It’s not hard for an army to count its fallen. Armies are generally organized entities, and their members accountable to one another. When a soldier dies—as 179 British military personnel did in the Iraq war between 2003 and 2009—there is usually, at least, certainty.
But counting civilian casualties is much, much more complicated. There are different methods. But there are also different motivations. A vast, long-awaited report into the UK’s involvement in Iraq held two damning pronouncements on the deaths of Iraqi people who were not directly involved in the fighting.
First, no one knows how many people died. Second, the way the UK government and military counted the dead was skewed by what they wanted to find. The government wanted to make sure this “collateral” damage didn’t reflect badly on the war effort, the report found.
“The Government’s consideration of the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties was driven by its concern to rebut accusations that coalition forces were responsible for the deaths of large numbers of civilians, and to sustain domestic support for operations in Iraq,” the Chilcot report says (Pdf. Section 17, p.170).
In the early years of the war, the report finds, the UK government said it didn’t know how to count the dead. “We have no reliable means of ascertaining the numbers of civilians killed by United Kingdom Forces since the conflict ended,” Geoff Hoon, defence secretary at the time, told parliament in October 2003.
So what are the latest estimates of the number of Iraqi dead, and how were they made?
The British army did, it turns out, make “assessment reports” on incidents in its territory operations (which only accounts for part of Iraq), including those involving civilians. But the reports were not collated. The Iraqi ministry of health counted dead and wounded, but only based on hospital admissions.
The best estimates come from non-governmental organizations, and they vary hugely. Here are their tallies:
Between 156,531 and 175,101 violent civilian deaths since January 2003. Iraq Body Count, a volunteer-led organization, has been counting deaths since near the start of the war. It can only provide an “irrefutable baseline,” it says, because of how it finds evidence: cross‑checking media reports of violent events or of bodies being found with figures from hospitals, morgues, other NGOs and official figures.
At least 151,000 “violent deaths” between 2003 and 2008. This estimate comes from a study by the Iraqi Government in collaboration with the World Health Organization, which surveyed 9,345 households and extrapolated the data. The possible range was enormous: between 80,000 and 234,000 deaths.
461,000 “excess deaths” between 2003 to 2011. This estimate comes from a 2013 survey of 2,000 households by a group of American, Canadian, and Iraqi researchers. Two-thirds of these deaths were found to be due to direct violence, and a third to indirect causes like failed heath systems.
The Chilcot report also noted that a month before the invasion, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the defense staff in the UK, advised UK prime minister Tony Blair that civilian casualties were likely to be in the “low hundreds.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the IFHS survey measured “indirect deaths.”