A Grim Task: Why bother with the difficult, dangerous and depressing job of counting the dead in Iraq?

Come play with us under the blanket, Mama.” I don’t have to be asked twice. I set aside my work, civilian casualty figures for the Iraq war, and join the kids under the tent they’ve made of my grandmother’s afghan. “Tell us again about your grandma,” they ask, and I oblige.

“Your great-grandma was small, but she was very strong,” I begin. Being twerps themselves, they appreciate this. “Mary Isabella Cusimano left school after the fifth grade to work to help her family. She cooked and laughed generously, and crocheted constantly, the work of her hands warming us still, wrapping her great- grandchildren in this cozy crocheted hug....” The wiggling and giggling stops. The kids fall asleep under the trance of a story and the warmth of a blanket. I tuck the afghan around them and return to work.


Unexpectedly, the kids have clarified this grim task for me, counting dead Iraqi civilians. Everyone’s family deserves to be remembered. There are three sets of conflicting, contested numbers. U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks infamously said at the start of the Iraq war, “We don’t do body counts.” This is not true. Every U.S. military death is carefully counted and publicized. Iraqi civilian deaths are not so carefully counted by each military service, and are kept secret. The A.C.L.U. is currently suing the Department of Defense to release these numbers. The Army has complied, but the other services have not.

Because the U.S. government is not forthcoming with its own, admittedly incomplete, records of Iraqi civilians killed in the war, the Iraq Body Count nongovernmental organization began its work. Using a meticulous and consistent—but seriously flawed—method, Iraq Body Count documents 80,000 Iraqi civilians dead from the war. They count Iraqi civilian war deaths reported in more than one English-language news account.

The third accounting of Iraqi civilian deaths comes from the doctors at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Using established epidemiological methods, the physicians have conducted in-depth surveys (using native interviewers) of over 1,800 randomly selected Iraqi households. Generalizing the results to the Iraqi population at large, they estimate over 600,000 Iraqi civilians dead from the U.S. invasion and subsequent civil war/violence as of October 2006. By now the numbers are no doubt considerably worse.

This number is criticized as too high to be believed. Some of the most vehement criticism comes from the folks at Iraq Body Count. They argue that the sample is surely not representative; how could the media and authorities miss so much? Easily, any of the students in my “Media and Foreign Policy” class could tell you. Journalists are restricted in their movements because of security concerns, are usually based in Baghdad and under-report events in the rest of the country. Reporting from Iraq is extremely costly in lives and money. International news organizations have drastically cut the number of journalists and amount of reporting from Iraq since the start of the war. So at precisely the time when violence is increasing, there are fewer news accounts describing it. Journalists tend to cover larger casualty events. But much of the violence in Iraq is dispersed and decentralized. Many killings occur in small numbers over a wide space and over time, precisely the kinds of events that the media tend to under-report. Thus the Iraq Body Count number seriously and systematically under-reports the death toll in Iraq.

However you count it, the death toll in Iraq is horrific. It is easy to despair: over the unnecessary loss of life, the cavalier arrogance of the U.S. administration in the face of such slaughter and the failure of these numbers to dent the U.S. policy process. The administration is more concerned with saving face than saving Iraqis. They justly criticize the Iranian president for failing to acknowledge Jewish civilian deaths in the Holocaust, but they simultaneously fail to acknowledge Iraqi civilian deaths today. Lacking the two-thirds vote needed to overrride a presidential veto or a Republican filibuster, Congress is unable to change the course of the president’s war significantly.

The civilian casualty figures are not needed to show the war is unjust; the invasion was from the outset not a just war. So why bother with the difficult, dangerous and depressing job of counting the dead if it will not change U.S. policy?

My children reminded me of the answer. We honor the dead by remembering them. This time of year especially, from All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Veteran’s Day, through Thanksgiving, we remember the God-given dignity of those who have gone before us. No government or partisans may erase their intrinsic worth. Conflict-ridden societies devise truth and reconciliation commissions and mechanisms because we cannot build sustainable peace by ignoring uncomfortable facts, like the number of civilians killed and the way they died.

As Catholics we recognize this in our sacraments: first confession, then forgiveness. Truth is a necessary component of reconciliation. We must face what our governments cannot if we are to build peace for our children. The past touches our present and future generations each day, as tangibly as my grandmother’s blanket.

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11 years 3 months ago
This is a wonderfully written story combining the worst element of our society (war) with the best, (a loving family). It is easy to ignore the tragedy that is happening in Iraq because of the distance the government keeps us from the truth. If we all had the foresight of grandma concerning her importance to future generations we might be more concerned with what is taking place.


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