Counting the dead

Marla Ruzicka's brave work in Iraq leaves behind a legacy that not even the U.S. military can deny.

Published April 21, 2005 5:37PM (EDT)

A week before 28-year-old humanitarian worker Marla Ruzicka was killed in Baghdad last Saturday, she filed a telling report concerning the U.S. military's knowledge of Iraqi civilian casualties. Namely, that it has such knowledge.

During the war on Afghanistan, in March 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks famously said, "We don't do body counts" -- and it's clear that the Pentagon, in denying any official records of civilian casualties, has sought to keep a veil over the human cost of war there, and amid the much larger-scale conflict in Iraq. (In some ways, it also appears to be standard operating procedure when it comes to U.S. soldiers themselves.) Estimates vary widely, but media reports over the last two years indicate the number of Iraqi civilian deaths to be at least in the tens of thousands; late last year British medical journal The Lancet put the estimate (using a fairly wide range) as high as 100,000.

What Ruzicka says she learned -- both from her own intrepid efforts toward documentation on the ground, and from talking with U.S. officials -- is revealing in terms of relative scale.

"Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official," Ruzicka wrote in her mid-April dispatch. "The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time. Other hot spots, such as the Ramadi and Mosul areas, could prove worse. The statistics showed that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5 -- four times the number of Iraqi police killed in the same period. It is not clear whether the bullets that killed these civilians were fired by U.S. troops or insurgents."

Even more telling is what the U.S. military says -- unofficially, at least -- about what it knows.

"Here in Baghdad, a brigadier general commander explained to me that it is standard operating procedure for U.S. troops to file a spot report when they shoot a non-combatant," Ruzicka wrote.

"During the Iraq war, as U.S. troops pushed toward Baghdad, counting civilian casualties was not a priority for the military. However, since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations over and the U.S. military moved into a phase referred to as 'stability operations,' most units began to keep track of Iraqi civilians killed at checkpoints or during foot patrols by U.S. soldiers. ... Troops on the ground keep these records because they recognize they have a responsibility to review each action taken and that it is in their interest to minimize mistakes, especially since winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is a key component of their strategy."

The statistics "demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties," she reiterated.

She also cared about being fair in her account, noting that U.S. military officials "have shown regret and remorse for the deaths and injuries of civilians." In addition to her deep humanitarian concerns, she recognized that, for purposes of assessing the mission, "It is in the military's interest to release these statistics."

Indeed it is, especially now that it can no longer hide having them. And as Ruzicka's friends, family and admirers grieve at her funeral in California this weekend, that's a legacy of hers about which they can and should feel incredibly proud.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East U.s. Military War Room