16/10/2013

(Nearly) Half a Million Dead in Iraq

A study published today by PLOS Medicine has estimated the number of Iraqis killed in the Iraq War (much of it the dubiously-named Operation Iraqi Freedom) at 461,000 men, women, and children. The results are pretty grim:

According to [co-author] Amy Hagopian and her colleagues, at least 60 percent of the excess deaths were the result of violence. The rest were linked to so-called secondary causes.

War causes a huge amount of chaos, disruption and havoc,” Hagopian said. Some deaths are direct, but there are also deaths that result from destroyed infrastructure, increased stress, inability to get medical care, poor water, poor access to food. … These are all reasons why people die.”

Of those deaths determined to be the result of direct violence, the study attributed 35 percent to coalition forces, 32 percent to sectarian militias and 11 percent to criminals. Contrary to public perception of mayhem in Iraq, bombings accounted for just 12 percent of violent deaths. The overall majority of violent deaths, 63 percent, were the result of gunfire.

If the study is accurate, Iraq’s liberators were the single group most likely to kill Iraqis. As an Iraq War veteran, that’s a pretty brutal statistic to confront.

Max Fisher, foreign affairs blogger for The Washington Post, took a look at some of the figures Hagopian et. al. published and came away with two significant conclusions. The first concerns the violence in Iraq over the course of the war:

The results, charted below, show the number of war-related Iraqi deaths over time. It’s grim — and a direct challenge to our understanding of the war as having improved after 2007:

Amy Hagopian et al., "Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study," PLOS Medicine.Amy Hagopian et al., "Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study," PLOS Medicine.

This study confirms two components of the Iraq War narrative: that fighting dropped sharply after 2007 and that 2008 was a relatively successful year in reducing combat deaths. You can see that the dark-red bars get smaller, meaning there are fewer deaths from direct violence. But this chart still contradicts our overall understanding: It turns out that deaths picked back up in 2009 and then even further in 2010, to 2005 levels. The gain was temporary and in the process of reversing by the time we left.

The Surge, it seems, was an utter failure in the long term. This ought not be surprising. Fisher’s second conclusion addresses the likelihood of death for Iraqi men and women, respectively:

This chart also complicates our understanding of the war. The y-axis, which is labeled with that confusing 45q15” notation, indicates the probability of dying between age 15 and age 60. In other words, this chart shows the chance that an Iraqi man or woman, age 15 to 60, had of being killed due to the war.

Amy Hagopian et al., "Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study," PLOS Medicine.Amy Hagopian et al., "Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study," PLOS Medicine.

Two trends should jump out at you right away: The war got a lot less dangerous for Iraqi men, but it stayed about consistently dangerous for women. There seem to be two most-likely explanations for that. First, a lot of men who might have fought were killed in the war’s first five years, so by 2008 there were fewer of them around to fight and die. Second and perhaps more plausible is that the nature of the war changed. For the first several years, violent deaths tended to come from combat, which disproportionately kills men. But over time, more of it came from bombings and other acts of terrorism, which target civilians and thus have a high probability of killing women. This sort of violence has been getting much worse since 2011. 

As the war in Iraq has progressed, women have disproportionately been more likely to be killed. Presumably the same is true for children due to the change in the means with which the Iraq War, and now the civil war which continues there, was (and continues to be) fought. This paints a very grim picture of life for Iraqi women and children for much of the last generation.

Last week I touched on my anger and chagrin as a veteran of the Iraq War. Figures such as these do little to ease that feeling. 


Iraq Iraq War war


Previous post
Our Longest War Continues Marine Sergeant Jeremy Holsten, Lima 3/3, greets children while on patrol at Kuchiney Darvishan, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on 18 Dec 2011.
Next post
Speaking Up for Big Pharma Photo courtesy Bart Heird. Used in accordance with Creative Commons guidelines.  Last week, Barry Werth published “Why New Drugs are So Expensive,”