For a long time, the President and his top officials remained on the page first bookmarked by Centcom Commander Tommy Franks during the early phases of the Afghan War when he said, "We don't do body counts."
On December 12, 2005, however, President Bush was faced with a reporter's question: "Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators."
To the surprise of many, the President responded with an actual number: "How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." When asked for the President's sourcing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded: "[M]edia reports which have cited information that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed."
As it happens, the White House has had something of a predilection for the pleasantly round number of 30,000. In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, in the President's State of the Union Address, he used that very number for Saddam's mythical stock of "munitions capable of delivering chemical agents"; and, post-invasion, for police put back on patrol in the streets of Iraq. In 2005, that number was cited both for "new businesses" started in Iraq and new teachers trained since the fall of Baghdad. In 2006, in the President's "Strategy for Victory," that was the number of square miles Iraqi forces were by then primarily responsible for patrolling.
Last week, the President was challenged again at his news conference because of a study in the respected British medical journal The Lancet that offered up a staggering set of figures on Iraqi deaths. Based on a door-to-door survey of Iraqi households among a countrywide cohort of almost 13,000 people, the rigorous study estimated that perhaps 655,000 "excess deaths" had occurred since the invasion, mainly due to violence. (Its lowest estimate of excess deaths came in just under 400,000; its highest above 900,000, a figure no one in the U.S. cared to deal with at all.)
When asked if, given the Lancet study, he stood by the number 30,000 Iraqi deaths, the President responded, "You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life--600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just--it's not credible." The reporter's response: "Thank you, Mr. President," and all and sundry turned to other matters.
And yet, such a statement is little short of the darkest of jokes. By last December, 30,000 was already a ludicrously low-ball figure for the Iraqi dead of the war, occupation, insurgency, and incipient civil war. Early on, in a study completely ignored in the U.S. press, a group of Iraqi academics and political activists tried to research the question of civilian casualties, consulting with hospitals, gravediggers, and morgues, and came up with the figure of 37,000 deaths just between March 2003 and October 2003. The cautious website Iraq Body Count, which now offers death statistics ranging from a low of 44,661 to a high of 49,610, was at that time in the 27,000 to 30,000+ range, but that was only for "media-reported" civilian deaths, not all Iraqi deaths, which, as the U.S. military surely knew, were far higher. An October 2004 Lancet study had estimated over 100,000 excess deaths.
Between December 12, 2005 and his news conference last week, even the President has admitted that Iraq has been going through an exceedingly violent period. We know that in just July and August, according to a UN report based on counts from the Baghdad central morgue and various hospitals, 5,106 Iraqis died, almost totally by violent means, often on the killing grounds of the 23 or more militias US officials have counted in the capital. For the rest of Iraq add another 1,493 dead souls (while noting that the July count lacks a single death from al-Anbar province, the very heartland of the Sunni insurgency). All over the country, it's evident that bodies go unreported. As the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer recently pointed out, "Bodies are increasingly being dumped in and around Baghdad in fields staked out by individual Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups. Iraqi security forces often refuse to go to the dumping grounds, leaving the precise number of bodies in those sites unknown."
So, for the President to "stand by" his almost year-old figure in the casualty wars--especially after this particular almost-year--while claiming that The Lancet study's figures weren't "credible," is, on the face of it, absurd. It's hardly less absurd that nothing significant was made of this in the media--that George W. Bush was not called on the carpet for a figure that, even based on his own previous testimony, is close to criminally negligent.
For more on this, go to the latest dispatch at my website, Tomdispatch.com.