Monday, July 19, 2004

Civilian Casualties and the Morality of the Iraq Campaign

There are two main arguments that can be made against the American-led invasion of Iraq. One is that it was a mistake; that it was not worth the cost, counterproductive, a distraction from the struggle with al-Qaeda. I do not agree with these arguments, and I will eventually get around to explaining why, but I regard them as respectable criticisms that deserve to be taken seriously.
The other argument made against the invasion is a moral one. The idea that America invaded Iraq, killed lots of people, and blew everything up, just so we could steal all the oil and bring in Halliburton to rebuild everything. As Michael Moore chose to present it in "Fahrenheit 9/11", Iraq was a happy place where people relaxed in cafes and flew kites until the evil Americans started bombing.
As even most opponents of the Iraq campaign realize, this view of life under Saddam is ludicrous. Still, many of these same opponents refer regularly to 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the coalition intervention, and regard that as sufficient cause for condemning the invasion as immoral.
This raises two questions. First, is the commonly offered figure of 10,000 Iraqi civilian war dead credible? Second, how do the tragic humanitarian consequences of military intervention in Iraq compare to the potential human cost of the alternative, of leaving Saddam's dictatorship in power? 
The figure of 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the invasion comes from a Web site called Iraq Body Count. IBC describes itself as "a human security project to establish an independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq resulting directly from military action by the USA and its allies in 2003." Featured prominently on the IBC home page is a counter showing "(c)civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq". Currently, the minimum figure listed is 11252, and the maximum is 13213.
So, according to IBC's database of news reports, American and coalition forces have killed between 11,000 and 13,000 Iraqi civilians between March 2003 to the present. Surely this provides substantial cause to condemn the invasion. Unfortunately, the methodology that IBC uses is rather less than honest. Here is a statement taken directly from the IBC Web site:
In the current occupation phase this database includes all deaths which the Occupying Authority has a binding responsibility to prevent under the Geneva Conventions and Hague Regulations. This includes civilian deaths resulting from the breakdown in law and order, and deaths due to inadequate health care or sanitation.
In other words, the death of any Iraqi in the current violence is laid by IBC at the coalition's doorstep. Even a cursory look at the IBC site reveals that any Iraqi killed by violent means, whether civilians blown up by a roadside bomb, policemen murdered by a jihadist suicide bomber, or a public figure assassinated by Baathists, is included in the IBC running total. In other words, any Iraqi death caused by the "resistance" is America's fault. David Adesnik of Oxblog recently looked at IBC's methodology in greater detail, and likewise found it wanting. His Oxblog colleague, Josh Chafetz, came to a similar conclusion in an April 2003 article for the Weekly Standard.
The problems with Iraq Body Count and its methodology go well beyond how it keeps track of casualties during the occupation. If you look just at the period of major military operations from March-May 2003, IBC claims a total of up to 7,350 civilian deaths. The leftist Project on Defense Alternatives, hardly a friend of the Pentagon, estimated in an October 2003 report that out of 11,000-15,000 Iraqi deaths in the conflict, between "3,200 and 4,300 were noncombatants -- that is: civilians who did not take up arms". In other words, an avowedly left of center think tank estimates that Iraqi civilian deaths during the defeat of Saddam's regime were about half of what IBC claims they were. 
In short, it is clear that the methodology used by Iraq Body Count is flawed at best, blatantly biased and dishonest at worst. Still, that does not change the fact that probably 4,000-5,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the invasion. Does that mean the coalition intervention was immoral?
One factor that must be noted is that American and coalition forces have done everything possible to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. Numerous journalists embedded with US forces have made this point explicitly. To quote just one example, Robert Kaplan, who was with the Marines during the April 2004 fighting in Fallujah, wrote the following:
As their own casualties mounted, the only time I saw angry or depressed Marines was when an Iraqi civilian was accidentally hit in the crossfire--usually perpetrated by the enemy. I was not surprised. I had seen Army Special Forces react similarly to civilian casualties the year before in Afghanistan. The humanity of the troops is something to behold: Contrary to the op-ed page of the New York Times (May 21), the word haji in both Iraq and Afghanistan, at least among Marines and Special Forces, is more often used as an endearment than a slur. To wit, "let's drink tea and hang out with the hajis," "haji food is so much better than what they feed us," "a haji designed real nice vests for our rifle plates," and so on. Thus, it has been so appallingly depressing to read about Abu Ghraib prison day after day, after day.   
As Kaplan points out, the enemy in Iraq has often used civilians as human shields, worn civilian dress, and used mosques, hospitals, and other protected places as military facilities. This April 2003 article from the Associated Press on the fighting in the city of Nasiriyah provides further corroboration:
"We blame Saddam for this," 25-year-old Metaq Ali said Thursday, tears streaming down her face as she recovered in a tent at a U.S. military field hospital.
Her relatives died as members of Saddam's Fedayeen militia _ dressed in civilian clothes _ moved in and around people's homes firing at American forces, she said. Her extended family tried to escape by car and a bomb tore apart their three vehicles.

