Pointing out an error but ignoring the real questions

U.S. excluded bomb deaths, other causes in Iraqi counts

Iraqi Civilians Killed – All Violent Causes
Click for better look
Source: Brookings Institute

When the civilian casualty figures for August were released, there was initial rejoicing over their vast improvement, but soon the Iraqi Health Ministry released numbers that indicated little change from the previous month. We finally know the reason for the disparity:

The U.S. military did not count people killed by bombs, mortars, rockets or other mass attacks – including suicide bombings – when it reported a dramatic drop in killings in the Baghdad area last month, the U.S. command said yesterday.

The decision to include only victims of drive-by shootings and those killed by torture and execution, usually at the hands of death squads, allowed U.S. officials to argue that a security crackdown that began in the capital Aug. 7 had more than halved the city’s murder rate.

But the types of slayings, including suicide bombings, that the United States excluded from the category of “murder” were not made explicit at the time. That led to confusion after Iraqi Health Ministry figures showed that 1,536 people died violently in and around Baghdad in August, nearly the same number as in July.

The story then goes on to question claims that the increased military presence in Baghdad is helping.

However, to know the answer to that, you need to know two things:

A) Was there a change in either the mass killing count or the non-mass murder rate? This would help us determine what impact, if any, additional military forces are having. Which is the question at hand.

B) What would the death toll have been if the military presence hadn’t been increased? This is obviously tougher to answer accurately. But just because the death toll was the same after a military increase doesn’t mean that the military increase had no effect. For all we know, the escalating violence in Baghdad might have doubled the number of dead from July to August without additional military forces. In fact, it seems almost likely, considering the way things were going.

The chart in the upper right, from the 9/11/06 Brookings Institute’s Iraq Index, shows January through July of 2006 and included all of Iraq, not just Baghdad. But if the data used by Brookings is anything similar to the data used by the Iraqi Healt Ministry, almost half of the civilian deaths in Iraq occur in Baghdad.

The number of violent deaths in the city of Baghdad over the past three months, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry:

June: 1,595
July: 1,855
August: 1,536

What’s interesting about these numbers is this: “Baghdad deaths lowest since May” would be a perfectly reasonable headline. Needless to say, I didn’t see any of those.

bombinggermany.jpgQuestion ‘B’ reminds me of the folks who point out that aircraft production increased during the Allied strategic bombing campaign, and therefore the strategic bombing campaign had no effect on Germany. Sure, production of Me109 and Fw190 fighters pretty much doubled from 1942 to 1943, and then doubled again from 1943 to 1944. But there is a lot more to the story than just raw production totals.

For instance, the bombing campaign itself increased the demand for German fighters to intercept the bombers, as did the need to replace losses in combat or on the ground. So that right there motivated the Germans to allocate more resources to fighter production than they would have otherwise. Fighter production goes up, but it’s a zero-sum game when you talk war manufacturing and something else had to suffer from diverted resources. And as fighter assembly plants and ball bearing factories were leveled, they had to be rebuilt in other locations.

All of this makes it hard to know, for sure, exactly how much impact the bombing really had. Air power proponents, of course, will argue that the campaign was what won the war. The guys on the ground who had to fight their way across the Siegfried Line probably had a different view. But to argue that the Germans could build more fighters while we were bombing them than they could have built had we not bombed them seems rather silly when you look at more than just raw production numbers.

It’s fair to criticize the military for not being very clear (or even downright deceptive) when it released the August civilian death numbers. But don’t confuse that issue with the real issue of whether our extra troops made any difference.