Response: Deaths In Iraq

Several WAiSers have written in condemning the aid the US once gave Saddam Hussein. Alberto Gutierrez adds an interesting detail:

"Between 1983 and 1990, Iraq received about $5 billion loan from the US Agriculture Department through an obscure program known as Commodity Credit Corporation, of all the things to underwrite Hussein's war machine". RH: As I understand it, these loans are made to allow the country to buy US agricultural products, in other words to help American farmers. I suspect that often these loans are not repaid. In the case of Cuba, the US government specified that Castro must pay cash in dollars. I have noi details on the terms of payment.

Tim Brown answers Clyde McMorrow on the number of deaths, real and hypothetical, in Iraq:

"Estimates of crowds vary enormously. But that does not mean that a given crown can therefore be treated as if it never existed unless and until someone comes up with a mathematically precise and fully documented head count of it. By that logic the French Revolution did not involve any street mobs, historical accounts notwithstanding, because to this very day no one has come up with a precise, documented and fully verified head count of precisely how many rioters took part in each of them. Or one could conclude the Vietnam War never happened because we do not have, and never will have, absolutely precise numbers as to how many died in it. .I find such rationalizations for refusing to accept that there was even one defensible reason for toppling Hussein extremely strained" . Tim also answers Adriana de Pena: "I see. If one saves lives for the wrong reasons it is evil to save them. I respectfully disagree".

Phyllis Gardner says: "I concur with Adriana de Pena. We started a preemptive war on the basis that we were under imminent threat from WMDs from Iraq, and we started this with a very large coalition of the world against us, both at the government level and the popular level. We did this despite ongoing weapons inspections by the UN, led by Hans Blix, who wanted more time for his inspections. Now, our outgoing chief weapons inspector says that there is virtually no chance that the weapons will be found or that they existed for the last several years, and that our pre-war intelligence and assessments thereof were fundamentally flawed.

Thus to now justify undertaking a preemptive war by saying that we got rid of Hussein is simply revisionism. And it also belies the fact that we greatly supported Hussein's regime for decades, including helping him overthrow the Qassim regime through a series of CIA-backed Ba'athist coups, supplying him with chemical and biological weapons in the '80s during his war with Iran and resuming normal diplomatic relations with him in a mission led by Rumsfeld, and failing to signal a red light to the Kuwait invasion when Hussein queried Ambassador April Glaspie, who responded "We have no opionion on your border dispute. James Baker (then Secretary of State) asks our spokesmen to EMPHASIZE that instruction".

We must now work hard to stabilize the post-war Iraq in whatever form it begins to take (and my fear is that it will take the form of a hard-line Iran-like government), preventing it from falling into civil war (note the massive attacks on Kurd party headquarters today). And we must work to regain our credibility with the world".

David Westbrook writes:

"I think Clyde McMorrow proves too much. Epistemologically, as David Hume pointed out some years back, all inductive arguments about the future rest on assumptions drawn from past experience, famously, that the fact that we saw the sun rise yesterday does not mean it will rise tomorrow. (We need not go into Kant's response.) That said, neither life generally nor military policy stops because it must be carried forth on assumptions. And the "assumptions" of thousands upon thousands of deaths in Kurdistan, Kuwait, Iran/Iraq, the no fly zones, due to the sanctions, due to the police/terror apparatus, the crushing of the Shiite uprising, and so forth are simply not "unsubstantiated." It simply is beyond cavil that due to the wartime mess in Iraq over the last decade plus, an enormous number of people died. It is also beyond cavil that we were deeply involved in that mess. Mass killings -- history -- are always vague in their details, but that does not mean they did not occur. On that basis there was and is yet reason to hope, pace Tim Brown, that a short sharp war would save lives. Maybe this hope will become less plausible -- maybe Iraq will degenerate into chaos and more people will be killed. Even here we won't know whether or not the invasion saved lives, because we'll never know how many more years of Hussein would have remained.

My central point, however, was moral: it is more than a little disingenuous to refer to one's own policies -- e.g., effective division of Iraq into three zones, and sanctions, which result in deaths -- as "assumptions." They are no more "assumptions" than the income tax or the Endangered Species Act, i.e., political commitments which, in the future, might be changed, but which necessarily inform contemporary political discourse. They may be assumptions, but they are assumptions that shape discourse, as postulates. So the policy question is, assuming that we are going to kill people through maintenance of the status quo (Hussein plus sanctions plus containment), or assuming that we are going to walk away from the situation, so that at least we don't kill anybody (Hussein without sanctions or containment), or that we are going to kill people and suffer casualties (invasion), which saves more lives? Arguments can be made for any of the three, and all are to some extent unknowable, but all of the options are violent, and that's what Tim is trying to come to grips with. Clyde's effort to defer or postpone policy is simply not a political possibility, though it remains an intellectual one. For the sake of clarity, let me stress that the hope of a net saving of lives makes the invasion of Iraq more palatable (at least to me), but it hardly ends argument over whether the invasion of Iraq was right. There are lots of places we let people kill each other without invading. Moreover, as I suggested, particularly for those who believe in international law in its traditional formulations, the invasion of Iraq may have been the wrong thing to do even if it resulted in a net saving of lives. Nor do I argue that humanitarian interest motivated any particular decision maker. Those are all different, if highly relevant, questions.

