One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Iraq Body Count...so what?

I was going to talk about the Lancet's report on the Iraq body count anyway, but some of my gavourite bloggers have beaten me to it. See Dan's comments, and also the link to the Grauniad article that Polonius linked to in a comment on my earlier post. My starting point was a Slate article by Christopher Hitchens.

I like Hitchens. That's not a popular view on the Left at the moment because he's reckoned to have gone over to The Dark Side. I fear that's largely true... his moral stance against islamofascism* has blinded him to his allies' excesses...but he's a great entertainer (try this excellent podcast) and a puncturer of wooly liberal orthodoxies. These days I find that I can agree with about 90% of what he says...but the remaining 10% is a massive gulf. But we need to test our opinions by cross-checking against reasoned disagreement. Hitchens is my touchstone.

So...to summarise Hitchens opinion of the bodycount...it uses a flawed methodology, its production and peer review reflects left-wing bias and it's been too eagerly jumbed on by the anti-war faction as yet another example of Bush's evil. There's some truth in that, so let's allow it as valid opinion. However, he goes on, the anti-Bushites shouldn't bleat about the casualties. They may be uncomfortably high (if not as high as the report suggests), but that's not America's fault. Since the end of the war, the overwhelming mass of the slaughter has been of Iraqis (and their coalition force protectors) by Iraqis, and there the moral culpability lies.

First of all, let's deal with the casualties that have been caused by coalition forces. During the invasion there was, inevitably, a good deal of 'collateral damage'. Unless one is a pacifist (and I'm not) then provided one accepts Hitchens' position on the paramount necessity of the overthrow of Saddam, it's reasonable to argue that the means justify the end. (Yes, there's a countergument that the coalition was so reckless that they didn't even count the bodies, and certainly incidents like the blatant assaination of journalists in the Hotel Palestine, and the heavy-handed razing of Fallujah need to be accounted for). Also, there has been a series of casual excesses since the invasion (trigger-hapiness; beating and murder of captives; etc. etc.). But we shouldn't be naive about such things. This is how soldiers behave, especially when put in intolerable positions. If we're prepared to use military force, then we have to accept this kind of thing as the consequence (although it goes without saying that we should not condone it; discipline should be maintained, excesses punished). Incidentilly, Hitchens has stated (wittily, I think) that conditions in Abu Ghraib prison improved markedly immediately following the regime change. So, let's grant that the coalition mean well, but you have to be cruel to be kind.

Now let's go back to early 2003, when I was one of 2 Million+ in Britain who marched against the war. Various anti-war arguments were being put forward at the time. So let's have a recap:

  • "War is bad" Indeed. Thank you for that piece of sage insight.
  • "It's all about oil." Wellll...possibly there's a lot of truth in that. Not, I don't believe, that the Bush/Cheney oil intersts wished to grab Iraqi oil profits for themeselves. But re-connection the Iraqi supply would certainly have detabilised the OPEC cartel in an advantageous way. (And there's an intriguing argument- see this Rob Newman video - concerning the switch from Dollars to Euros as the payment method for oil which would have sent the Federal Reserve into meltdown). But if we accept the Hitchens view, the causus belli is unimportant, so long as there's a legitemate morale outcome.
  • "Ah, but why aren't we invading other bad regimes, like Burma" Vapid, liberal idiocy. Nuff said.
  • "We don't have evidence of WMDs, and we don't believe they're a threat." That was a pretty good argument at the time, and has since been proved to be right. And see the last point but one. But let's also take the related argument:
  • "We don't believe the government. We think Blair's trying to hoodwink us." Much though it may leave a nasty taste, let's allow that for Tony Blair, the case for regime change was so morally convincing that he had to find a means to make us buy into it. That's not what he's said, of course; "You can say I was wrong. But you can't criticise me for believing it." Well, yes, we can criticise you for not having gathered sufficient evidence (the UN inspectorate was asking for more time) or for interpreting it incompetently. OK...so maybe he was so sincere in his laudable desire for regime change that his bias influenced his interpretation - doesn't that sound faintly scary? But let's allow the odious man of the hook. Maybe he just God was telling to convince the public of the need for regime change 'by any means necessary'. Although a man of integrity would have put the regime change argument to the fore - as he's had to since.
Thus far it has been possible to reason that all the arguments fail to take into account the clear necessity of deposing Saddam Hussein's vile regime. We can ignore rhetoric such as "He's a monster of our own making." We can ignore our doubts on whether "Freeman Moxy**" is foremost in the mind of the American Right. Sometimes causes make strange bedfellows. In WWII (aka 'The Great Patriotic War'), moral necessity meant allying with one totalitarian murderer against another. In this conflict, the self-declared Trotsyite Hitchens is content to get into bed with the Neo-Cons. But there's one argument from the time that remains unananswered:


How sure are we that it will work?

