Death Counts
June 13, 2005 3:55 PM   Subscribe

When discussing the Iraq war, pro-war people often state that things would be worse under Saddam. This seems to imply that more people would have died under Saddam than as a result of the invasion/occupation thus far. I want to dispute these types of statements but honestly I don't know if it is true or not. I haven't seen any real firm figure on how many people died under Saddam and at what rate he killed people. I know that the folks at Iraqbodycount.net keep a running count of those who died as a direct result of the Iraq war. Have any credible comparisons been done between the numbers of deaths we have caused and the numbers he usually caused? If so, what were the results?
posted by aburd to Law & Government (24 answers total)
 
The rate at which he killed poeple was low compared to the rate at which he used to kill people, which is often overlooked - people usually point to a rate at which he once killed people, and assume it was ongoing.

I do recall there was a prominent human rights groups or perhaps coalition of groups (Amnesty Internation springs to mind) that went on the record as saying the Iraq war was costing more lives than would have been lost under Hussein, but I don't have a link.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:05 PM on June 13, 2005


Man, I can't believe I'm talking about mass death in such a detached way...
Guess I'm desensitised/outrage-exhausted/whatever
posted by -harlequin- at 4:06 PM on June 13, 2005


Estimates of "deaths we have caused" vary greatly, and I imagine that concrete figures for either regime are practically impossible to find.
posted by mookieproof at 4:15 PM on June 13, 2005


First, keep in mind that the people you're going to argue things like this with probably have their mind fairly firmly set. They will almost certainly be siding with you before you start or siding against you even after you finish. Such is the name of the game.

Second, remember that although Saddam did some truly horrendous things, he also managed to keep peace and order in a violent, turbulent land. Islamic tribes fight each other all the time (or at least they did before they rallied against us) and Saddam managed to contain the inter-tribe violence quite effectively. He used the principal philosophy of power - real power is derived not from actual force, but from fear. The whole concept of deterrence stems from this single premise. If you are more scared of your government than anything else (except maybe your god) you will fall in line to keep safe. This was the thinking behind the Roman practice of Decimation and is still as valid today as it ever was.
posted by mystyk at 4:21 PM on June 13, 2005


Or, to put it another way, once Saddam had established that he was more than willing to destroy anyone in his path, he really didn't need to do much additional killing. You might be reluctant to speak out if doing so means not only your death, but your family being locked up and tortured to death before your eyes, and only after that having the bullet lodged in your cranium.
posted by mystyk at 4:25 PM on June 13, 2005


Things might have been worse under Saddam quite apart from hoewever many people died. Even then, you can extrapolate Saddam's killing rate beyond 2003.
posted by fire&wings at 4:33 PM on June 13, 2005


things would be worse under Saddam

I seem to remember a major debate over (a) the number of babies and young children dying of malnutrition and other preventable causes, in Iraq, and (b) whether the U.S. and others were to blame, because of the embargo on most goods going to Iraq, or whether the fault was Saddam's because food and medicine could enter the country, but he had chosen not to import enough, or not to properly distribute it (or his regime was corrupt enough so that distribution was inadequate).

In short, if things really were worse under Saddam (which, as discussed above, is hard to prove, although he certainly was reprehensible), you next have to deal with the problem of deciding to what extent he was responsible. Some things (torture, arbitrary executions, etc.) are obviously his; others (like higher infant mortality) may be much more difficult to decide on.
posted by WestCoaster at 5:03 PM on June 13, 2005


The Iraqis had heavy casualties in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War; Hussein's regime killed many Iraqis during the 1986-1989 anti-Kurdish al-Anfal Campaign (during which he gassed his own people), and suppressing the 1991 Shiite uprising. Most of the 12 charges that Hussein will face are from this period.

The Sunnis are currently saying things were never worse.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:04 PM on June 13, 2005


The study -harlequin- may be thinking of is the Lancet study.

It appears to be reprinted here (pdf)
posted by pitchblende at 5:34 PM on June 13, 2005


If you are aguing with someone and they bring up a "would have killed more" argument about war, just remember that if all the people in (insert country that caused major war here) were killed, it would have saved lives.

