'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fall Updates: Strawberry Days, the German Election and Iraqi Civilian Casualties 

Today is a good day for updating some of my past posts.

Strawberry Days

On June 27, 2005, I reviewed David Neiwert's quietly moving, understated social history of Japanese immigration and internment associated with Bellevue, Washington. Deservedly, it turns out that the book is selling well, with the first run of 3,000 copies sold out, and the second one "selling briskly". People like Neiwert, and especially the Nisei that shared their personal stories with him, preserve memories of our past as it truly was, not as we would like to sentimentally believe it to be. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, consider clicking on the link of my review for more information.

The German Election

On September 22, 2005, I posted a lengthy commentary about how much of the media, especially US media, was concealing the fact that the left had won the German parliamentary election, preferring instead, a "Grand Coalition" to deny the left what it had righfully won at the polls, citing it as an example of the methods by which liberal democracies prevent the left from taking and exercising power.

Not surprisingly, the political suspension of gravity involved in forging a coalition government of the two dominant parties from the left and the right is proving difficult, as leftist Social Democratic Party deputies induced one of the SPD participants to resign a major party post, and, hence, his willingness to accept a ministry, while one of the allies of the anticipated Christian Democratic chancellor, Angela Merkel, abandoned his intention to serve in the new government as well. Luke Harding, in the Manchester Guardian, is one of the few journalists to grasp the potentially alarming consequences of impressing such a government upon the populace:

The only previous experience of a grand coalition at federal level in the 1960s was widely deemed to have been a failure, with voters drifting towards extremism. The period yielded the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group, and the best ever-result for the neo-Nazi NPD in 1969.

New elections appear increasingly probable, with sequels planned until there is a clear conservative majority.

Iraqi Civilian Casualties

No subject is murkier, and more prone to confusion than this one, and I have periodically commented upon it here, on Indymedia and Lefti on the News. Since the Iraqi Health Ministry reported, and then rescinded, a statement in September 2004 that about two thirds of all civilian casualties had been inflicted by the Occupation Authority and provisional Iraqi government forces, information from official sources has been rare, with the exception of a recent Pentagon report about 26,000 civilian casualties inflicted by the insurgency. I had been planning to write about it in depth, but, then, George Monbiot beat me to it. Here are some essential selections from his article:

. . . . As ever, the study in the line of fire is the report published by the Lancet in October last year.

It was a household survey - of 988 homes in 33 randomly selected districts - and it suggested, on the basis of the mortality those households reported before and after the invasion, that the risk of death in Iraq had risen by a factor of 1.5; somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000 extra people had died, with the most probable figure being 98,000. Around half the deaths, if Falluja was included, or 15% if it was not, were caused by violence, and the majority of those by attacks on the part of US forces.

In the US and the UK, the study was either ignored or torn to bits. The media described it as "inflated", "overstated", "politicised" and "out of proportion". Just about every possible misunderstanding and distortion of its statistics was published, of which the most remarkable was the Observer's claim that: "The report's authors admit it drew heavily on the rebel stronghold of Falluja, which has been plagued by fierce fighting. Strip out Falluja, as the study itself acknowledged, and the mortality rate is reduced dramatically." In fact, as they made clear on page one, the authors had stripped out Falluja; their estimate of 98,000 deaths would otherwise have been much higher.

But the attacks in the press succeeded in sinking the study. Now, whenever a newspaper or broadcaster produces an estimate of civilian deaths, the Lancet report is passed over in favour of lesser figures. For the past three months, the editors and subscribers of the website Medialens have been writing to papers and broadcasters to try to find out why. The standard response, exemplified by a letter from the BBC's online news service last week, is that the study's "technique of sampling and extrapolating from samples has been criticised". That's true, and by the same reasoning we could dismiss the fact that 6 million people were killed in the Holocaust, on the grounds that this figure has also been criticised, albeit by skinheads. The issue is not whether the study has been criticised, but whether the criticism is valid.

After observing that Tony Blair and Colin Powell accepted the same methodology in regard to deaths in the Congo, Monbiot states:

The other reason the press gives for burying the Lancet study is that it is out of line with competing estimates. Like Jack Straw, wriggling his way around the figures in a written ministerial statement, they compare it to the statistics compiled by the Iraqi health ministry and the website Iraq Body Count . . . . Iraq Body Count, whose tally has reached 26,000-30,000, measures only civilian deaths which can be unambiguously attributed to the invasion and which have been reported by two independent news agencies. As the compilers point out, "it is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media ... our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording". Of the seven mortality reports surveyed by the Overseas Development Institute, the estimate in the Lancet's paper was only the third highest. It remains the most thorough study published so far. Extraordinary as its numbers seem, they are the most likely to be true.

While the true number of casualties, and the cause of them, necessarily remains uncertain, Monbiot's column is an excellent summarization of the political manipulation of this subject. The exploitation of the work of Iraq Body Count, clearly against the intentions of the people who have sincerely dedicated themselves to such a distasteful task, people who have honestly publicized the limitations of their method, is contemptible.

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