Hearts, Minds, and Bodies in Iraq

by on November 8th, 2004

If you’re wondering why we don’t seem to be winning the war for the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq, or of the Islamic world in general, a study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health might provide a clue. Actually, 100,000 clues.

As reported in the October 29, 2004, online edition of Britain’s highly respected medical journal, The Lancet, researchers randomly surveyed over 7,800 Iraqis about deaths in their households during the 14 months before and the 18 months after the American invasion. The research involved face-to-face interviews with the families involved, and whenever possible the researchers verified what people told them through death certificates or other documents.

It’s worth noting that the researchers deliberately chose not to count deaths in Falluja in making their estimates, because so many people had been killed there that they would make estimates for the whole country unrealistically high. It’s also worth noting that the study was completed and published before the re-invasion of Falluja that began on Sunday, November 8.

The researchers used their data to make what they consider a conservative estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians who have died since the U.S. invasion, above and beyond normal, expectable deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and chronic illnesses. Their estimate is a striking 100,000. That’s 100,000 civilians, people much like you and me, whose major concern was keeping themselves and their families fed, clothed, and alive.

Most of the extra deaths, 84% in their sample, were violent deaths caused by “actions of the Coalition forces,” and 95% of those violent deaths were due to air or artillery strikes. The majority of the victims were women and children.

Interestingly, the researchers emphasized that these civilian deaths were not due to improper conduct by our troops, but were simply side-effects of normal military operations.

By way of perspective, the population of the United States is 11.6 times that of Iraq. If a catastrophe of some kind had killed 1,160,000 Americans in the last 18 months, or was striking down 65,000 of us every month, we too might not feel good about the perceived cause.

Or, if we think about how radically the 3,000 deaths that we suffered on 9/11 have changed us as individuals and as a nation, it might help us to understand how 100,000 lives cut short may be impacting Iraq.

It should not come as a surprise that war is a pretty blunt instrument for winning hearts and minds, or that 100,000 bodies may not provide the best foundation for a new democracy.

Reference: Mortality before and after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey. Les Roberts et al., The Lancet, October 29, 2004.

Robert Adler


Robert Adler