’t understand that there was a war and their side lost. A most telling anecdote I came across involved soldiers of the 101st Airborne in the “Sunni Triangle”. One of the American units took on the task of sprucing up a local school. They cleaned it up, painted the walls and ceilings, even installed ceiling fans in the classrooms. When they were finished, the headmistress thanked the soldiers. But she noted that the beige interior paint really wasn’t what she had in mind, and would they mind removing the fans and installing air conditioning instead.

This lady, I suspect, viewed herself as a victim; it probably never entered her mind to praise Allah that she was even alive.

Howard Shaw

Are there any alternative assessments of the number of civilian deaths?

Laban Tall

10,000 civilian deaths ? The Scots writer AL Kennedy, writing at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1038831,00.html
put the civilian death toll at up to "37,137"

She must use the same websites as Michael Meacher for her statistics.


Chris Brooke

(1) Howard Shaw asks: Are there any alternative assessments of the number of civilian deaths?

Yes: the URL I pointed out above -- http://www.iraqbodycount.net/editorial_june1203.htm -- discusses fifteen different projects by government, academic and other organisations which are making estimates and conducting surveys on this and related topics. Even if you've absorbed the Kamm line that what IBC does is fraudulent, and therefore distrust every sentence in the discussion they present, there's still a lot of hard information there, including links to the websites of the various projects, so you can read about them in their own words.

(2) Laban Tall also suggested that the 37,137 figure came from the kind of websites Michael Meacher uses.

I don't know where Meacher surfs, but this figure is the estimate of an outfit that calls itself the Iraqi Freedom Party, which is described as an anti-Saddam, anti-Bush, pro-business grouping backed by US conservatives. You can read its claims here -- http://www.thehandstand.org/archive/september2003/articles/stoppress.htm -- if you scroll down to "Civilian War Deaths in Iraq". They say that the figure was produced after "five weeks of intensive and thorough investigations carried out by hundreds of our party’s cadre", but no further details are available, making this figure impossible to evaluate in any sensible way.



Pilger is a nutcase. He's a liar. He's a crap journalist. Fisking him is as easy as falling out of bed. A fisking of someone like Pilger isn't worth much more than the source material.

Not one thing that you wrote equates to a justification of the war in Iraq.

All I see here is an argument between extremes and between extremists. The folks in the middle are looking at this war and becoming increasingly horrified, while you keep reciting the same platitudes and mantras.

Regarding Saddam's support of Abu Nidal, do I need to remind you that he was a Palestinian dissident, sentenced to death in absentia by Fatah in 1974?

Shlomo Argov opposed the invasion of Lebanon, and decried the Begin government use of his tragedy as a pretext to invade.

Said Argov:

"If those who planned the war had also foreseen the scope of the adventure," he said, "they would have spared the lives of hundreds of our best sons . . . They brought no salvation . . . Israel should go to war only when there is no alternative. Our soldiers should never go to war unless it is vital for survival. We are tired of wars. The nation wants peace."

In short, fisking Pilger's idiocies doesn't constitute a defense of the war in Iraq.

You could say the same about Iraq.

You say:

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.

Regarding the "Stalinists" and "gangsters"--can you please be more specific? Who are they, and how exactly do they threaten the West, and what did they have to do with 9/11?

Regarding Islamists, if there was one thing you could be sure of, they were suppressed under Saddam. Which was the reason we supported him until he invaded Kuwait.

Please do not misunderstand, I do believe that Saddam and his ghastly spawn had to be removed, but the way it was done has only increased hatred of the West amongst the Arabs and the wider Islamic world. It's possible to provoke a psychotic.

Squander Two


As far as I could see, Oliver wasn't attempting to justify the war, so pointing out that he failed to do so isn't particularly insightful.

Saddam was a Stalinist, and proud of it.
"Gangster" is a perfectly good definition of most of the Ba'ath Party.
Oliver didn't say that the Ba'ath Party had anything to do with organising 9/11.
Whether Abu Nidal was a dissident is immaterial. The point is that he was a terrorist.
Shlomo Argov's opinion of Israel's invasion of Lebanon is likewise totally immaterial to this discussion. The simple point is that terrorists tried to kill him.

Saddam didn't suppress Islamists; he suppressed anyone who threatened his rule. So he brutally suppressed those Islamists who wanted to rule Iraq, just as he would have suppressed any atheists or scientologists who had wanted to rule Iraq. That suppression has no bearing on any discussion of Saddam's links and alliances with Islamists, such as Bin Laden, who didn't want to rule Iraq.

Besides, Stalin brutally suppressed capitalists. Didn't stop him allying with them when it suited him. Those who claim that Saddam's ideological differences with Al Qaeda made an alliance between the two impossible are being insufficiently cynical.

Squander Two

Oh, and, Oliver, thanks so much for highlighting this:

"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."

Can I just say that, as a musician, I find these people intensely embarassing and annoying. It's not just the weird assumption that, to be a musician, one has to be involved in politics. It's not just the stupid belief that one's musicianship gives one some special insight that other mortals don't have. (At least Bono, for instance, is quite up-front that musicianship teaches you nothing about politics.) It's the arrogance of asserting that all musicians have the same opinions, giving one the right to speak for them all, combined with the dogmatic faith that musicians must be socialists.

In my experience, there are two "musical communities". The first is simply a bunch of musicians who tend to help each other out and bore everyone by talking incessantly about music. It never really occurs to this group to call themselves "the musical community". The other group use phrases such as "the musical community" to describe themselves rather a lot, but what they really are is a bunch of authoritarian Marxists who happen to be in bands.

(There. Off my chest now.)

Dave F

The worry I have isn't really about Fisk and Pilger; lunatic fringe views and obsessive, deluded crusades are pretty common on the web. My problem is the mainstream publications that purvey their views, thus lending them a spurious legitimacy with readers.

Neither of these two can any longer claim to be writing journalism, and no media organisation worth its salt should be publishing them except perhaps on the letters page (where it goes without saying their views are in no way given any credence by editors). In the end, it will be these publications that suffer a credibility drop-out as a result of their continuing willingness to trade on Fisk and Pilger as "names" that sell the paper to a certain market niche, regardless.


Pilger is a shining example of Care in the Community.
Unfortunately, he has an audience only too eager to lap up the drivel.


This debating over whether bodycount X or Y detracts or supports from the moral case for our decision to kill these people reeks of condescension and arrogance. The implication is not only that the ends justified the means but also that we enlightened westerners were qualified and entitled to make this decision about their lives and their country. Would anyone ever suggest that the killing of 7000 Americans was an acceptable price to pay for an Iraqi foreign policy or national security objective? [similarity with 9/11 initial casualty estimates fully intended] Would we argue over whether a few thousand more or less changed the moral equation?

Anticipatory Revelation, don't cherry-pick from Salman Pax. He may be relieved that the Great White King has rolled in and overthrown the local warlord but that doesn't prevent him resenting our arrogance, let alone fool him into believing that we have his interests at heart. No Iraqi has forgotten who kept Saddam in power, who sold him arms and who thought that 10 years of sanctions were a price worth pay - for us.


Oops. That second para was meant to be addressed to Jackie.D


"American and British forces smashed their way into Iraq with weapons designed to incinerate and dismember human beings."

Oh, those kinds of weapons. Good thing Pilger clarifies this things.

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