Casualties of war

If the U.S. kills 10,000 Iraqi civilians, will this be a just war? 1,000? 100,000? On the eve of destruction, a deadly moral calculus awaits.

Published March 20, 2003 8:10PM (EST)

As the war with Iraq begins, the question of Iraqi casualties -- particularly but not exclusively civilian casualties -- may loom larger than in any other war fought by America.

Advocates for the imminent war with Iraq say it will be a battle of liberation in which even significant numbers of civilian casualties will be acceptable, while opponents see it as industrial slaughter, in which all moral justification will be buried beneath piles of Iraqi corpses. Both have numbers of dead Iraqis to back their cases. Hawks cite those Saddam has murdered (a million, by many counts) and extrapolate how many more will die if his reign continues. Doves tabulate the thousands killed during the fighting of the last Gulf War and in its immediate aftermath and offer grim, sometimes apocalyptic predictions of future casualties. How many deaths there are will help determine whether the United States is welcomed to Iraq as liberators or fought as occupiers, and it will shape the perception of America abroad for decades. And there's almost no way for us to know how many there will be.

The issue of casualties, both civilian and military, is so crucial because of the way the Bush administration has defined this war. During World War II, a war regarded by all of its combatants as one of national survival, an entire enemy nation, soldiers and civilians alike, was regarded as a legitimate target. Large numbers of civilian casualties, or individual horrors like Dresden or the firebombing of Tokyo, were seen as regrettable, but they did not cause participants or historians to alter their assessment of the moral status of the parties involved. In the first Gulf War, that blank-check acceptance of "total war" was qualified by the fact that Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty despot, and many of his soldiers peasant conscripts. But because Iraq had invaded Kuwait, there was a tacit sense that Saddam and his army deserved whatever they got.

In the current war, however, Iraq has done nothing to provoke an attack (aside from Saddam's long-standing pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, which he alone has to answer for). The moral rules governing wars of choice are far stricter than those governing wars of self-defense. Moreover, President Bush's explicit statement that this is a war of "liberation" for the Iraqi people, and his argument that America's only real enemies are Saddam Hussein and his inner circle, make it critical, in both the court of world opinion and in the hearts and minds of Iraqis after the war, that civilian casualties be kept as low as possible. Moral purists might argue that Iraqi military casualties, too, should be kept as low as possible; but once hostilities commence, the uniformed personnel of an enemy army, no matter how unwilling they are to fight or tyrannical their leader, are generally considered legitimate targets. The moral uneasiness surrounding this judgment is inherent in war. (The U.S. military has stated it will attempt to determine the hostile intentions, or lack thereof, of Iraqi troops. But with the U.S. military's ability to kill thousands of enemy combatants at a distance, virtually instantaneously, and in the heat of battle and the fog of war, it is questionable to what degree this noble goal will be realized.)

One of the central concepts used by scholars grappling with what makes a war just is "proportionality," or the ratio of those killed to those saved. "You have to have some reasonable assurance that you're not going to do greater damage than the benefits that you hope to bring by fighting," says Michael Walzer, a professor at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study and the author of "Just and Unjust Wars," the standard work on the subject. "It is morality by predication, and it's undoubtedly very uncertain, but you are morally bound to try to do a serious estimate."

Here, though, the variables are so multifarious that they make a serious estimate nearly impossible. What happens if there's urban combat in Baghdad? If Turkey moves into Kurdistan? If Saddam unleashes chemical weapons? If there's civil war?

Or, on the other hand, what if Saddam's troops surrender en masse? What if one of his inner circle assassinates him before the war even gets started in earnest?

Can the military save Iraq without destroying it?

In a few days or weeks, the answers to these questions will become clearer -- and as they do, the argument over the war's justice, or lack thereof, will heat up. (This argument does not touch other arguments in favor of or against the war, such as America's real motivations, its legal right to act, the consequences of a unilateral war, the threat posed by Saddam, and so on. It concerns only the issue of whether the war is justified as a war of liberation. One could agree that it is justified as a war of liberation and still oppose it for other reasons.) Unless no Iraqis are killed, or every single one is, neither side in the debate is likely to be able to claim victory. The death of a single child can and will be seized on by antiwar advocates; those who are pro-war will argue that even 100,000 deaths is an acceptable price to pay.

