In re: Whats in a number?

So, I first want to recommend the show This American Life, a radio show from WBEZ in Chicago that is put out on NPR. (Its on at 2pm here in Columbus on Saturdays, however I usually end up listening to it streaming online on their website http://www.thislife.org/) Anyway, the show hosted by Ira Glass the show’s producer, whose voice I find strange and addictive. Anyway I digress, the show which thankfully is available free for streaming in Real Audio (although sadly, although understandably, you must pay for a podcast, so I haven’t got to catch up on the show as much as I’d like) So the point I was trying to make before I started plugging This American Life was the episode I listened to the other day that dealt with the number of deaths in Iraq.

The episode, Episode 300 can be heard here (launches Real Audio file) and one of the segments discusses “a John Hopkins University study in the British medical journal The Lancet [which] estimated the number of civilian casualties in Iraq. It came up with a number – 100,000 dead that was higher than any other estimate, and was mostly ignored.” The story goes on to explain both how accurate it was, and how it was conducted (for example critics of the survey pointed to that there was a chance only 8,000 died, however there was the same percentage chance of that as 192,000 dead, as these were the extremes of a bell shaped curve with 100,000 being the most likely number) The story mentions how people were hesitant to discuss the number (NBC gave it 23 seconds, NPR 45 seconds, no other network else mentioned it) Further it was disputed (or a sound bite was gathered) disputing it, saying it sounded high, however this was from someone (who is interviewed in this show) who never examined it and was asked only for a sentence on their feeling about the number.

So why am I discussing this here? Well aside from hoping a few of you listen to the interesting story (which has other parts, including a great one on a bombing targeter for the Pentagon who then goes to a NGO over in Iraq seeing first hand the results of his bombs), but also because the issue of the numbers of dead in this war is something that is very interesting. How many is okay? Americans (as any would) have a hard time dealing with these types of numbers, what if 100,000 died in Iraq because of our invasion, is this justified to prevent another 9/11? Further is 100,000 people justifiable to save the potentially hundreds of thousands Saddam might have killed in the future or a weapon of mass destruction that he might have been creating could have caused.

We will never know of course if it is worth it, as we don’t have the luxury of living out alternative histories, we do know however when we should have taken more lives to save more, as we should have committed earlier in WWII and other atrocities, but didn’t, and clearly a hundred thousand dead there was justified in our minds to prevent millions more being slaughtered (that is the way it works isn’t it?) I am not really trying to put an answer out there or really even provide an opinion if this is worth it, as no one will ever know, but I think it is important that we do as a nation understand the effects that our bombs have, they killed many, perhaps a hundred thousand, and we must be able to deal with that and not brush it aside. If more than 30 civilians were expected to be killed by a bomb then it warequireded that Rumsfeld or the President sign off on the bomb, it is this type of decision making that some might question, but is at least good for us all to think about.

[Note: The Lancet Study is available free online, however registration is required to view it. Study available here]

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