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Les Roberts on the ComRes “Iraqi Death Toll Survey” released May 29, 2013


Following Commentary by Les Roberts, epidemiologist at Columbia University and author of two peer reviewed studies on Iraqi mortality since the US invasion of 2003.

During WWII, the Roosevelt Administration was confronted with the arrival in North America of hundreds of Jewish refugees at a time when anti-Semitism was widespread and the political cost of allowing them in might have been high.  Hundreds of them passed several years during the 1940’s in Oswego, New York, near where I grew up, in a barb-wire delineated encampment now part of a State University campus.  The Catholic Church and others organized town residents to make weekend visits into the camp and eventually, most refugee families were “adopted” by a host family who would bring and share a big meal each week and support the refugees with their little problems.  Towards the end of the war, all the refugees were deported, mostly to South America and Palestine.  After D-day, when pictures of concentration camps started appearing in the US press, residents of Oswego who had loved and cared for their refugees, were devastated to see the images of barbed wire and barracks so visually similar to what had greeted the refugees in Oswego.  Until then, residents in this rural town simply had little idea what was happening to Jews a continent away.  It had an enormous impact on me and my fellow students 40 years later when one of my instructors, who had grown-up in Oswego, discussed this episode at an evening event and openly wept.  It is not so surprising that 70 years ago the events of a distant war were so unknown to citizens of the warring parties.  Yet, a poll just released by ComRes suggests that in this information age, British citizens are somehow similarly ignorant about the events that have unfolded over the past decade in Iraq.
 
This March, a review of death toll estimates by Burkle and Garfield was published in the Lancet in an issue commemorating the 10thanniversary of the invasion.  They reviewed 11 studies of data sources ranging from passive tallies of government and newspaper reports to careful randomized household surveys, and concluded that something in the ballpark of half a million Iraqi civilians have died.  The various sources include a wide variation of current estimates, from one-hundred thousand plus to a million. 
 
The new ComRes poll of 2,021 British adults found that 59% of citizens think less than 10,000 Iraqis have died, which by all estimates is less than one-tenth of the truth and is less than 2% of the composite estimate by Burkle and Garfield.   Eighty-four percent of those polled placed the death toll at less than 100,000 suggesting that they base their impression on something other than any evidence source from the last few years.   It may be that most British people do not care what results arise from the actions of their leaders and the work of their tax money.  Alternatively, it also could be that the British and US Governments have actively and aggressively worked to discredit sources and confuse death toll estimates in hopes of keeping the public from unifying and galvanizing around a common narrative.
 
When the first careful household survey about deaths in Iraq was published in the Lancet in 2004, which I co-authored,  Tony Blair was quick to dismiss the study and Jack Straw posted a lengthy dismissal of the estimate on the Foreign Secretary’s website.  Both preferred the on the ground Iraqi Government tallies.  Time has shown that this critique was not the position of the technical advisors to the Foreign Secretary and three surveys released since then have crudely confirmed the 2004 Lancet findings.  Given that this was a pre-emptive war, perhaps violating the UN Charter, and was based on questionable evidence, the then Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary each had considerable self-interest in dismissing the story.   Since 2004, as evidence of the horror inducing death toll in Iraq has arisen, repeatedly surveys and polls have been dismissed either by government spokespeople, former military members with tenuous academic credentials, or others in the public eye eager to join the fray.   A 2007, AP poll suggests Americans are no better informed than the British on the issue.
 
A CIA contractor named Edward Snowden has created great controversy across the Atlantic for revealing that the US Government was monitoring phone, e-mail and other communications of millions of non-suspect Americans.  He has spurred an interesting debate, saying his motive is that democracy cannot work if the government is allowed to pick and choose what it releases to the public in a way that advances the government’s interests but perhaps not the people’s.  This new ComRes poll raises the question as to whether or not this is already happening in Britain.  

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