Monday, September 20, 2004

Crude Moral Calculus

There's an ongoing discussion among Belmont Club, journalists Mark Steyn and Andrew Sullivan, and others, about the number and nature of Iraqi deaths in Iraq. Andrew claims that Iraq is suffering "two 9/11s a month" (whether this is measured in absolute or proportional body counts is unclear but you get the picture). Belmont Club does a fantastic job analyzing the casualty statictics.

But everyone in this argument (which goes far beyond the aforementioned bloggers) is missing the key element of this issue and indeed of the question "Is Iraq better off now than before the war?" Iraqis were dying before the war. Thousands of Iraqis. They just weren't being killed in public.

Look at it in more detail. Saddam Hussein filled mass graves with Iraqi corpses every year for 25 years. (The pictures convey an emotional impact that numbers cannot. Please take some time and visit Massgraves.info.) Even Human Rights Watch said in May 2003 that the mass graves hold at least 290,000 bodies, perhaps as many as 400,000.

However, since Andrew Sullivan is counting not just civilian deaths but those killed in ongoing military actions, let's consider not just the Iraqis who were murdered (many after horrific torture) but also those killed in war during Hussein's reign.

The State Department addresses this question as of 12/19/03: "Over one million Iraqis are believed to be missing in Iraq as a result of executions, wars and defections, of whom hundreds of thousands are thought to be in mass graves."

Do the math people. If an extremely low estimate of 350,000 Iraqis died in the 25 years of Hussein's rule that mean 14,000 people died every year. That number could be doubled or tripled depending on the way you count the victims of the regime. And this was an ongoing effort by the government with no end in sight. If Saddam had died and either or both of his sons taken charge the killing would have continued year after year after year.

Belmont Club compiles a list of various estimates of fatalities in Iraq. Even Amnesty International claims only 10,000 deaths, including combatants.

Of course this is all a sad little game. The numbers are really an attempt to create a moral equivalence between the current situation and the Baathist regime by setting up a crude moral calculus: If regime victims are less than liberation victims then liberation is a moral wrong. Forget everything else about life during the regime and after. Just count corpses.

By this logic if one more person dies during the war/construction than during the fallen regime, then the liberation is a moral failure and by extension it should not have been undertaken. Not only is this a kind of cowardice, it sets a standard for all current and future dictators: you can torture and rape and repress people all you wish, just be sure to kill one less person than it would take to defeat you and rebuild the country. That way none of the Great Powers will confront you. And none will.

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