News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Lancet Study: Anyone interested in the Lancet study claiming 100,000 deaths should sign up at the Lancet (it’s free) and read the report. It’s online. Some of it is jargon, but much is not. Don’t be intimidated by medical journals. And don’t be surprised when the same journal prints two studies ‘proving’ opposing theses. The Lancet does so from time to time. As it should. It deals in evidence, not facts; theories, not ideologies.

The first reason to doubt this Lancet study is this sentence from Page 1: “One project has kept a running estimate of press accounts of the number of Iraqi citizens killed by coalition forces: at present, the estimated range is 13,000 – 15000 (http:/www.iraqbodycount.net).”

If you go to the url and chase down the media sources for the figures you find everything from Al jazeera to Znet.com. Znet hosts Chomsky who, in my humble opinion, is a con artist like his forebears Rousseau, Marx, and Sartre. Further more, having hosted an amateur news & literature website (the now defunct www.eastcathay.com) for a year, I have a great skepticism, bordering on contempt, for nearly all reporters. It is no accident that here in Taiwan reporters typically go on to careers in advertising and public relations: i.e. to careers in spinning products and fooling consumers. They get great on-the-job training as reporters. Nor is it a coincidence that such frauds as Marx, Iris Chang (The Rape of Nanking), and Charles Hanley (The Bridge at No Gun Ri) started their careers as reporters. In my experience interacting with both reporters and politicians, the latter smell a lot cleaner.

So to me, trusting reporters (professionals infamous for inflating figures when they can do so without incurring a lawsuit) for statistics suggests poor judgment in my view.

From Page 3: “Within clusters, an attempt was made to confirm at least two reported non-infant deaths by asking to see the death certificate. Interviewers were initially reluctant to ask to see death certificates because this might have implied they did not believe the respondents, perhaps triggering violence. Thus, a compromise was reached for which interviewers would attempt to confirm at least two deaths per cluster. … Death certificates usually did not exist for infant deaths and asking for such certificates would probably inflate the fraction of respondents who could not confirm reported deaths. The death certificates were requested at the end of the interview so that respondents did not know that confirmation would be sought as they reported deaths.”

From Page 6: “In 63 of 78 (81%) of households where confirmations were attempted, respondents were able to produce the death certificate for the decedent. When households could not product the death certificate, interviewers felt in all cases that the explanation offered was reasonable – eg, the death had been very recent, the certificate was locked away and only the husband who was not home had the key. We think it is unlikely that deaths were falsely recorded. Interviewers also believed that in the Iraqi culture it was unlikely for respondents to fabricate deaths.”

Amongst other things, note this: “…reluctant to ask because this might … [trigger] violence. … a compromise was reached…” and yet the claim is made that “Interviewers also believed that in the Iraqi culture it was unlikely for respondents to fabricate deaths.”

So trust in the authors’ judgment becomes critical. And I have difficulty trusting the judgment of people credulous enough to trust reporters in the mass.

Furthermore, my experience living in Taiwan under martial law was that people under political stress lied like rugs. Lying becomes a basic survival skill when death can be the result of the wrong word at the wrong time. There is no freedom of speech in Iraq. Strangers come to your home and claim they’re with so-and-so agency. If you were a run of the mill Iraqi, how could you be sure? A stranger could secretly be with the CIA, Mossad, local mafia, anybody. How do you know? I would have to guess that you’re most likely going to give people what you think they want to hear.

Just getting directions in Taiwan 17 years ago was a trial because forty years of martial law made gutless wonders out of the national population. It’s much better today, but in those days just to get you out of their face, people would say literally anything. You’d get the most ludicrous directions, if people even spoke. They often ignored you or panicked and ran off. People were terrified of strangers. Is it really all that different in Iraq?

Page 4: First, the figures the study provides for post-invasion deaths due to violence:

Iraq, not including Falluja: Children under fifteen (28) Adult men (38) Adult women (5) Elderly (2)

Second, the figures for post-invasion Falluja only:
Children under fifteen (24) Adult men (25) Adult women (3) Elderly (0)

Now if innocent civilians are being killed, why is it mostly men and children who are doing the dying?

One possible answer is provided on Page 7: “Many of the Iraqis reportedly killed by US forces could have been combatants.” Worth noting is that this sentence is preceded by this paragraph: “Despite widespread Iraqi casualties, household interview data do not show evidence of widespread wrongdoing on the part of individual soldiers on the ground. To the contrary, only three of 61 incidents (5%) involved coalition soldiers (all reported to be American by the respondents) killing Iraqis with small arms fire. … In the latter two [of three] cases, American soldiers apologized to the families of the decedents for the killings, indicating a clear understanding of the adverse consequences of their use of force. The remaining 58 killings (all attributed to US forces by interviewees) were caused by helicopter gunships, rockets, or other forms of arterial weaponry.”

My next question is: what is the gender spread for children’s deaths? My guess is that it’s mostly boys who are dying. Boys in war zones often get in trouble by throwing stones and cursing the soldiers of foreign or opposition armies. They sometimes get killed for their trouble.

When our family moved to Belfast in 1971, my father was very strict about letting me out of the house after supper. The one time I snuck out and traveled a couple of blocks away, a childhood friend and I were chased by a gang of about 40 teenage hoodlums. The streets were lawless. No cops, no army, nothing. We lost them in a wooded park. If you let your kids out the door at a time of civil insurrection or war and they get killed, it’s your fault. Your kids won’t be smart enough to know any better; no more than I did at that age.

The Discussion section at the end of the study is well written and strikes me as a bona fide attempt at impartiality. Nevertheless, for the moment I remain suspicious. (And what about the 45,000 civilian peacetime deaths that were taking place every year ‘due’ to sanctions?)

Again, sign up at the Lancet and read the report for yourself if you have the time. Don’t trust me. I wouldn’t.

Biff Capp

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