The casualty count of war

An American author has documented the impact of the US invasion of Iraq and post-war violence on ordinary civilians. He talks to Andrew Stone about why the human cost counts

The war and seven-year occupation of Iraq have cost the lives of at least 4379 American soldiers.

The United States' toll, until February this year, has the ring of sombre military precision.

The Iraqi casualty count remains contentious and unresolved.

One estimate, called the Iraq Body Count (IBC), records 103,549 civilian deaths by the end of last year.

Collated from media reports, the tally includes deaths from coalition and militia conflict, sectarian violence and criminal activity.

A much higher tally, based on household survey data, was reported by the medical journal Lancet. Its study concluded that an additional 654,965 Iraqis died in the three years after the March 2003 invasion.

New York author Michael Otterman examines these figures in a study of the human costs of the war, called Erasing Iraq.

Both figures - the IBC and the Lancet counts - caused a storm in the US. Otterman says the IBC estimate was slammed as "grotesquely high" when it appeared.

When the higher Lancet calculation surfaced, he says, "the Iraq Body Count was embraced by people on the right because there was a lower count out there."

Otterman backs the Lancet estimate, saying its statistical method was applied to the Congo civil war in the 1990s without any fuss in the US.

"We have a responsibility in the US, as a country which prosecuted this war, to know what the costs are. We need to know at a very concrete level if our methods were successful.

"If our bombing campaigns and the people we supported on the ground yielded a death count of 600,000 or so, that should give us pause and we should reconsider the methods we used and the reasons we went to war at all.

"Without knowing the human cost - not just the body count but the other costs too - we're almost blind, we don't see what the effects of this war really were."

To investigate the human cost, Otterman and his co-authors Richard Hil and Paul Wilson set out to document the impact of the war and post-invasion violence through interviews with Iraqi refugees and a study of blog postings.

In Jordan, Syria and as far from the Middle East as Sweden, the authors interviewed some of the 2.4 million Iraqis who fled their country to escape war and sectarian violence.

Ahmed, 21, who lived in Jordan with his family, explained how Iraqis were no longer welcome after suicide bombers attacked three hotels in the capital Amman. Struggling to support his parents and desperate to leave, Ahmed had resorted to disguising his Iraqi identity in his country of refuge.

"If they know I'm Iraqi people start to blame me, [saying things] like my father came here and he raised the prices and all the apartments are full now and he bombed the hotels. And we end up fighting," the young man said.

Besides those who left Iraq, as many as 2.7 million people left their unsafe homes and neighbourhoods for less dangerous parts of the country.

According to Mama, a blogger from Mosul in northern Iraq, families packed up sometimes because insurgents took over their homes, or because military forces used their properties as a base for an ambush.

Sometimes, even grief forced families out. In March 2008 Mama reported that a close friend Raffi had been killed by a car bomb.

"Raffi's family left because every corner reminds them of their loss," wrote Mama. "They see Raffi in his room, on his chair, everywhere causes grief for them."

Otterman accepts that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was hardly a bed of roses.

"We don't seek to diminish Saddam's rule," Otterman says from New York, "but what is open to debate is whether foreign invasions are morally or ethically correct to topple dictators."

His answer is "no".

"But of course it didn't stop at the invasion and overthrow. We didn't just knock him over and leave. We changed Iraq laws. We empowered certain groups over others, and completely enmeshed ourselves in their affairs. This I would argue is wrong."

He met Iraqis who supported the invasion, especially many Shia who were isolated by Hussein's support for Sunnis. "But we couldn't find one Iraqi who supported the prolonged occupation. I haven't met anyone who said it was worth it."

The authors use the term "sociocide" to describe what has occurred in Iraq. First applied to the destruction of Bosnia during the 1990s, Otterman considers it appropriate in the case of Iraq.

The country and its people, he says, were "wilfully destroyed" by US-led forces during the Gulf War, the period of UN sanctions, the second Gulf War, the looting of cultural treasures and the support of violent fundamentalists. The result is a country split along ethnic and sectarian lines, whose people endured assassinations and suicide attacks.

"Whether it was an accident, oversight or planned, it's a reality of the US invasion and feeds in to this larger question of what this invasion was for. It destroyed a lot of what made Iraq, its shared history. In that way, sociocide is an apt phrase."

On his website, Otterman calls himself a human rights consultant.

As the son of a Polish child Holocaust survivor - his father Bernard escaped being sent to Auschwitz after his mother tricked Nazi guards as they were lining up to board a train - Michael says he grew up immersed in dinnertime talk about political tyranny and civil freedoms.

Erasing Iraq is his second book. His first, American Torture - also the name of his website - investigated the use of torture by the US from World War II through to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the military prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Otterman wants his work to encourage people to think about the impact of war and aggression. Ordinary Iraqis, he says, have largely been missing from most narratives.

"We want to change that."

Michael Otterman appears at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. For details go to www.writers-festival.co.nz/

Erasing Iraq by Michael Otterman and Richard Hil with Paul Wilson (Pluto Press, $42.95)

- NZ Herald

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