Shortly before the war in Iraq started, a small outfit named Iraq Body Count (IBC) coalesced in the ether of cyberspace with a singular goal: to tabulate the civilian deaths resulting from a U.S. invasion. The group predicted famines and plagues, citing U.N. surveys that said there would be “starvation and homelessness for millions,” and at least “two million refugees.” Within weeks IBC web counters, replete with the image of bombs dropping from a plane, peppered left-wing websites and noted the escalating civilian casualties, updated as soon as the now-massive IBC database was.
Two years later, those same counters are still omnipresent on the web, and they’ve just pushed past the 25,000 mark. But it’s a recently released IBC report parsing thousands of clips that’s getting all the mainstream media attention. Even though IBC is as partisan as they come, the media took the bait — hook, line, and sinker. And in the rush to publish the blaring headers of the report — U.S. forces killed four times as many civilians as “anti-occupation forces”! — hardly anyone examined the underlying data.
But they should. The report itself is premised on two years worth of newspaper and web data — well, “data” in a loose sense. IBC rests its laurels on numbers generated from newspaper reports of deaths and newspaper reports of mortuary and hospital logs. The methodology is flawed from the get-go, and though the citations are noted, there are no links to the articles. (That’s not exactly true; there are a couple links to particularly gory stories, like one with the headline, “I saw the heads of my two little girls come off.”) The lack of transparency, however, is only a small flaw in an ocean of methodological errors. Deaths only have to be verified by two of their accepted sources — which include (the non-fair and balanced) CommonDreams.org, Al Jazeera, and ReliefWeb — and often the second source is just a reprint of the first. A death count only has to be mentioned in passing in the article, like a doctor or bystander who gives a reporter casualty estimates.
IBC’s counters also give themselves wriggle room, by displaying a minimum and maximum body toll to account for situations where numbers may not be clear. These generally come from ambiguous interpretations of words like “probable” or “most”: For example, if a doctor says 50 people were killed in an air raid, and “most” were civilians, IBC will add 26 to its minimum, and 49 to its maximum. In other cases, they’ll invent percentages and play the same trick, by defining words as they see fit. Constant fiddling with numbers to generate minimums and maximums, and long-winded explanations of how this is done, provide the pseudo-scientific cover IBC relies on for its high-profile publicity.
Flaws like these are endemic, but specific machinations prove far more egregious. For the sake of a closer examination, the casualties can be divided into three roughly equal groups: deaths taken from mortuary records (the most outlandish), invasion-phase casualties, and then the rest.
Alston B. Ramsay on Iraq Body Count on National Review Online