In any case, the whole moral conundrum hangs upon a roll of the dice.

"If you take an unknown and multiply it by another unknown, you get an unknown," says Beth Osborne Daponte, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1992, Daponte was fired from her job as a demographer in the Census Bureau after she told a reporter that 158,000 Iraqis died in the first Gulf War and in the months immediately following it, a figure that contradicted the official government line that casualties were impossible to determine. Now, she says, "I don't speculate on the numbers."

Yet plenty of others do, and their predictions vary widely. A confidential United Nations study, leaked in December and widely quoted by antiwar activists, estimates a staggering half million deaths. A study released in November by Medact, the English affiliate of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War provides a similar number. A press release from the group says, "A US-led attack on Iraq could kill between 48,000 and 260,000 civilians and combatants in just the first three months of conflict, according to a study by medical and public health experts. Post-war health effects could take an additional 200,000 lives."

But Medact's estimates are based on worst-case assumptions that the U.S. military will destroy much of Iraq's civilian infrastructure, that it won't be able to aid civilians immediately after the war, and that Baghdad will see fierce urban combat.

Much of what's been reported about the Pentagon's so-called shock and awe strategy, in which hundreds of missiles will bombard Baghdad in the first days of a war, seems to reinforce Medact's pessimism. One official said in January, "There will not be a safe place in Baghdad."

At the same time, 80 percent of these munitions will be precision-guided smart bombs, as opposed to 10 percent in the first Gulf War, which could mean that civilian areas are more likely to be spared. And more bombs over a short time might be better than fewer over a longer period. Says Victor Davis Hanson, the author of the 2001 book "Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power," "I don't think we're going to bomb Baghdad for 77 days. That's what we did in Belgrade," killing, according to Hanson, between 3,000 and 3,500 people.

Pointing out that 500,000 Iraqis were killed in the decade-long war with Iran, Hanson, a military historian and classics professor at UC-Fresno, says, "Any reasonable person would not believe the United States is going to kill 500,000 people."

Instead, Hanson, who supports the war, estimates that the civilian deaths will be in the hundreds or low thousands. It's a number he extrapolates from other recent wars. Would-be prognosticators, he says, "have a duty as enlightened people to look at the last engagements -- Gulf War I, Panama, Grenada, Belgrade and the Taliban. If they looked at those engagements, they could come up with anywhere from 200 to 3,500 casualties on an average." His estimation is founded in part on an expectation of Iraqi military passivity: "Based on what I saw in Panama and the first Gulf War and Serbia, there's a pattern. People don't fight very well for fascists."

Meanwhile, he notes that Saddam has butchered hundreds of thousands of his own people, driven 4 million into exile, and tortured countless others. Thus, for him, the math is easy. "If you ask, 'Do you really want to free Iraq at the price of 500,000 dead?' people will say, 'Of course not.' If you ask, 'Do you want to free Iraq at the price of 2000 or 3,000?' more people would say yes."

In dismissing antiwar doomsayers, Hanson notes their misguided predictions of a quagmire in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan. Then, the pessimists were mistaken in relying on Vietnam as a model. Now, though, it's unclear whether the relatively easy victories Hanson cites are any more relevant.

In any case, even if the first Gulf War was not a quagmire for the U.S., it was a killing field for Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Estimates of the total death toll of Iraqi civilians from the war and its immediate aftermath are hotly disputed, but they range from 80,000 to 200,000. Military casualties are also in dispute, with estimates ranging from about 20,000 to 120,000.

