Two years ago, the Lancet published a study from Johns Hopkins University – the foremost medical university in the world and also the largest recipient of US military academic research funding – suggesting that 100,000 people had died as a result of the Iraq war, from direct violence and disrupted everyday life and a ruined health care system.

Extrapolating that, most of us were working on the basis that the death toll is now around 300,000.

How wrong we were. Today’s reports of the updated study – multiply refereed – suggests the death toll is 655,000, and that is a median. That could mean that the US misadventure in Iraq is “responsible for setting off the killing of twice as many civilians as Saddam managed to polish off in 25 years”, notes commentator Juan Cole.

It could be lower than 655,000, down to about half a million, but it could be around 800,000. Whatever the case, it’s much greater than the figures put out by President Bush or Iraqi Body Count. Why is this? The discrepancy “lies in the way the number is sought”, writes Lancet editor Richard Horton in an explanation of how they arrived at the figure. “Passive surveillance, the most common method used to estimate numbers of civilian deaths, will always underestimate the total number of casualties.”

It doesn’t account for destroyed hospitals, dirty water, no electricity – such conditions finish off the old and the young. You can’t send an Amnesty postcard to them – they just die, the latter without even names.

The Right have never really cared about actual Iraqis, but I wonder if anyone from the dwindling band of the “left” war party will even care about this? They will reject the methodology (household surveys) – even those who have written on those issues, say unemployment, which use the same methods – and they may even take it as a sign to be more forthright. In The Wall Street Journal Christopher Hitchens suggests “we” will have to be “even more ruthless”, while The Australian’s op-ed Maoists Kerry and Albert Langer have shown the same willingness to hand over their brains to Dubya, as they did for the great helmsman (the other Oz op-ed (ex)-Maoist Barry York has gone very very quiet).

In the UK, warriors such as Norm Geras of “Normblog” fame spend most of their time talking about anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism – anything but the disaster they helped make. But Nick Cohen did it the best, arguing in the Observer (23/7) that the worst result of the failure in Iraq was that it served to cast doubt on the righteousness of intervention. Pamela Bone, in yesterday’s Australian, thinks the most tragic casualty of the Iraq war is idealism – which is about as pure an expression of Western narcissism as you’re likely to find.

And the penultimate stage really – when you blame reality for falling short of your fantasy.

The final stage? “Exterminate the brutes!”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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