Research Article: Measuring the True Costs of War: Consensus and Controversy

Date Published: February 15, 2011

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Robert Muggah

Abstract: Robert Muggah discusses the costs of war and a new analysis published in PLoS Medicine by Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks and colleagues that documents the number of Iraqi civilian violent deaths during 2003-2008.

Partial Text: All wars generate controversy, though some more so than others. The current US-led intervention in Iraq and the catastrophic explosion of ethnic violence it incited is especially contentious. Whilst acrimonious disagreement over the raison d’etre of the Iraq war persists in capitals around the world, few deny that it has been an especially bloody and traumatic experience for Iraqi civilians. The full extent of suffering is confirmed in this week’s PLoS Medicine, which features an article by Madelyn Hicks and colleagues who consider the human costs of Iraq’s war by focusing on civilian deaths between 2003 and 2008 [1].

Though armed conflict has persisted for tens of thousands of years, preoccupation with the costs of war in terms of human pain and suffering is a phenomenon of the modern era. The first truly international response to the human suffering generated by warfare emerged following the Battle of Solferino around the middle of the 19th century, when more than 160,000 Austrian troops did battle with 156,000 French and allied forces on Italian soil. Horrified by the savagery inflicted by combatants on one another, a Swiss banker, Jean-Henri Dunant, initiated a process that led to the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of what eventually became known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

Notwithstanding widespread commitment among health and conflict specialists to bear witness and make public the real costs of war, there is comparatively less consensus about how such accounting ought to be pursued. There are in fact fundamental disagreements about the most appropriate methodological approach to counting “conflict deaths,” whether amongst soldiers or civilians. Scholars involved in collecting data and estimating the incidence of violent death rapidly divided into two camps: the incident reporters and the survey administrators. Disagreements between these two groups are by no means trivial—they have profound implications on how the pathways of armed conflict are assessed and the scale and distribution of their impact are determined, and on the way solutions are constructed and implemented.

The debates over how many people have been killed since 2003 in Iraq—and who did the killing—are of critical importance in setting the record straight. It is only through the generation of reliable and valid analysis that decision-makers and their armed forces can be held to account and that any form of meaningful lessons can be taken from such human-made disasters. Fortunately, Hicks and her colleagues extend the analysis beyond the numbers by applying a “dirty war index” (DWI) [18], which measures the proportion of women and children killed during hostilities. Their conclusions make for disturbing reading: while observing an escalation of extrajudicial killings and the use of mortars and vehicle bombs by unknown perpetrators, they attribute a high DWI to coalition and anti-coalition forces alike.