The body count is a feature of modern war, born of the inconclusive fin de siècle insurgencies of the Philippines and South Africa. Then, and to an extent now, in Iraq and Afghanistan, inability to achieve warfare's traditional goals, like territory taken or field armies defeated, required governments to create a metric to show that troops weren't spinning their wheels. As we learned at Robert McNamara U, the bigger the bag, as they say in hunting, the better.
But modern warfare also brings concern for, or at least lip service to, the fate of noncombatants, civilians hurt through privation, collateral damage or atrocity. Here, if there is a bag, no side wants to be the one left holding it.
Beyond the obvious concern in states where citizens are actually dying, the fate of innocents killed in warfare can have a powerful effect elsewhere, particularly in countries with free or free-ish media — as the United States and its NATO allies can attest in regard to the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Oddly enough, while it's the individual mangled bodies on this morning's news that drive public opinion, it's the actual body count that often drives policy. As a result, these counts — of civilians and soldiers alike — are often suspect and determined more by political considerations than actual corpses.
Michael Spagat, an economist at the University of London's Royal Holloway College, has observed firsthand the sausage-making involved in estimating death tallies in war zones. Collating "conflict data" from places like Colombia and Iraq, he was stung by claims that carefully gathered information undercounted the toll; his response was to take a proprietary and professional interest in determining how solid his — and others' — figures were.
Beyond the Grave
Here are more Miller-McCune stories about the politicization of death counts:
What Really Happened in Rwanda?
Researchers say the accepted story of the mass killings of 1994 is incomplete, and the full truth — inconvenient as it may be to the Rwandan government — needs to come out.
Sirens and Bells and City-Busting Past
The politics of remembering Allied bombing raids in Dresden pokes at the sensitive spots in Germany's democracy.
Counting the Dead Freighted with Controversy
Body counts matter whether it comes to generating headlines or political activity, so efforts to gain usable numbers are a matter of some concern.
Reducing Collateral Damage Through Wiser Weapon Choice
A look at data from Iraq Body Count finds that some weapons leave a disproportionate share of civilians dead in their wake.
A particular focus of Spagat's research was a high-profile 2006 study, headed by Johns Hopkins University's Gilbert Burnham*, in the British journal The Lancet. Its topline finding — that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had killed 655,000 people — sent shockwaves all the way to the White House. But as Spagat and his co-authors have argued in five papers published since, the Lancet numbers were a result of bad methodology, poor ethics and possible fabrications. They were just plain too high, perhaps by a factor of four.
As someone who works alongside the organization Iraq Body Count, Spagat is unlikely to be mistaken as a cheerleader for the Iraq War. But the bad body-count numbers bother him, as does the unwillingness of many of his peers to speak out against them, even as they privately acknowledge the Lancet study's flaws. "The main [reason] seems to be is that they are afraid that straight talk about the failure of this particular study will discredit their conflict survey methodology more generally," he suggests. "So they would rather hide the problem."
It's a head-in-the-sand approach that, Spagat says, reminds him of the mindset preceding the U.S. housing bubble, the Greek debt crisis and even the Roman Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal, all of which created their own counting challenges and saw the death of trust as collateral damage. (This is the also the premise of a promising new book, Sex, Drugs, And Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, edited by Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill.) "Other motives for failing to speak out seem even less justifiable," he says. "These include things like being friends or former students of the authors, cowardice and tribalism. In the end, the general public loses because people learn that they can't trust experts to tell them the truth."
That journalists and academic editors don't correct the record also mucks with history. And the dead from years past do influence decisions made today.
"Myths nurse grievances," Spagat says, citing an observation by Mirsad Tokaca of the Research and Documentation Center of Sarajevo: "Manipulations with numbers not based on facts or empirical research appeared as the additional element for incitement of political atmosphere and deepening of misunderstandings instead of rational dialogue."
"In other words," Spagat says, "people use these false figures to fan hatreds."
So far, Spagat's push for better body counts hasn't guaranteed less hatred or better policy outcomes. His academic colleagues have greeted his probes into the Lancet study with everything from strong support to considerable hostility. And the wider world? "Reaction from the general public is mixed," Spagat says, "and, so far as I can tell, mostly depends on what people want to believe in the first place."
* The article originally named the incorrect author for the Lancet paper.