The Iraq Body Count (IBC) website provides a valuable service itemising the civilian deaths resulting from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I agree with much, if not all, of the rationale given by the authors of the site – at least over moral necessity of quantifying civilian casualties. Where I disagree is over the question of agency. The IBC posits that all civilian casualties and particularly civilian deaths flow from the Anglo-American initiative to invade Iraq in 2003, and are therefore are attributable to British and American agency. This is an influential restatement of the orthodox understanding of the issue which attributes all evil in Iraq to Anglo-American agency in isolation. As the IBC put it ‘The continuing high level of violent death in Iraq since 2003 is a result of the US/UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. None of the deaths we record would have happened were it not for the invasion.’
One problem with this is bias – the manner in which it maximises civilian casualties to selectively damn one agency while remaining silent about others. As an example, the IBC’s approach means that it can happily include Basra homicide statistics during the British occupation and administration and charge them to British agency. Even if Basra, like any other city, would have had at least some level of crime and homicide going on before the British turned up and after they left.
The problem with this is the denial of agency involved and how this misleads and obscures an important aspect of the moral standard used to evaluate and determine the legitimacy of war – just war theory. There are two elements to this, normally referred to by the Latin phrases jus ad bellum and jus ad bello, namely the justice of the cause of the war, and secondly the justice of the means by which the war was waged. The IBC approach and the orthodox understanding it represents delivers a verdict on the first count, a verdict that the war was unjust, and therefore all deaths resulting from that conflict are the responsibility of the agents that launched it. Although I disagree with that conclusion, I have some respect for it or at least as far as it can be applied to an evaluation of the legitimacy of the cause of the war. As it happens, I believe that particular war started in 1990 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq can be justified as a resulting from manifest and repeated breaches of the ceasefire which concluded the 1990-91 conflict. The question of just cause can often recede into a childish argument over ‘who started it’ – was it Hitler by invading Poland or Chamberlain declaring war in response? But this is not to say that the legitimacy of the Iraq conflict, never mind the wisdom of it, cannot be usefully or responsibly questioned. Unlike most opponents of the war I believe it is possible for responsible and informed commentators to differ over the question.
My problem lies with the question of agency and how this has obscured moral judgment of the second component of just war theory, legitimacy of means; a moral judgement which in my view is as necessary as the first. After all, to use a common analogy, the normal criticisms of the Allied bombings of Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War revolve around the civilian casualties inflicted in what would normally be accepted to be a just cause. The legitimacy of the Allied cause does not, for most people, excuse or permit what they consider to be illegitimate means to achieve victory. The perception of legitimacy of means is, for most of us, intimately associated with the civilian casualties inflicted.
This is where independently-researched databases like Malcom Sutton’s on deaths caused by political violence in Northern Ireland or the IBC’s work on Iraq are particularly valuable. They can cut through the propaganda and received wisdom to expose the reality; who is actually being killed and by whom. These are, ethically, just as important as the question of a legitimate causus belli. After all, the justice of a cause might be arguable, but dead civilians are the incontravertable and factual reality of war even if the interpretation of those facts can be subject to honest disagreement. As the IBC themselves state, the data can be used to indicate trends and thereby implicitly fuel evaluative judgement.
So let’s take a look at this issue of agency as it applies in Iraq, who was killing whom, and what this might specifically indicate in regard to the relative significance of British military agency when it came to civilian deaths. Fortunately for me, there’s a convenient entry point for this debate over the issue of the civilian casualties caused by British troops (and coalition forces under British command) in the areas of Iraq they administered after the 2003 invasion, which can then be compared to IBC figures for overall civilian casualties in the same area over a shorter timescale to provide a maximal representation of British responsibility for civilian deaths.
The initiative for this came with the IBC’s angry response to the statement in an interview by General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the Defence Staff and professional head of the British armed services for some of the relevant period, that the number of civilians killed by British forces could not be established. The IBC response (‘IBC’s Response to General Sir Mike Jackson’) observed that IBC data indicated that from 20 March 2003 until their withdrawal on 22 May 2011, British troops were involved in up to 227 civilian deaths with possibly a further 95 deaths also attributable to them (or 322 taking the maximal figures provided by the IBC in both cases; 193 being the similar minimum from the range provided). I have no problem with this, even though it does include deaths in traffic accidents which I don’t think should be attributable to British operations – people used to die every year in traffic accidents involving British troops and British military vehicles in Germany for example. This is a little more relevant than it sounds to Iraq because after 1955 British forces in Germany were present at the request of a democratically-elected German government. By 2005 every Sadrist and every al Queda member had something that the forebears of their colleagues in the 1920 Revolution Brigades did not have when they actually rebelled against British imperialism in 1920; a democratic vote to chose their own national government.
The legitimacy of the Coalition military presence in Iraq after 2005 is one distinction between the 2003 invasion phase that the popular understanding tends to ignore, but it’s not the main point in this argument. My problem is the lack of comparative analysis. To illustrate this, let’s compare the figures for civilians killed by the British with the figures the IBC itself provides for overall civilian casualties in the four provinces of Iraq under British control between May 2003 and December 2007.
During the period of British security provision from May 2003 to December 2007, 3,334 violent civilian deaths, and 2,099 civilian wounded, were detailed in the IBC database. (‘The unexamined Iraqi dimension of UK involvement in Iraq’). The chronological periods are not contiguous, but for the purposes of a broad and conservative comparison, they indicate that the British were killing a maximum of 322 out of a minimum 3,334 civilian deaths in their areas of responsibility (with a longer period involved for ‘British responsibility deaths’ which taken alongside the maximal figures for the deaths they inflicted deliberately skews the figures as firmly against the British as possible from the relevant IBC summaries). In other words, more than 90% of the civilians killed in southern Iraq in the post-invasion violence were killed by somebody other than the British.
When will the IBC dedicate 90% of their editorial criticism to these agencies and their actions? Who did these war crimes? What was their mandate to do so? Were they or their actions legitimate?
Remember, the 2003 invasion or jus ad bellum alone doesn’t cut it – unless you are willing to accept Dresden or Hiroshima as justified by precisely the same standard in response. On these questions, at least, the IBC and the mainstream understanding of the Iraq conflict that it represents, remain silent. Meanwhile it merits attention, even if that will never come from the IBC or human rights activists of their stripe, that the British forces subject to their selective criticism were at least attempting to deal with the authors of over 90% of the civilian deaths during the period of their involvement in post-invasion Iraq.