What Does Lowballing the Number of Dead Iraqi Civilians Tell Us About Ourselves?

As the executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, in 2006 John Tirman commissioned Johns Hopkins scientists to conduct a study to determine how many civilians had been killed in the Iraq War up to that point. (He’s also the author of the just-released book “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.”)

As you may recall, even though the scientists utilized state-of-the-art epidemiological practices, the figure of 650,000 that they came up with was subject to derision in many quarters. On July 20, at AlterNet, John Tirman writes:

I’ve puzzled over this habit of reaching for the lowest possible estimates of the number of Iraqis who died unnecessarily since March 2003. The habit is now deeply entrenched. Over a period of about two weeks in May, I encountered in major news media three separate references to the number of people who had died in the Iraq war. Anderson Cooper, on his CNN show, Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times Magazine and Brian MacQuarrie in the Boston Globe all pegged the number in the tens of thousands, sometimes adding “at least.” . . . The “tens of thousands” mantra is peculiar because even the most conservative calculation—that provided by Iraq Body Count, a British NGO—is now more than 100,000.

Tirman provides reasons why officials and the media prefer to cite figures so low that, far from being moderate as they no doubt believe, in fact beggar credulity to anyone who followed the Iraq War. One reason:

Make the rounds of right-wing blogs and think tanks and you’ll find a constant refrain: the war, despite its many difficulties, was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein. As Richard Miniter of the Hudson Institute put it last September, “The death tolls in the Saddam years were far higher than in the years following liberation; hundreds of thousands disappeared into mass graves.”

But that does not, Tirman writes, “explain why the elite media bury the mortality issue. A half-dozen reasons explain their indifference to accurate reporting.”

First, many of these news outlets had endorsed the war. … acknowledging that you’ve been hoodwinked by the Bush administration and then seeing that error magnified by … perhaps a million dead is a hard pill to swallow.

Second, the Bush White House worked overtime to decry any of the high estimates, and the Murdoch media machine. … trashed [the Hopkins study in the Wall Street Journal as] a “political hit.”

Now here are the two reasons that hint at my reasons why officials and the media lowball the number of dead civilians in Iraq.

Journalism in the Iraq war tended to focus on the Bush administration’s foibles and the chaotic political wrangling in Baghdad. The attention to civilians and the violence of the war quickly fell into a few reliable tropes: the Shia-Sunni fratricide, spectacular car bombs rather than the quotidian reality of violence. …While Iraqis were reporting … that 80 percent of the violence was due to the U.S. military … this perspective rarely found its way into major news media in the United States.

Then, of course, there’s “the troubling matter of racism.” I personally suspect that much of the American public felt, in retrospect that, no, we should never have invaded Iraq. But at least we gave them their freedom from tyranny. What did they do with it? Those savages butchered each other. Our utter contempt for Iraqis made it easy to wash our hands of violence to civilians. (Though, if you follow that reasoning, we shouldn’t have any problem with the numbers. The higher the number of dead, the more proof of what a sorry lot those Iraqis were.)

Finally, though, many officials and those in the media may have treated the subject of hundreds of thousands (many believe millions today) Iraqi civilians dead as a conspiracy theory. God knows how far, on government cover-ups of that immensity, that bunch runs to distance themselves from anything but the official version of the truth. For instance, even when just asked – alternative narratives aside – to simply inspect 9/11 evidence that undermines the official story, they refuse to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

To most officials and those in the media, not to mention the public itself, their perceived credibility rating is second only to their credit rating. They feel that they can’t afford for it to be devalued not only because of their careers, but to avoid shunning by the group.