William Arkin, a senior military advisor to Human Rights Watch and a former adjunct professor at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies of the U.S. Air Force, says, "We don't have much experience in what we're about to look at. In 1991, the Iraqi army obligingly deployed to the desert, where they were bombed, and the Iraqi civilian population was largely immune from attack. In Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav army was either deployed in Kosovo or were in their barracks. In neither was there a total war objective. The objective was to achieve a political aim. The capital cities were never taken. Large amounts of territory in the countries were never taken. Even in Afghanistan, the nature of the conflict was such that there was really no attempt made to take over the whole country. Assaulting Baghdad with ground forces is something we're completely unfamiliar with, and there's no precedent to make an assumption about what the civilian casualties will be."

For one thing, we don't know if American air strikes will target the electric grid, or roads, or water treatment plants, and how long they will remain shut down. Those might seem like minor issues, but according to Daponte, it was the destruction of infrastructure leading to contaminated water and other health hazards that caused most of the civilian deaths during the first Gulf war.

"If we are truly concerned about sparing Iraqi civilians, we cannot attack the infrastructure. We simply can't," she says. "Military planners will say that they need to attack the bridges and the roads that are used to transport military personnel and equipment. But when that's done, when you destroy the ability of a country to transport its military might, you also destroy the ability of the country to provide goods and services that civilians rely upon."

But for the military to spare the power grid, it might have to put some of its own troops at risk. "When they go into Baghdad, are they supposed to take out the electric grid or not?" says Hanson. "It will hurt the Iraqi people, but [the electric grid] transmits information to people who want to kill you."

Hanson excoriates Westerners who demand that this war be waged in such a way as to minimize Iraqi civilian deaths, saying that that approach endangers their own soldiers. "The problem with Americans and affluent postmodern Westerners is they demand perfection -- that nobody gets killed, or only the bad people get killed," he says. "If they wanted to take Iraq and defeat it militarily, it would be very easy. They're not going to do that, and a lot more Americans are going to die because of that."

Hanson's assumption that the United States will endanger its own troops to spare innocent Iraqis is part of what underlies his low casualty predictions. On the other hand, Medact's assumption of absolute destructiveness on the part of the military both during and after the war shapes their numbers. "Iraq's infrastructure, already seriously damaged by the earlier war, will suffer enormous damage in initial attacks and subsequent urban conflict," the group's November report says. "The destruction of roads, railways, homes, hospitals, factories and sewage plants will create conditions in which the environment is degraded and disease flourishes."

Yet to argue that the United States military dreads a humanitarian catastrophe, you don't have to believe in its beneficence, just its self-interest. After all, if one of the war's goals really is a transformation of the Middle East meant to undermine the ideological power of radical Islam, it would be wholly counterproductive for America to hand Osama bin Laden the P.R. coup of murdered Arabs on al-Jazeera TV.

Moreover, Hanson's argument that the U.S. should not worry so much about civilian casualties contradicts one of the war's avowed purposes, which is to save those very civilians.

Sarah Sewall, program director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance in the Clinton administration, has been critical of the military's failure to adequately integrate protection for civilians into battle plans. Yet she also believes that the Pentagon makes a genuine effort to spare innocents. "It's probable that opponents of war have tended to have exaggerated fears about the destruction that will be caused," she says. "If the administration, as is sometimes alleged, is operating off of a best-case scenario, people opposed to a war operate off of a worst-case scenario that's really horrifying."

The truth is, we just don't know. "We don't know the extent to which there's going to be urban combat, which has a huge impact on the level of human suffering," Sewall says. "We don't know the extent to which there will be massive dislocations of people, which almost always result in civilian deaths. We don't know the extent to which there will be civil conflict as a result of the intervention changing the calculus on the ground for various factions within Iraq. We don't know if Saddam Hussein will employ chemical weapons that will primarily affect civilians."

We will soon. "We're going to find out in the next 72 hours. It's going to be a referendum on the last year," says Hanson.

When it's all over, Hanson says, "All I would ask is that people who said there's going to be 500,000 dead and it's not going to be easy, at least they should have the intellectual integrity to say they were wrong." If a year from now the army is still bogged down in a bloody conflict in the Middle East, Hanson says he'll do the same.

Yet if it comes to that, those who are owed apologies won't be there to hear them.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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