Let me raise a slightly different point/ask a question. The assumption of ongoing deaths in Iraq, and hence a justification for invasion, is not different in kind than the assumption that killing in Sierra Leone, or East Timor, or Cote d'Ivoire would continue, absent an invasion by a major power, an invasion that would itself result in a loss of life. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, invading to establish order has become fairly common. I can't resist noting that the violent suspension of sovereignty in each of these countries has provoked no outcry. This is what I meant by saying that invasion has become a matter of prudence rather than principle.

The real roots of political disagreement over Iraq -- the passion among elites in the Northern Atlantic Democracies -- appear to lie elsewhere, but I have to confess I'm not entirely sure where, although I have thoughts. Much of the controversy surrounding Iraq seems strangely contextless, as if we've forgotten (or haven't been paying attention to?) just how often we (and even the French and the Brits) go to war, and for what reasons, and how much low level violence/military presence goes on all the time. During the Cold War, of course, order was also established violently (hence "Cold War"), and there were lots of hot wars, too, some much bigger than Iraq. Moreover, we put the entire planet in play with nuclear brinksmanship. Oh, and before the Cold War? The U.S. has been in the horrible (if I must admit sometimes necessary) business of international security, of the global projection of force, that is, war, since at least World War One (I won't quibble over 1898 and the Great White Fleet). So, to put the question bluntly: why are so many people so outraged over the invasion of Iraq? Whence the passion for this one?

Coming back to Tim's numbers: if some of my (actually, my students') research on Iraq proves interesting, I'll post more refined numbers, complete with discrepancies, vagaries, and bibliography. But like trying to figure out how many people died "as a result of" the Holocaust or the Russian Revolution, within broad ranges I doubt little hinges on the precision of the historical accounting. For the conduct of political thought, these are just gruesome footnotes".

RH: I suggest we leave this topic for the time beimg.

Adriana de Pena enters the fray about the alleged numbers of deaths Saddam Hussein might have caused:

"There is a simple point about the deaths caused by Saddam Hussein. They were never mentioned as a "casus belli". No, the reason we went to war was: the alleged link between Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and the alleged presence of WMD. The lethality of Hussein was irrelevant to the argument then, as was his lethality at the time when he was our ally against Iran. He killed just as many then, but no one, outside human rights groups, derided by conservatives, who seemed to care.

Well, Hussein is gone, but where are those WMD? Where is the link with bin Laden? Since these cannot be proven, can anyone tell me what, in the name of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what are we doing there while letting Saudi Arabia finance the madrassas? There is a fact to ponder about the madrassas. They are completely private schools, financed by wealthy benefactors and not supported by the State, which has trouble establishing authority over them. They flourish due to the collapse of the public schools, which leave too many children without any schools at all. This is something to ponder for those who advocate privatizing education..."

Clyde McMorrow defends jis criticism of Tim Brown's count of hypothetical deaths in Iraq:

"My point here was that the result of any calculation made on the basis of an assumption is still an assumption. The quality of the result is limited by the quality of the assumption. Tim Brown clearly labeled his 1,000,000 deaths as an assumption. It is possible, I suppose, to refine the assumptions and thus make the mathematical analysis more meaningful. For example, it may be a fact that Hussein killed many people, but I can't attest to that so someone who has first-hand knowledge must supply the body count. Then, the quality of the result of any calculation would be as meaningful to me as the reliability I place in the source of the data.

There is a wide discrepancy in the number of Hussein-related deaths which may reflect different time frames, who is being counted (only children, all Iraqis, Iranians), and the intentions of the reporter. Then there are the sanctions-related deaths. Are they Hussein-related because he refused to abdicate?

It is true that these are difficult and messy problems. But mathematics on difficult and messy data simply yields uncertain and unreliable results. So if there is not time to collect good data one must be prepared to accept vague results. That is the case here. One shouldn't make definitive policy statements based on unsubstantiated assumptions".


Since Bush has been accused of using trumped up reasons forgoing to war with Iraq, his response has been to stress what a horrible person Saddam Hussein was. This involves the alleged number of deaths for which he was responsible. It is like the estimates of the size of a crowd. The figures vary enormously according to the prejudices of the person or group publishing the number.