Monday, October 25, 2010

Leaked War Logs Shed Limited Light on Iraqi Death Toll

With the publication of the substantial Iraq war logs by WikiLeaks last week, there was understandable optimism that this would provide a definitive insight into the conduct of the war and its impact on the population of Iraq. [WikiLeaks] Undoubtedly, the logs provide unprecedented access to military records of a conflict and their analysis by the Guardian has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the war. [The War Logs]

The data is being used by a number of organisations.  For example, the Iraq Body Count project is a media reporting based method that has documented deaths in the Iraq war from its inception.[IBC]  Whilst they a use a method that is widely assumed by epidemiologists to result in the substantial under-reporting of casualties, they have estimated that the war logs will allow them to record an additional 15,000 deaths on their database. [CIF]

The War Logs are indeed detailed and highly important.  However, they can not comprise a definitive record of the human impact of the war and attempts to use them to generate a definitive number of civilian casualties are misplaced. [BBC] Their inappropriateness for this purpose arises for several reasons:
  • The logs represent records from the US military only. Files from UK and other coalition forces are not represented.  This will exclude, for example, the numerous killings undertaken by British special forces.
  • The records only document reports lodged by low and mid-ranking uniformed US military personal . Deaths resulting from CIA, US special forces operations and covert operations are therefore largely excluded.
  • Activities of the numerous mercenaries employed by private security companies are not usually documented. So, for example, the killing of civilians and combatants by Blackwater, Aegis, and other companies are likely to be heavily under represented.
  • Even when considering the completeness of the reporting by the uniformed US military there are substantial gaps in reporting.  For example, casualties resulting from the two large scale assaults on Fallujah by US forces in 2004. In an interview on Al Jassera on Sunday Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks said that he thought only about 50% of incidents were reported in the war logs.
  • The result of conflict between different Iraqi groups is likely to be heavily under reported in the war logs. 
  • The low ratio of injured to killed implies a persistent under-reporting of those wounded in the violence.
The overall story that is told by the war logs may be deeply shocking to some of the supporters of the invasion in the west, but has been reported as being nothing new to most Iraqis. [AFP] The political consequences of the data release are still unfolding in Iraq and elsewhere.

Even in the UK, the war logs have led to a call from within the coalition government for investigation of the various documented war crimes committed by British forces and their connivance in torture.

Whilst the war logs cannot come close to painting a complete picture of the human cost of the Iraq invasion, they just might contribute to a permanent change in the more general perception of war and require proponents to more carefully justify its initiation.

Note added: A powerful Channel 4 Dispatches Documentary has explored the contents of the War Logs. 'Iraq's Secret War Files' can be watched here.