Counting the Casualties of War

Thousands of previously unrecognized civilian casualties of the war in Iraq were documented in a collection of classified U.S. military records that were published online October 22 by the Wikileaks organization.

The unauthorized release of the records was presented with Wikileaks’ usual understatement and precision.  The newly disclosed records are said to be “the first real glimpse into the secret history of the [Iraq] war,” as if there had been no declassification, no previous unauthorized disclosures of classified information, and no prior reporting on the subject in the last seven years.

But setting aside the hyperbole, it seems clear that the documents significantly enrich the public record on the Iraq war, as reported over the weekend by the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Al Jazeera, and others.

Among other things, they cast new light on the scale of civilian casualties in the Iraq war, and they document the horrific details of many particular lethal incidents.  This kind of material properly belongs in the public domain, as a last sign of respect to the victims and as a rebuke to the perpetrators and their sponsors.

“The reports detail 109,032 deaths in Iraq,” according to Wikileaks’ summary, “comprised of 66,081 ‘civilians’; 23,984 ‘enemy’ (those labeled as insurgents); 15,196 ‘host nation’ (Iraqi government forces) and 3,771 ‘friendly’ (coalition forces). The majority of the deaths (66,000, over 60%) of these are civilian deaths.”

The records “contain 15,000 civilian deaths that have not been previously reported,” said the non-governmental organization Iraq Body Count, which is one of several organizations that attempt to tally or estimate civilian casualties in Iraq.

But the counting of casualties is an imprecise business, permitting a surprisingly broad range of credible estimates.  Prior to the Wikileaks release, with its description of 66,081 civilian casualties, the Iraq Body Count organization had estimated between 98,585 and 107,594 civilian deaths.  The Brookings Institution put the number considerably higher, at 112,625.  Other estimates, both higher and lower, are also available from the Associated Press, the World Health Organization, and others.

A compilation and comparison of such estimates has been prepared by the Congressional Research Service in “Iraq Casualties: U.S. Military Forces and Iraqi Civilians, Police, and Security Forces” (pdf), updated October 7, 2010.  This report does not directly reflect the new Wikileaks disclosures or a Defense Department tally made public last summer, though it presents official estimates based on some of the same underlying data.  But it is more recent than a 2008 version of the same congressional report that was cited in the New York Times on October 22.

A companion report from the CRS considers “U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom” (pdf), updated September 28, 2010.  This report “presents difficult-to-find statistics regarding U.S military casualties… including those concerning post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, amputations, evacuations, and the demographics of casualties.”  While some of these statistics are publicly available through the Department of Defense website, others were obtained by CRS research.

Another CRS report addresses “Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians” (pdf), updated September 14, 2010.

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