Iraq Body Count: Why is it so hard to count, anyway?

One of the things you need to understand to grasp the state of play in the casualty debate is just why it's so hard to get an accurate count. Some of this is obvious, but much of it isn't, and the obvious bits vary from person to person, so bear with me.

In America or any developed nation, if we wanted to know how many people had died after a wrenching event like an invasion, it would be pretty easy. We'd go to the Census Bureau and find out how many people there used to be in America, and what the rate of population growth was. Then we'd find out how many people there are now, and we'd compare it to the number there should have been on previous trends. This would still be imperfect. For one thing, even here we don't know exactly how many people live in the country, or die in it; every year some people go missing, and others escape the long arm of the census. It also assumes trends would have continued. And it is hard to distinguish between babies that weren't born, and babies that died in infancy from war-related ailments. But it would generally be pretty close to accurate.

There are other ways that we could figure it out--counting death certificates, or crime reports. It's a multivariable equation; as long as you have enough variables, you can solve for the missing ones, and check your answers.

None of this works in Iraq.

One hears over and over that it is hard to collect data in the chaos. This is true, but underspecified; the physical danger to the interviewers is only one of the problems. In Iraq, they are compounded by the fact that the country didn't have good data before the invasion. All we've got is a 1997 census that no one is very confident in.

A list of the things we do not know about Iraq:

  • The current population
  • The population in 2003

  • The geographical distribution of the population--the refugees have not been drawn evenly from all provinces.

  • The demographic distribution of either the pre- or post-war population.

  • The birth rate

  • The death rate

The mechanism for collecting death certificates has broken down: it's not clear how many of the certificates are being recorded anywhere, but at any rate the central ministry doesn't seem to have all of them. Also, the government is thought to have a vested interest in downplaying the violence, which undermines trust in the figures they publish. It's also not clear when it broke down--whether Saddam's figures are accurate, or whether a lot of people disappeared (in any of several senses of the word) under his regime.

Even if the data exists at the provincial level, the physical danger makes it hard for interviewers to collect it, as well as making people very reluctant to talk to, much less help, strangers.

If we can't tally the deaths from public records, or compare the pre- and post-war populations, that leaves us with one option: we can ask the Iraqis. In a follow-up post, I'll discuss why that's really hard, too.