The numbers don't indicate which is the morally correct choice.
posted by shepd at 5:44 PM on June 13, 2005


Here's what Juan Cole had to say:

Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, when questioned about the Iraq war that he helped spearhead, asked, “Would you really prefer to have Saddam Hussein in power?”

But the reason for not having Saddam in power was that he had killed so many people. If not having him means that 8,000 people a year have to die, then what? And what if the number of people dying in Iraq is even higher? What if it is not 8,000 a year, as Jabr maintains, but more like 50,000? Jabr’s figures are only for casualties of guerrilla actions. What about all the Iraqis who have died as a result of US bombing raids on civilian quarters of cities? What about all the murders that occur as part of political reprisals?

The Baath Party was in power for about 35 years. If it had killed 8000 civilians per year, that would be 280,000 persons. That is about what is alleged, though it is probably an exaggeration. (The deaths in the Iran-Iraq war cannot all be laid at Saddam’s feet, since he began suing for peace in 1982, but was rebuffed by Khomeini, who insisted on dragging the war out until 1988 in hopes of taking Baghdad and putting the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in power there. Likewise, Mr. Rumsfeld’s offer of support to Saddam and greenlighting of the use of chemical weapons prolonged the war).

In other words, Bayan Jabr’s figures suggest that in US-dominated Iraq, people are dying so far at about the same rate as they did under Baath rule. (If he is underestimating the civilian casualties, then it is possible that many more are dying per year than under Saddam!) In any case, Saddam’s killing sprees were largely over with by the late 1990s, so the rate of death in Iraq now is enormously greater than it was in, say, 2001.

Wolfowitz should give up on the propaganda technique of just demonizing his opponents and then asking how anyone could want them in power. The real question is, are Iraqis better off under US auspices? So far, the answer with regard to the death rate is a resounding “No!”
posted by glibhamdreck at 6:47 PM on June 13, 2005


Well, you could always turn to Osama Bin Laden for figures....

In his 1996 declaration of war against the United States he claimed that 600,000 children had died in Iraq due to (American sponsored) UN sanctions, and in his first statement after Sept. 11, on Oct. 7, 2001, he claimed the figure of dead Iraqi children had risen to 1,000,000.

In fact, to those wondering about an Iraq connection to September 11 - that's one. Osama ordered the Sept. 11 attacks in part as retaliation for the Iraqi children we were allegedly killing through UN sanctions.

If Bin Laden's numbers are accurate, I guess the UN killed more people in Iraq than Saddam or the United States....
posted by extrabox at 7:28 PM on June 13, 2005


I think this isn't the kind of argument that will win either side. Yes, it's easy to turn to quantifiable facts to prove a point. Saddam = 10,000 dead Iraqis is better than non-Saddam = 50,000 dead Iraqis (though simply stating that no war is better than war because no war equals less death leaves out a huge component of human history where people are willing to fight and die for a belief or their country or some other reason). All these estimates make a variety of assumptions that can never be proved, and different factions will use different assumptions in order to skew the numbers to their argument. There is a searing indictment of the claims that the UN embargo had resulted in dead Iraqi babies in the book Into the Buzzsaw, and it's a great example of how propoganda can create statistics that people eventually believe. While searching for these statistics will give you some ammo in your argument, know that they can be manipulated for the other side of the debate as well.

And in the end, your argument presumes that less death is better than more death, and that simply isn't true for every case. You're approaching the argument that life is the ultimate value. If "freedom" (note the use of quotes) is the ultimate value, then the number of dead isn't as important.
posted by incessant at 7:57 PM on June 13, 2005


People forget that Saddam was putting down a civil war when he gassed the Kurds in the late 80's. If you're going to count deaths for and against Saddam, you also have to count in the fact that he unified Iraq and brought a kind of civil order to the country that wouldn't have been there had he not committed mass genocide.

Counting deaths is not the right way to establish morality, by the way.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:53 PM on June 13, 2005


Counting deaths is not the right way to establish morality, by the way.

Ikkyu2 said it much more eloquently than I.
posted by incessant at 11:30 PM on June 13, 2005


If "freedom" (note the use of quotes) is the ultimate value, then the number of dead isn't as important.