Fedayeen fighters commonly set up anti-aircraft guns near homes and forced families to remain there at gunpoint, residents said. When the civilians were injured, Saddam's fighters ran away and left them bleeding.

Doctors and nurses at the 86th Combat Support Hospital at Tallil Airfield have heard the story many times since U.S. forces fought their way through fierce resistance by irregular Iraqi forces in nearby Nasiriyah.
Patients told hospital staff they were given guns that no longer worked and forced to advance toward U.S. positions as Fedayeen forces fired shots from behind them.

Even those wounded by American bullets and bombs smiled and flashed a thumbs up signal when asked about the care they were receiving.
"I don't think the Americans meant to shoot me," said Saad Abdwyasr, 32. He was caught in crossfire as he tried to carry his sick father to a local hospital in Nasiriyah.

Perhaps Michael Moore could have interviewed Ms. Ali and some of the other Nasiriyah civilians for "Fahrenheit 9/11". Sorry, I shouldn't suggest something so preposterous.
There is one additional factor that makes clear just how much restraint American forces have used in Iraq, and that is simple common sense. The US armed forces are the most powerful the world has ever seen. If we were fighting without regard for civilian casualties, it would be abundantly obvious. Quite simply, there would no longer be a Baghdad or a Fallujah. Sadly, this point seems to have escaped many.
The other question regarding the morality of the Iraq campaign involves the nature of the regime that we have overthrown.  It has become a truism for many that Saddam was just another corrupt, brutal, run of the mill dictator. This is nonsense. Saddam Hussein was a genocidal, totalitarian despot, whose crimes on a per capita scale rival those of Hitler and Stalin. In fact, Saddam took the Soviet dictator as his role model.  It is estimated that Saddam murdered at least 300,000 of his own people. When he gassed the city of Halabja in 1988, Saddam probably killed as many Iraqi civilians in one day as died during the entire period of major combat in 2003. According to Mark Bowden, in his superb article in the May 2002 Atlantic Monthly "Tales of the Tyrant", the Baathist regime is estimated to have executed 3,000 people in 1981-82 alone.  The former UN human rights representative in Iraq, Max van der Stoel, stated that the wave of atrocities under Saddam was "one of the worst since World War Two -- comparable in gravity to crimes of the Khmer Rouge (in Cambodia) or Idi Amin (in Uganda),". For more details, see the Indict or Human Rights Watch Web sites.  In short, there is good reason to believe that the humanitarian consequences of leaving Saddam and his regime undisturbed would have far exceeded the tragic civilian casualties suffered as a result of the coalition invasion.
Of course, it is easy for me to sit behind my computer and make such judgments. I will leave it to an Iraqi, Omar from the blog Iraq the Model, to have the final word on the morality and legitimacy of the American-led invasion (If you doubt that Iraq the Model is for real, please read this article from USA Today):
Because Iraqis have a lot to deal with regarding their daily life needs and the fact that we're not a major player in international politics, it becomes understandable that they pay less attention than the rest of the world to the legal complexities of the war and most of them see this war legitimate simply because it lead to their solvation and freedom.
You cannot tell a man that saving him and his family from torture, humiliation and death was a mistake and it should've not been done because it's illegal. This is almost an insult to Iraqis to hear someone saying that this war was illegal. It means that our suffering for decades meant nothing and that formalities and the stupid rules of the UN (that rarely function) are more important than the lives of 25 million people. 


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