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.)