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A Foreign Concept

Overlooking civilian deaths in overseas wars
December 20, 2011

During the early years of the Iraq War, John Tirman wondered about the extent of the civilian casualties but could uncover little information. Though a team of epidemiologists based at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health had published a survey in the Lancet in 2004 estimating that there had been nearly 100,000 “excess deaths” during the first 18 months of the war, the findings had been largely ignored by the media. “I found this to be both troubling and puzzling,” says Tirman, executive director of MIT’s Center for International Studies.

Around the same time, a rash of insurgencies broke out among Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Many academics saw this as a function of the Sunnis’ fight to retain their top-tier status, Tirman says, but he considered that explanation inadequate. The uprisings were “popping up all over Iraq, seemingly disconnected from each other, with no ideology, no demands except that the U.S. should leave,” he says. He reasoned that they might be a reaction to the large numbers of civilian casualties. “I had suspected that life for civilians was rougher than what was being reported, and the Hopkins study confirmed that mortality was high,” he says. “The two fit together as cause and effect—a cycle, in fact, of escalating violence.”

Tirman commissioned a second, more extensive survey from the Hopkins team; it showed much higher civilian casualty rates. The results appeared in the Lancet in 2006, attracting media attention that generated some negative reactions. President Bush called the report “not credible,” disparaging the methodology as “pretty much discredited.” Others said the study was inaccurate and biased. But Tirman believed that many of the attacks were politically motivated.

Tirman decided to write a book about the moral, political, strategic, and methodological questions involved in estimating noncombatants killed in U.S. wars. While researching The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, he concluded that the U.S. military’s ability to record civilian deaths is limited, in part because officers can report only what they have seen and can’t always distinguish between enemy fighters and noncombatants. He also found that historically, neither the military nor the U.S. public has demanded information about civilian casualties.

As Americans, he says, “we simply do not think about how much our wars are costing local populations”; without knowing how many civilians actually died, we tend to believe that any collateral damage, while unfortunate, is justified. “The implication is we should do this again when the occasion arises,” he says. “It’s important that we know how many people died, and it’s important we know how many people were displaced, lost their homes, were widowed and impoverished. That has implications for the next time we face an international challenge.”

He adds, “What I really aimed to do is start an argument. I don’t think I’ve written the last word on this—just opened up some questions. But they are questions too few people have been asking.”

Recent Books

From the MIT community

Einstein on the Road

By Josef Eisinger, PhD ‘51

Prometheus Books, 2011, $25.00

Financial Systems in Developing Economies: Growth, Inequality, and Policy Evaluation in Thailand

By Robert M. Townsend, 
professor of economics

Oxford University Press, 2011, $85.00

Moving Boxes by Air: The Economics of International Air Cargo

By Peter S. Morrell, SM ‘78

Ashgate, 2011, $99.95

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to SQL

By Steven Holzner ‘79

Alpha, 2011, $19.95

Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood

By Peter Bebergal, 
MIT Technology Licensing Office communications associate

Soft Skull Press, 2011, $15.95

More Mathematical Finance

By Mark Joshi, PhD ‘94

Pilot Whale Press, 2011, $80.00

Trade of the Tricks: 
Inside the Magician’s Craft

By Graham M. Jones, assistant professor of anthropology

University of California Press, 2011, $29.95

Changing Directions: A Concise 
Guide to the Topology of Tango

By David M. Caditz ‘83

Lulu.com, 2011, $31.95

Please submit titles of books and 
papers published in 2011 and 2012 
to be considered for this column.

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