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The human cost of war: name before shame

John Sloboda
29 July 2009


A detailed recording of the precise details of the casualties inflicted by modern wars is becoming an important part of the work of humanitarian groups across the world. Martin Shaw argues rightly that in order to identify the extent of the culpability of the United States and its coalition allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, researchers need to be obtain and more closely examine a broad range of measures of the effects of conflict on the civilian population, including accurate death-tolls (see "Afghanistan and Iraq: western wars, genocidal risks", 24 July 2009). In fact, the need to gather and publish better conflict-data is not confined to these two countries, and is not simply relevant to the task of "apportioning responsibility", important as that is.

John Sloboda is executive director of the Oxford Research Group, where he directs the Recording Casualties in Armed Conflict programme and chairs its international advisory group. He is a co-founder of the Iraq Body Count project. He is also emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Keele, and an honorary professor in the school of politics and international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Also by John Sloboda in openDemocracy:

"The 'Blair doctrine' and after: five years of humanitarian intervention" (22 April 2004) - with Chris Abbot

"Saving the planet and ourselves: the way to global security (12 June 2006)

"Tony Blair and Iraq: blithe ignorance" (10 July 2006)

"Sparing Saddam: beyond victor's justice" (14 November 2006)There are few contemporary conflicts for which a definitive death-toll is available, far less a comprehensive account of all the social, psychological, and structural effects of the conflict. Yet the "need to know" is keenly felt within any society that has had catastrophic loss - by relatives, by local communities, and by the society at large. For example, establishing the exact death-toll at "ground zero" in New York after the attacks of 11 September 2001 was about far more than deciding how culpable the bombers were: it was about honouring and humanising the dead, coming to terms with loss, and constructing a lasting memorial. In working meticulously towards establishing these kind of truths, investigators spoke of a "communal desire for a number whose exactness might bring some comprehension to the incomprehensible" (see Dan Barry, "A New Account of Sept. 11 Loss, With 40 Fewer Souls to Mourn", New York Times, 29 October 2003).

No US citizen would have been satisfied with a broad or even a relatively narrow "estimate"  of the 9/11 death-toll, or with contestable figures. They rightly demanded, and obtained, a firm and verifiable number. And the way that number was arrived at was by detailed, evidence-based inquiry, at the level of the individual victim. The 9/11 memorial is an annotated list of named victims (containing, where available, photographs and brief biographical details, as well as tributes from family and friends). The death-total (approaching 3,000) is no statistical "best-guess" but an almost incidental by-product of adding up the individual records.

Lifting the fog

It is true that establishing the 9/11 death-toll, even on this detailed basis, still falls short of providing a full accounting for the effects of that day's events. But it is surely the leading fact we need to know, in this or any other conflict event. However terrible the suffering of the living, there is still some possibility for recovery and restitution. There is no bringing back of the dead. Yet the organised and deliberate mass killing of human beings defines the "scourge of war", in the memorable phrase of those who drafted the United Nations's universal declaration of human rights (UDHR). From a victim-centric perspective, every person killed in war deserves naming and remembering - whoever is responsible, and whatsoever justifications may be adduced by the parties involved.

Herein lies a possible key to resolving the toxic "politics of numbers" that has infected the Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts (see "The Need to Acquire Accurate Casualty Records in NATO Operations", Oxford Research Group, May 2009). If all parties putting numerical totals into the public domain backed up their claims by publishing the individual-level data from which their totals derived, then there would be some real possibility of moving forwards.

Names, places, dates - collected and published using locally verifiable transparent methods - these are the means to settling disputes over differences in numbers. These are also the vital data desperately sought by families and communities. Grieving families are not going to be satisfied with an anonymous number that may (or may not) include their loved ones. They want to see that their lost husband or son is named in the list, and the circumstances of his death (date and place at least) accurately recorded. Families whose loved ones are missing have even more reason to hope that investigators are interested in the individual, not just the number.

For these reasons, an initiative has recently begun to take hold - the Recording Casualties of Armed Conflict programme, under the auspices of the Oxford Research Group - that brings together organisations and individuals around the world who are working to document the victims of conflict down to the level of named individuals . This is a practical prospect, whose realisation has been made hugely more feasible by advances in communication and information technology over the past decade, and which continues to spread in ever-more accessible forms. Data can be recorded and transmitted from conflict-zones by cellular networks, and can be stored and displayed via the web. Citizens can upload, corroborate, and correct information. These data can be continually updated, refined, and improved, moving gradually but inexorably from the fog of war to unprecedented clarity over its effects.

Humanity's desert

At the Oxford Research Group, we have already identified several dozen organisations worldwide that are systematically collecting death-data from conflicts. This work is often undertaken in the most difficult circumstances, with few resources and under grave threat from armed antagonists. Even so, new projects are springing up all the time. 

Their work is a contribution to the effort to make enlightened states realise that they cannot suppress and control such information, and it is ultimately not in their interests to do so. Those who lose relatives to conflict will never forget. Their need to have their losses recognised and acknowledged passes down the generations; it can haunt the body politic even long after the conflict concerned (the sixty-year campaign of the Poles to determine the victim- list of the Katyn massacres of 1940 is but one example).

States should now accept that all death information is public information, no matter who the victim was or how they died. The public will has long expressed itself in memorials to the dead of war, as fragmentary as those expressions have had to be in the past. Now we have the means to go far beyond past efforts, and to aspire to leave no war death unrecorded. The means and the public will are there. It is time to begin in earnest.

Also in openDemocracy on atrocity and the "politics of numbers" in war:

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (6 July 2005)

Jean Seaton, "The numbers game: death, media, and the public" (6 October 2005)

Michel Thieren, "Deaths in Iraq: how many, and why it matters" (18 October 2006)

Michel Thieren, "Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game, revisited" (11 January 2008)

Martin Shaw, "My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (17 March 2008)

Martin Shaw, "Afghanistan and Iraq: western wars, genocidal risks" (24 July 2009)

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