Why is Public Ignorance of Iraq Death Toll Not Relevant to Syria “Intervention” Debate?

If the vast majority of the public in the US and the UK doesn’t have a clue about the death toll from the Iraq war, then how can they make an informed decision about the probable consequences of western intervention in Syria or anywhere else?

The default stance of the public is, quite rationally, against foreign military adventures. For reasons that range from moral to pragmatic, people are not easily convinced that a poor country thousands of miles way needs to be bombed – especially when that country poses no credible threat to them. It takes quite a propaganda campaign to change their minds and the big corporate and state media outlets are reliably there to provide one. It is heartening to see from recent polls that war is as hard a sell as ever. But how much more widespread, and more importantly, how much more intense would public opposition to war be if the vast majority were not completely misinformed about the human costs of war?

In May of this year, a professional polling company in the UK asked a representative sample of the public how many Iraqis (civilians and combatants combined) died because of the war than began in 2003. The poll was done two months after the 10 year anniversary of the war’s initiation which prompted a great deal of retrospective coverage in the media. Astoundingly, fifty nine percent answered that 10,000 or fewer Iraqis had died.

A credible answer would have been in the hundreds of thousands and it is possible that over a million Iraqis died because of the war.

The Iraqi government, working with the WHO, had a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in January of 2008 that estimated 151,000 deaths from violence alone by the end of June 2006. The study did not give an estimate for war related deaths from all causes. However, in March of 2008, the lead author of the NEJM study (Mohamed Ali), confirmed that 400,000 Iraqi deaths as of June 2006 can be calculated from that study’s data.

Another study published in the Lancet in 2006 estimated a death toll of 650,000 by the end of June 2006.

Of course, the war did not end in the middle of 2006. Iraq Body Count’s numbers (which only tallied reported deaths from war related violence and relied mainly on the media) would double between 2006 and the end of 2011. Similarly doubling the scientific estimates made for Iraqi deaths results in a death toll of 800,000-1,300,000.

The UK public was not any better informed than their counterparts in the USA. A poll done by AP in 2007 asked the US public to estimate the Iraqi civilian death toll from the war. The median answer was about 10,000.

Asked by Media Lens to comment on results of the ComRes poll in the UK, Noam Chomsky stated

‘Pretty shocking. I’m sure you’ve seen Sut Jhally’s study of estimates of Vietnam war deaths at the elite university where he teaches. Median 100,000, about 5% of the official figure, probably 2% of the actual figure. Astonishing – unless one bears in mind that for the US at least, many people don’t even have a clue where France is.

However, as I’m sure Chomsky would agree, ignorance driven merely by public indifference would lead to estimates all over the map. The results would not be completely skewed towards outrageous under estimates and one would expect a hefty percentage of respondents to say that they “don’t know” or to decline to guess. Only 0.3% of the ComRes poll respondents declined to guess or said they didn’t know. Only 2% gave estimates higher than one million. The results illustrate that the media systemically, and very successfully, buries the human cost of western initiated wars. The media’s response to the ComRes poll itself is further evidence of that. Media Lens pointed out

…the poll was simply ignored by both print and broadcast media. Our search of the Lexis media database found no mention in any UK newspaper, despite the fact that ComRes polls are deemed highly credible and frequently reported in the press.

It is a lot easier for western politicians and high profile pundits to beat their chests about their duty to protect Iraqis, Libyans (or now Syrians) by bombing them, when the death toll from previous wars is kept hidden. If not for the media induced ignorance, “humanitarian” warmongers would receive all the ridicule they deserve.