Counting Iraqi Casualties

In times of war, accurate figures on the civilian death toll are almost always hard to come by. With few exceptions, demographers and epidemiologists have not applied their expertise to making rigorous, credible estimates of civilian mortality and morbidity. Sometimes, a lack of professional freedom prevents those who may be most familiar with the data – for example, analysts whose livelihoods depend on the government(s) involved in the conflict – from using their expertise for purposes that could be politically damaging.

But there are other challenges as well. Isolating the conflict’s impact from that of other interventions (e.g., economic sanctions) may be impossible. Moreover, the high-quality population data needed for credible estimates may not be available due to their “sensitive nature,” or because they never have been collected (sometimes the case in developing nations), or because refugee movements have made data obsolete. As a result, the degree of uncertainty in such estimates may be unacceptably high, making them of little real worth.

Consider the different approaches that have been used to examine the Iraq war. The Iraq Body Count aims to tally only deaths from violence during the current war by creating a data set based on media reports. If there is no double counting, and if the incidents included in the data were reported correctly, their tally represents a minimum number, because media reports may not be comprehensive.

Another approach estimates the total change in mortality that the war caused (including deaths due to the war’s direct and indirect effects) by calculating the change in the death rate from the pre-war period. This requires data upon which to base the rise in mortality, usually derived by conducting a household survey on a random sample of the population. Typically, interviewers ask the head of the household to disclose the number and demographic characteristics of pre-war household members, whether any of the people in the pre-war household had died between the pre-war period and the time of the survey, and the date of any household member’s death.