Steve Sachs Duke


Friday, July 25, 2003


Responsibility and the "Body Count." According to the "Iraq Body Count" project, between 6,073 and 7,782 civilians have been killed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. As Josh Chafetz has ably argued, the methodology of the "Body Count" project is highly suspect, and there's good reason to think that considerably fewer civilians were killed in allied military actions.

But there's something deeper at issue here. I had naively assumed that these were deaths for which the U.S. and its allies bore some direct measure of responsibility--or, as the website itself put it, "media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq resulting directly from military actions by the USA and its allies in 2003."

As it turns out, I was wrong. Just look at incident "x118," on July 20, in which an Iraqi civilian was killed "near Hillah" in an attack on a U.N. convoy. Quoth the Associated Press:

Iraq's daily barrage of attacks killed two more American soldiers and an Iraqi employee of a U.N.-affiliated relief agency Sunday...

In another troubling sign, a two-car convoy carrying members of the International Organization for Migration were ambushed near the southern city of Hilla when a pickup truck pulled up alongside one car and opened fire.

The car collided with a bus. Personnel in a World Health Organization convoy traveling behind the IOM vehicles treated three injured and took the Iraqi driver to a hospital, where he died, said Omer Mekki, the WHO deputy director in Iraq.

Both convoys were clearly marked as U.N. vehicles.

"We're a bit shaken. Everybody is a bit shocked," said Mekki. "But when we were recruited and we came to Iraq, we knew there were risks. An incident like this is not unexpected.

In other words, when Ba'athist thugs kill an innocent civilian driving a clearly marked U.N. vehicle, that "a civilian death resulting directly from military actions by the USA and its allies." This is a somewhat different interpretation of "resulting directly" than I'm used to. If anything, the death of this Iraqi should be seen as one of the last crimes of Saddam Hussein and his followers, rather than an incident of "collateral damage" in a U.S. operation.

Of course, I can understand why the U.S. might be held responsible for the reasonably foreseeable actions of others that result from American actions. But it's hard to say what, precisely, is foreseeable about the death of this driver. And on any view of the world that pays attention to what one does, and not merely what its consequences are, there comes a point where the actions of others are simply not one's fault. If Saddam were to become so disheartened by losing power that he started spraying a crowded room with bullets, it's hard to identify a basis on which his actions could be said to have "directly resulted" from America's actions. For if the responsibility does not lie on his shoulders, the same argument could be employed to search for the causal factors behind America's actions, and the ultimate causes behind those factors, and so on ad infinitum--removing responsibility from everyone, not just the Ba'athists. At some point, a murder is simply the responsibility of the person who did it.

Perhaps the "Body Count" project takes a more consequentialist or utilitarian view of things; perhaps we should hold the U.S. responsible for all the civilian deaths in Iraq that would not have occured but for the military intervention. In this case, the inclusion of a man who was killed by Ba'athist guerillas would make sense; had the U.S. not invaded, that U.N. convoy wouldn't have been there to be attacked, the driver wouldn't have been hit, and the death would have been avoided. But such a total is meaningless from a consequentialist standpoint unless we subtract away all the people who would have been killed, but for military intervention. For instance, if airbags were the but-for cause of 5 deaths per year, but were also the but-for reason why 500 people per year survive car crashes, it would be absurd for a utilitarian to describe them as lethal as opposed to life-saving. So how many lives did the invasion save? How many people would have been tortured, or "disappeared," or kept hidden in a wall if Saddam had been allowed to stay in power? What would these guerillas have been up to if they had still exercised absolute power over their fellow citizens, instead of running from the occupation authority and taking occasional pot shots at relief agencies? Isn't any utilitarian calculation of the but-for deaths worse than irrelevant without some attempt at comparison to the but-for lives saved?

If the "Body Count" project is to include all the evil consequences of Saddam's fall from power, it cannot ignore the great good that this fall represents. In the absence of military intervention, what would have been necessary to replace Saddam's regime? Think about the mass graves, the tens and hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed the abortive 1991 uprising. If, instead of the invasion, Iraq had undergone a popular revolution that overthrew Saddam's government at the cost of roughly 8,000 lives, we'd all be putting on party hats. The revolutionaries might have endured that many casualties in liberating a few square blocks of Basra. And as I've argued before, such a revolution would have had a far worse chance of promoting an Iraqi democracy over the long run.

Personally, I disagree with the U.S. military's decision not to attempt an official count; the public has a legitimate interest in assessing the consequences of our policies, as well as measuring how careful and effective our troops have been. And as the example of the "Body Count" shows, the attempts to fill the gap may be based on methods--and moral assumptions--that are deeply flawed.




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© 2011 Stephen E. Sachs


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