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Reader riposte: Iraq casualties reconsidered

Reader riposte: Iraq casualties reconsidered
Published 25 Mar 2013 

US Army Major Matthew Cavanaugh is a course director and instructor at the US Military Academy at West Point:

Just thought I would attempt a small contribution to your ongoing debate on the Iraq War. I served there twice (03-04 and 05-06) and consider it an important subject, although I had to be reminded that the 10th anniversary was approaching! I was actually moving north from Kuwait at that point in time!

Anyhow, hereThe Interpreter's readers can find an interesting counter-factual piece by Bobby Ghosh, the International Editor at Time, in which he describes why he thinks Saddam would have survived the Arab Spring. This, I think, would be a nice follow-up to Michael Ware's fairly lengthy post.The point Ghosh makes ought to be confronted by any rigorous analysis of the Iraq War's place in history: the price of inaction. Always an unsatisfying policy option, but likely one the world will see from America in the coming decade. What might such inaction bring?

The second point one might consider is a response to Mr Rodger Shanahan's patronizing commentary towards Major General (retired) Jim Molan's comment on reduced levels of violence in Iraq. 


As Mr Shanahan put it, he was 'left scratching his head' over the suggestion that violence was less than under Saddam, and offered some 'perspective' for The Interpreter's readers. He offered the Iraq Body Count site as an 'insight into the sheer scale of regular violence' in Iraq. 

A couple points must be made here. One, any cited figures from Iraq are, as Ghosh (who spent five years there) points out, fairly difficult to come by and are fairly imprecise. One doesn't need to have been in Iraq long to have come to that conclusion. I could similarly cite work which found that 'by a conservative estimate, the (Saddam) regime was killing civilians at an average rate of at least 16,000 a year between 1979 and March 2003.'

Using Mr Shanahan's preferred Iraq Body Count figures, that number (16,000) is only eclipsed in 2006 and 2007, and the past four years (up to the last full year, 2012, when full annual numbers are available) has averaged roughly one-third what Saddam was ('conservatively') killing. 

The second point is that the Iraq Body Count captures all 'documented civilian deaths from violence.' This is certainly broad and very likely covers non-political violence, criminal as well as the standard maladies that seem unfortunately to plague all societies globally. To hold, literally, the sum total of this violence as justification that the Iraq War was a bad idea is flawed reasoning at best (and obfuscates solid analysis).

Lastly, in the end, Mr Shanahan uses the figures as a jumping off point to effectively call Major General (retired) Molan a racist. That seems a bit unfair. To acknowledge that there is more regular violence experienced by communities in places like South Africa, Brazil, and, yes, Iraq (or Chicago for that matter!) is accurate, not 'Orientalist'.

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