It seems to me that support for the Iraq War could only have been justified if it would lead to improvements in the lives of the Iraqi people. Freedom. Security. Self determination. Living conditions. For these improvements it is reasonable to make the dismal but necessary tradeoff against the amount of suffering along the way. So...let's allow that a there is some worthwile price, measured in terms of the numbers of bodies directly attributable to the coalition.

Except...have there been improvements? One area in which life has definitely not improved is in personal security. whether the insurgents are responsible for the lion share of 650,000 or of some smaller number (although the official estimates of a tenth of that are utterly incredible and certainly wouldn't stand up to peer review), it is undeniable that more people are dying, being kidnapped, etc. etc. now than there were under Saddam***. The people live in a climate of fear. It is arguable whether the coalition has achieved - or will in future be able to achieve - any material or psychological improvement in the conditions of the Iraqi population.

One is forced to conclude that, even if...if...action was taken with the best of intentions, its results have been an abominable failure. I will accept, then, that there may be an argument for, as Hitchens claims to have done, throwing ones lot in with those who might have had their own reasons for invasion because whatever the motives, the outcome would have been desirable. But the outcome hasn't been desirable. Has it? So - could this have been predicted? I refer you back to the pre-war period:


How sure were we that it would work?

Maybe if you throw a pack of cards in the air, they'll land so that only the ace is right-way-up. But in the case of Iraq, it was a terrible gamble with peoples' lives. Humans are rather poor at making gambling-related decisions; they focus on the possible benefits ignoring their low probability and the negative consequences of losing. That is what - maybe with the best possible intentions - Hitchens has done. In this context, the argument about numbers isn't about whether he's wrong. It's about how much.



*Fluffy liberals are quite wrong to criticise Bush's use of the word. It may not be strictly accurate, but it works well enough. What is this? The Pedants' Revolt****?

**Grauniad If cartoonist Steve Bell's version of Dubya's pronuciation of 'Freedom and Democracy' (constantly refered to in his 'War Against Tourism' speeches.

*** Caveat: Apart from the period of their war with Iran...although the nations that supplied Iraq with arms and other support as a buffer against Iran are hardly in a position to comment.

****Q. Who led The Pedants' Revolt? A. Which Tyler.
Q. What is the definition of pedanticness? A. Surely you mean pedantry?

3 comments:

Polonius said...

I started to draft a piece on this subject myself a few weeks ago, before deciding that the good folks at ScienceBlogs had said most of what I wanted to say. (BTW, I've just seen, at Pharyngula, that Edward Tufte has contributed to the discussion - that I must read!) Anyway, here's a snippet from what I had written before I abandoned it.

After 9/11, the right-wing view was that the US had to invade somewhere. Not Saudi Arabia of course, which had at least as credible links to Osama bin Laden as Afghanistan, and far better links than Iraq. The left-wing view (and here, unusually, the military view was on the left) was that any invasion ought to have both clear objectives and an exit plan.

I sincerely believe that the invasion of Afghanistan was at least partly down to Yes, Minister's politician's syllogism: "We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do this." I suspect the main reason for the invasion of Iraq was regime change. In neither case, i believe, was any thought given to an exit plan.

Dan Goodman said...

Some comments.

"Hitchens opinion of the bodycount ... Since the end of the war, the overwhelming mass of the slaughter has been of Iraqis (and their coalition force protectors) by Iraqis, and there the moral culpability lies."

Assuming that the report is correct, my calculations show (based on 600k deaths caused by violence, of which 31% caused by the coalition) that the coalition directly killed 200k people (maybe 100k-300k for a 95% CI or something like that). Also, I think when you start a war on a country you're responsible for the ensuing chaos as well as the people you personally kill.

""Ah, but why aren't we invading other bad regimes, like Burma" Vapid, liberal idiocy. Nuff said."

As stated yes, but there is a more sensible point which is about the difference between considering an action, and an action as an instance of a policy. If the policy is self-interest, it's worth criticising even if in one particular case it does something good.

Edward the Bonobo said...

If the policy is self-interest, it's worth criticising even if in one particular case it does something good.

Hmm. I think that the Hitchens argument - 'They may not be doing it for the right reasons, but at least they're doing the right thing' - is at least theoretically supportable. But yes, the criticism is that when the goals don't line up, the outcomes are very unlikely to.