The Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, along with Physicians for Social Responsibility and Physicians for Global Survival have released a report titled “Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror.'” The study examined direct and indirect deaths caused by more than a decade of US-led war in three countries, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but did not include deaths in other countries attacked by American and allied military forces, including Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
The study noted that while the United States closely monitors casualty figures for allied troops—4,804 coalition deaths in Iraq; 3,485 in Afghanistan, the number of civilians and enemy combatants killed by US and allied forces is “officially ignored.”
The IPPNW investigation, which scoured the results of individual studies and data published by United Nations organizations, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, concluded the ongoing war “has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan.”
“The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware,” the study’s authors write. “And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries… could also be in excess of 2 million.”
The study also cites other efforts to obtain an accurate casualty count from the US-led wars. Among these:
The 2006 Lancet study: Considered the most meticulous investigation of Iraqi deaths conducted at the time, researchers estimated that 655,000 Iraqis had died between March 2003 and June 2006. Their findings were published in the Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.
The 2008 ORB International study: London-based polling agency ORB International published the results of a survey estimating more than 1 million Iraqi deaths, although like the Lancet study, the results were heavily criticized, even by other groups compiling casualty figures.
The 2013 PLOS study: The medical journal PLOS estimated the number of Iraqis killed between 2003 and 2011 at more than 500,000. The study’s authors approached their work conservatively, in order to preemptively avoid criticism of their methodology.
Iraq Body Count: The most conservative estimates of the number of Iraqis killed during the course of the US-led invasion and occupation still count the dead in six figures, with the UK-based Iraq Body Count counting 108,000 Iraqi civilians killed during the period of US involvement, from March 2003 through the end of 2011. Iraq Body Count estimates 211,000 Iraqis have died violently since the American invasion.
IPPNW’s assertion that the US “officially ignores” the number of civilians and combatants killed by its forces is only partially true. While Gen. Tommy Franks, who directed the US invasion of Iraq, famously said “we don’t do body counts,” classified American documents leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that despite public pronouncements to the contrary, US officials had been keeping records of Iraqi deaths and had counted 109,032 Iraqis killed in the years 2004-2009. The majority of these deaths were innocent civilians.
In 2005—just over two and a half years into the war—President George W. Bush said 30,000 Iraqis had been killed, a rare case of an American leader acknowledging the deadly consequences of his actions.
“The desire of governments to hide the complete picture and costs of military interventions and wars is nothing new,” writes American physician Robert M. Gould in the study’s foreword. “For the United States, the history of the Vietnam war is emblematic. The immense toll on Southeast Asia, including the estimated death of at least two million Vietnamese non-combatant civilians, and the long-term health and environmental impacts of herbicides such as Agent Orange, are still not fully recognized by the majority of the American people.”
Nor is the fact that United States military forces have killed more innocent foreign civilians than the forces of any other country since the end of World War II, an uncomfortable truth for a nation whose people overwhelmingly consider themselves liberators, even as their government has supported countless brutal dictatorships—some of them genocidal—around the world and overthrown democratically elected governments viewed as undesirable by Washington and elite American interests, mostly of the corporate variety.
“Our lack of acknowledgment is less oversight than habit, a self-reflective reaction to the horrors of war and an American tradition that goes back decades. We consider ourselves a generous and compassionate nation, and often we are,” wrote John Tirman, executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for International Studies, in a 2012 Washington Post editorial.
“However, when it comes to our wars overseas, concern for the victims is limited to US troops,” Tirman added. “Why the American silence on our wars’ main victims? Our self-image, based on what cultural historian Richard Slotkin calls ‘the frontier myth’—in which righteous violence is used to subdue or annihilate the savages of whatever land we’re trying to conquer—plays a large role. For hundreds of years, the frontier myth has been one of America’s sturdiest national narratives.”
Today, Americans are killing enemy combatants and civilians alike on far-flung frontiers in a broad crescent encompassing Muslim nations from Somalia and Yemen up through Syria and Iraq and down into Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Iran sitting nervously in the middle. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is seeking authority to escalate America’s involvement in the war against Islamic State militants, even while largely ignoring credible reports of civilian casualties in that war, and exempting operations in Syria and Iraq from more stringent measures designed to prevent civilian deaths during drone strikes.