I'm sorry, I know this is the green and not the blue, but I can't let rubbish like that pass. It's easy for you to say that deaths aren't as important, because it's not your life, or the life of your family and friends on the line. Who the hell do you think you are to tell Iraqis that their deaths are unimportant in the name of "freedom"?
posted by salmacis at 1:05 AM on June 14, 2005


you also have to count in the fact that he unified Iraq and brought a kind of civil order to the country that wouldn't have been there had he not committed mass genocide

I believe this is known as the 'fallacy of the overwhelming exception'.

On preview: salmacis, calm down. I don't think incessant was saying that Iraqi deaths are unimportant; merely that you have to be careful in applying this sort of moral calculus.
posted by verstegan at 1:25 AM on June 14, 2005


verstegan: Are you sure it's not called 'American foreign policy on Iraq in the 1990s'?
posted by biffa at 4:28 AM on June 14, 2005


Islamic tribes fight each other all the time

You mean "Middle Eastern tribes fight each other all the time" -- and you could probably leave it at "tribes fight each other all the time," given the right definition of "tribes." Religion has nothing to do with it. Tribes in that part of the world were fighting each other in pretty much the same way before Islam existed.

Saddam was putting down a civil war when he gassed the Kurds in the late 80's

Boy, talk about a crappy moral perspective. So it would have been fine for the Brits to gas American rebels in the 1770s if they'd had the capability? And the US would be justified in gassing Sunni towns now? If you're "putting down a civil war," anything goes!

Do you also subscribe to the "Stalin was a good, strong leader who kept order" line?
posted by languagehat at 5:40 AM on June 14, 2005


salmacis, remember patrick henry? Considering freedom more important than technically remaining alive is not such an unheard of thing. It's a bit romantic, perhaps, but one can't simply count up the bodies to reach a conclusion about whether a war is justified or not.

And I have problems with this invasion, but it really upsets me to see so many people defending Saddam. He was a totalitarian dictator. did we go in for the oil? yeah. are there other dictators we're not paying attention to? you bet. did we have a plan? not hardly. BUT: that doesn't mean everything was peachy the way it was & we just went and messed it all up! No, things were bad. They were not as bad as they had been, but they were bad and it wasn't clear if they'd get worse again.

The problem is that the situation is pretty complicated, and there's just not a simple answer. A lot of the issues run much deeper than a particular gov't or policy, and we did not have a solution worked out, but just went in with the attitude that things would work themselves out once everyone was free to openly organize. Hopefully this will be true. More likely, this area will be unstable for years to come, and people will disagree about whether stability and dictatorship or instability and freedom is preferable.
posted by mdn at 6:36 AM on June 14, 2005


Several months ago someone in the Blue trotted out the 100,000 dead figure again and I decided it was time to research this to see if it was possibly correct. There is a good Slate article showing that the Lancet's 100,0000 dead estimated is "so loose as to be meaningless."
posted by probablysteve at 7:04 AM on June 14, 2005


please, if you're going to quote the "lancet study", use the report directly (including the error estimates) or check the link that probablysteve gives above. the numbers in the newspaper reports were very misleading.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:50 AM on June 14, 2005


it really upsets me to see so many people defending Saddam.

I don't think anybody's defending Saddam (except, apparently, ikkyu2), and certainly nobody is saying "everything was peachy the way it was." Try not to give in to the temptation of attacking straw men.
posted by languagehat at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2005


Boy, talk about a crappy moral perspective. So it would have been fine for the Brits to gas American rebels in the 1770s if they'd had the capability? And the US would be justified in gassing Sunni towns now? If you're "putting down a civil war," anything goes!

Do you also subscribe to the "Stalin was a good, strong leader who kept order" line?


No, no, and no.

I don't think anybody's defending Saddam (except, apparently, ikkyu2)

Whoa.

My point here was that, if you are going to establish a balance sheet with 'deaths committed by Saddam' on one side and 'deaths committed in the ousting of Saddam' on the other side, you might wish to take into account things like 'deaths prevented by Saddam's actions' and 'deaths prevented by the ousting of Saddam' as well.

If you try to show me such a balance sheet and claim it has any bearing with respect to determining what sort of universal, over-arching ethical principles should be used to guide ethical action, I will proceed to laugh in your face. That was my main point; I guess it wasn't very clear.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:06 PM on June 28, 2005


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