War Stories

How Many Dead Iraqis?

Guessing about collateral damage.

How many Iraqi civilians will die in Gulf War II? It’s one of the most disturbing questions going into this battle—the question that fills doves with passion and hawks with doubt—so a few activists and analysts have tried to develop an answer. The most widely circulated one comes from a confidential report by a U.N. humanitarian-aid specialist, which was leaked to a group in Cambridge, which in turn published it on the Internet. This report estimates that civilian casualties could total 500,000. Another much-cited public study, by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, cites a figure of up to 100,000. If these calculations were even close to plausible, they would certainly strain many of the rationales for going to war, especially those that involve the liberation and welfare of the Iraqi people.

So, it’s worth asking: How were these numbers computed? On what assumptions—especially about U.S. strategy, tactics, weapons, and targets—are they based? There’s an old phrase among those who work with computer models: “GIGO,” for Garbage In/Garbage Out. Feed a computer silly assumptions; it spits out ridiculous numbers. Not to paint a rosy picture on the devastation wrought by any war, especially this one, which is likely to be fought partly in densely populated cities, but these numbers are textbook cases of GIGO. They’re not so much wrong as they are completely useless.

The U.N. study, which was written last December (the author has not been revealed, though the document’s authenticity has been confirmed), makes the following assumptions about the course of the war:

  • That U.S. and allied bombing will severely damage Iraq’s electrical power plants, generators, and distribution networks, which will have a grave effect on the country’s electrified water and sanitation systems;
  • That the port of Umm Qasr will be disabled, thus blocking imports of vital supplies;
  • That the country’s railroad tracks, bridges, and key roads will be destroyed, disrupting internal travel, trade, and post-war aid.

The International Physicians’ report makes the same assumption: “The destruction of roads, railways, houses, hospitals, factories, and sewage plants will create conditions in which the environment is degraded and disease flourishes.” These structures and networks were key targets in the 1991 Gulf War; they were bombarded heavily and repeatedly. As a result, according to several independent estimates, about 3,500 Iraqi civilians were killed during the war, and another 110,000 died from the after-effects on the country’s health and sanitation system. In a similar vein, the leaked U.N. study calculates that 100,000 civilians will die during the coming war, plus 400,000 after the war.

Here’s the fallacy, though: In this war, the United States has no intention of attacking power plants, railways, or bridges—or not many, anyway. Several news stories (for example, click here) have said as much, but logic makes the same point.

First, this time around, the U.S. leadership seems genuinely interested in rebuilding Iraq after the war. It makes no sense, therefore, to bomb these kinds of targets, the repair of which would only make an already-difficult job even more costly and time consuming.

Second, and more pertinent, the basic aims of this war are very different from Operation Desert Storm. In 1991, the goal was to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and make sure they couldn’t reinvade afterward. Bridges, railways, and roads were bombarded in order to cut off those troops—in Kuwait and in southern Iraq—from command channels and supply lines. Electrical power plants were destroyed in order to “blind” Iraq’s politico-military machine. This was necessary to keep Saddam’s intelligence officers from detecting the vast movement of U.S. troops and armor just across the border. This movement, which had to remain covert to be effective, allowed the United States to sweep up and around the dug-in Iraqi soldiers, surrounding them from the rear and the flank and thus attacking them from all sides, once the ground war started.

The destruction wreaked by this bombing was horrendous, especially since Bush I bugged out right after a cease-fire was reached, helping neither to rebuild the country nor to overthrow Saddam. The point here, though, is that power plants, bridges, and so forth were considered military targets in 1991; they are not—or at least not remotely to the same extent—in 2003. If these sorts of facilitiesare not bombed much in the coming war, then the assumptions in the U.N. and International Physicians’ report are completely off-base, as are the casualty estimates that go with them.

A closer look at those reports’ numbers reveals a great deal of looseness, even if their assumptions were pertinent. The U.N. report does not lay out the range of estimates—a failing that, given the range of uncertainties in any war, makes the calculations inherently suspect. (How 100,000 civilians are supposed to die in the course of the war, from the bombing alone, is not explained.) However, the International Physicians’ report does lay out a range. In Baghdad, it states, civilian deaths caused directly by the war will total between 2,000 and 50,000; wounded will reach 6,000 to 200,000. In Basra, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Mosul, civilian deaths will be between 1,200 and 35,000; wounded, between 3,600 and 120,000.

But these aren’t estimates; they’re dartboards. A footnote in the report cites a source for these numbers, and it turns out to be an article by Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon that appeared in Slate last September. O’Hanlon wrote, “Iraqi troop losses might be expected to be anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000, with civilian casualties in the same relative range,” adding, “Even as broad a range as this is based on certain assumptions.” O’Hanlon was making the point that it’s nearly impossible to predict how many civilians will die; it’s based on too many factors that are themselves impossible to predict. The International Physicians, it appears, took O’Hanlon’s hand-waving gesture of the task’s futility as a precise piece of science.

The physicians go on to state that this war will “be much more intense and destructive than in 1991” because of the “new, more deadly weapons” that the United States has “developed in the interim.” This makes little sense. To the extent the new U.S. weapons are deadlier, it is because they are far more accurate than those used in ‘91 and are, therefore, at least theoretically, likely to cause less “collateral damage.” There has also been much talk of “directed-energy weapons,” which can destroy electronic circuits by zapping them with microwaves. (Think of them as the opposite of “neutron bombs,” in that they can destroy property without killing people.)

It is true that heightened precision can have a lulling effect on commanders. In the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, U.S. “smart bombs” had grown so accurate that the commanders dared to drop them on urban targets—particular buildings, specific street corners—that would have been impossible to hit so precisely, and therefore would have been avoided, in earlier “limited wars.” However, some bombs did go astray, as some inevitably do; some targets were imperfectly identified (for example, as a military facility as opposed to what it really was—the Chinese Embassy); and, as a result, a few mistakes led to over 1,000 civilian deaths.

There is no way to estimate ahead of time—even within several orders of magnitude—how many civilians, or for that matter how many combatants, will die in this war or in any war. Beth Osborne Daponte is a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon and a former government demographer who got hounded out of her job by the Bush I administration for attempting to do a post-’91 estimate of Iraq’s civilian casualties. She is ignoring all inquiries about how many might die in this next war. As she put it to me, “Multiply an unknown by an unknown, and you get an unknown.”

However, there are lessons to be learned from the ‘91 war. The vast majority of the deaths came after the war, as a result of the destruction of the country’s infrastructure and electrical network. The best way to minimize casualties is to minimize targeting that network. Bush officials insist they are planning to do just that. If the war comes, they should be held to that standard.