The harvest of war: from pain to gain

A number of initiatives around the world, for example in Bosnia and Guatemala, seeks to record the details of every victim of violent conflict. The new revelations of civilian deaths in Iraq could advance a project whose wider ambition is to change warfare itself.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 October 2010

The Iraq war has returned to public and media attention with the release on 22 October 2010 of another huge tranche of classified military communications by the WikiLeaks project. The documentary record of United States operations during the war - the Iraq War Logs - includes information about the coalition’s involvement in the torture and killing of Iraqi prisoners.

The most notorious case revealed in the voluminous new material (392,000 items) concerns the United States forces’ collaboration with an Iraqi military unit operating out of the country’s restored interior ministry - the 2nd commando battalion, or “wolf brigade”. Such examples, and there are many others, provide further evidence to counter the sole remaining justification for launching the war on Iraq that continues to have any plausibility: the replacement of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime by a thriving democracy that respects human rights.

Alongside the understandable focus on particular incidents of abuse, the documents reveal details of the killing of thousands of civilians - many more than had previously been recorded. This is of great importance in contributing to an accurate assessment of the human cost of the war, a vital and sometimes controversial issue (see Michel Thieren, "Deaths in Iraq: how many, and why it matters" [18 October 2006] and "Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game, revisited" [11 January 2008]).

Iraq Body Count (IBC) is a project that from the start of the Iraq war in March 2003 has used a wide range of publicly available data to record as accurately as possible both the number of civilian deaths and the circumstances of each one. This small group with its network of dedicated volunteers had compiled meticulous records of 107,000 deaths. Now, IBC has completed an initial update in light of the material circulated by WikiLeaks, which records 15,000 civilian deaths not previously registered - thus raising the total to 122,000. More IBC analysis of the WikiLeaks logs may well confirm even more examples.

The work of IBC is a keen reminder of the legal, ethical and political issues that lie at the heart of the Iraq war (and by extension all wars). By its singular focus on a particular task - recording every civilian victim - it highlights the fact that the coalition forces which invaded Iraq failed in their legal responsiblity to maintain security in an occupied territory.

The trigger of death

The political context of the immediate post-invasion period in Iraq is important in shaping a casualty-count that was soon to rise so sharply. In particular, the George W Bush administration in Washington anticipated and had planned for an easy victory which would soon morph into a rapid transition to a pro-western Iraq.

This historic misjudgment was vital in creating the scene for much of the violence that followed. A majority of deaths in Iraq may have stemmed from insurgent action, though it is clear that coalition attacks also killed many thousands of civilians. It is often very hard to explain the latter even where information is available about the circumstances. Several columns in this series sought to highlight this point from the war’s very early stages, via (for example) rare reports by embedded journalists who witnessed civilian deaths.

In an example from 4 April 2003, in the midst of the confused American entry into Baghdad, an Associated Press reporter saw a US marines unit killing a confused old man who would not stop when ordered; soon afterwards the same unit fired on a taxi (see "Aftermath: Afghan lessons, Iraqi futures", 10 April 2003). A year later, Pamela Constable of the Washington Post described a punitive air-strike on the city of Fallujah that followed an attack on a marines unit; this destroyed several blocks with unrecorded effects on the civilians living there (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 21 April 2004).

If individual actions cannot always be easily explained, reasons for the overall high casualty-levels are often clear. The Iraqi insurgency was, for one thing, almost entirely unexpected by the invaders (who instead anticipated “flowers and cheering crowds”). By the first ten days of the war it had become apparent that around 30% of all United States combat-troops in Iraq were engaged in protecting supply-lines (see "After failure: US strategy in Iraq", 30 March 2003).

This in turn meant that US troops began to take severe hits, which often led to deaths but even more to grave injuries. The high survival-rate was largely owed to the improvements in battlefield medicine and body-armour over previous years, though many soldiers still endured appalling face, throat and groin injuries and loss of limbs. The inevitable effect was to produce deep frustration and anger among their comrades, leading them to have ready recourse to their overwhelming firepower advantage (see The Iraq War in Context, Oxford Research Group briefing, October 2010).

The work of record

This focus on individual experiences and cases is a dark but also timely reminder of the work of those initiatives that argue for open and transparent recording of casualties in armed conflicts as they happen (see John Sloboda, “The human cost of war: name before shame”, 29 July 2009).

A pioneer of this approach is the Recording Casualties in Armed Conflict (RCAC) group, part of the Oxford Research Group think-tank. The RCAC also belongs to  a practitioner network of over twenty organisations across four continents, all dedicated to refining and raising the profile of this field of work.

The long-term aim of the RCAC's human-security project is “to build the technical and institutional capacity, as well as the political will, to record details of every single victim of violent conflict, worldwide.” 

It is a huge task. But if it can be advanced, it raises the possibility that combatants in war can no longer ignore responsibility for their actions, help survivors come to terms with their experiences, and providing a rich resource to the wider society to understand what happened and prevent any reoccurrence.

A number of existing initiatives has already undertaken major work in the field. Iraq Body Count’s work in Afghanistan and Iraq is a prime example. A comparable project in Guatemala - the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) - seeks to record all those who died in the almost decades of violence that tore the country under military rule, much of it inflicting terrible suffering on the country’s indigenous Maya population. A remarkable survey is being conducted by the Research and Documentation Centre of Sarajevo, whose international team has compiled over 240,000 pieces of data to establish details of all all those killed or missing in the Bosnian war of 1992-95; its product, The Bosnian Book of the Dead (2007), lists over 97,000 names.

The much wider aim of all this work is to produce a global change in attitudes, ideas, behaviour and culture in relation to deaths in war and conflict. It will not be easy, though it is worth recalling the great progress in some areas of demilitarisation that has been made in recent years.

The ban on anti-personnel landmines in 1997, for example, was the result of intensive activism and lobbying, aided by a couple of very active governments. It took many years but ultimately was successful. Perhaps even more important, this work has extended to an evolving international ban on cluster-munitions; an agreement, signed in Dublin in 2009, was achieved much more rapidly than most expected (see John Borrie, Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions was Won, UN Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, 2009).

The Recording Casualties in Armed Conflict group, and those associated with it, are determined to make their rigorous and humane research the means for a transformation in the approach to the casualties of war. If they succeed, the quiet long-term work of Iraq Body Count - and the more showy revelations from WikiLeaks, filtered through the editorial work of leading international newspapers such as Der Spiegel - may turn out to have played an important role (see "The AfPak war via WikiLeaks", 29 July 2010). If the parties to war can be made to accept responsibility for who they have killed in each individual instance, the impact on warfare could be fundamental.

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