Counting the Dead - The Iraq Body Count Project
An interview with John Sloboda, co-founder of the Iraq Body Count by Jon Brunberg. Published on war-memorial.net in 2004.
When Baghdad was being pummelled with bombs day in and day out shortly after the coalition forces invaded Iraq, in March of 2003, it was obvious that the loss of civilian lives would be extensive, but when I started to search for information on civilian casualties in the press, nothing was to be found: no reports of casualty figures, no estimates, not even from the UN or The Red Cross. The reports coming from the Iraqi Ministry of Defence were treated with deep mistrust by Western media and I only came across their figures in a few news reports (1). The US Ministry of Defense stuck to their media strategy from the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan by claiming that the use of so-called high-precision bombs was sparing civilian lives, while at the same time refusing to back up the claim with any data. Concerned journalist's questions were on the contrary met with irritation. It seemed like this was going to be another war where information indicating that civilians were being killed would be kept from the public.
THE IRAQ BODY COUNT PROJECT
What I eventually found was a reference in a news article to the Iraq Body Count project (hereafter IBC), along with its web site www.iraqbodycount.org. A visit to that site proved to be exactly what I was looking for. The name “Iraq Body Count” may sound macabre, but its significance is explained when one visits the group's web site and finds the now famous comment by US General Tommy Franks, from March, 2003: "We don't do body counts". In contrast to the coalition forces, IBC does indeed count bodies, or to be more precise civilian deaths as a result of the invasion, and they're using an absolutely brilliant method to do so. By extracting and processing data from news reports published by predominantly Western media, they get an estimated minimum and maximum civilian deaths. This is done using a rigorous method that is presented in detail on the web site together with the result of the count. Another important function on the web site is a free web counter, which internet users can download and install on their own web sites. The counter, which displays the estimated minimum and maximum deaths, updates automatically when new data is added to the database at IBC. The counter has been installed on around 70,000 web pages all over the world. It is no exagerration to claim that the impact of the IBC project have been very strong, but it would hardly have been so were it not for the Internet and the massive number of news reports available online.
The ingenious thing about this method, in my opinion, is that it is designed in a way that makes it very hard for Western media to question the figures. If the media did question the figures, they would most definitely have to question the reliability of their own reporting. Furthermore, the figures are considered to be on the conservative side of the scale, and are thus easier for Western media to embrace. There are of course critical voices – and attempts to defame the project in the ongoing propaganda war – but I really haven't seen any well-argued attacks on the method. Most of the criticism revolves more around the fact that the people doing the counts are not professional researchers than what it is they are doing, which I believe is a sign that the method in and of itself is very hard to dismiss.
The very difficulty of an aid organisation’s task of doing a survey on the ground in Iraq during the height of the war, combined with the unwillingness of the coalition forces even to discuss the matter, meant that IBC was, for a long time, the only available, trusted source for information about the estimated civilian deaths in the war. My first reaction upon first visiting the IBC web site was that this service must certainly be backed by a large NGO, but after browsing the documents on the site I found that the opposite was the case. This is basically a non-funded project that is run by an independent project group of twenty volunteers from the UK and the US. To find out more about the IBC and the people behind it, I spoke with one of two founding members, Mr. John Sloboda, from his home in the UK. Mr. Sloboda was also kind enough to forward me a copy of the chapter written by him and Mr. Hamit Dardagan, the co-founder of the IBC project, from an anthology edited by Alexander Danchev and John McMillan, entitled "The Iraq War and Democratic Politics", published by Routledge in December of 2004.
THE SOURCE OF INSPIRATION - MARC HEROLD'S RESEARCH
How did the project start and where was the method invented and developed? John Sloboda says that the IBC project was inspired by the research done by Marc Herold, who is a Professor of Economics at the University of New Hampshire in the US. Prof. Herold developed this method as a research tool to estimate the number of civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan (2). John Sloboda read about Marc Herold's research in an article in the UK newspaper The Guardian on Dec 20, 2002, and found it to be "an outstanding piece of work". He'd never seen that kind of research done before, and says that it is likely that Prof. Herold developed the method himself. At that time, John Sloboda had a feeling that the US-led coalition would invade Iraq, and he contacted Marc Herold to tell him that his method should be used in the event that war did indeed break out. The professor said that he couldn't do this himself because of time constraints, but proposed instead that Sloboda should undertake the research and use his method. It turned out that another concerned UK citizen, Hamit Dardagan, had contacted Herold earlier with a similar request, and when John Sloboda told Herold that he needed a partner to be able to start up such a project, Herold suggested a collaboration between the two.
No sooner said than done. After intense discussions between Dardagan and Sloboda in January of 2003, they decided to start IBC. They agreed that it was of great importance to design the project in such a way that they could reach a wide audience. By setting up a web site that would be online from day one of the impending war, they could immediately publish their results. The ambition was to be able to collect and publish data only one or two days after an incident had been reported in the news.
Sloboda and Dardagan invited around twenty people to form a project team. They recruited friends and colleagues they knew they could work together with and trust completely. This decision was also taken because they knew that they had little time at their disposal, since the war seemed imminent. The members agreed to work with IBC for two years and most of them are still contributing to the project. "It might seem like a peculiar group of people for a research team", says John Sloboda. "It includes for example several musicians, simply because we also work with music and know a lot of musicians". All members work as unpaid volunteers and the project is basically non-funded. Only recently has the group received a few grants that have paid for the cost of running the web site and paying the Internet service provider. Other grants have been connected to specific projects such as writing a chapter for the book mentioned earlier.
THE IRAQ BODY COUNT ONLINE
The IBC web site immediately attracted a huge number of visitors. At the height of the war in March, 2003, the web site had up to 150,000 hits a day, and the heavy traffic to the site almost brought their Internet service provider down, and resulted in increased costs for the project group. After the war was declared over in May, 2003, the numbers of visitors dropped to around 10,000 hits per day, but whenever IBC is mentioned in the media, for example when The Lancet report was published the week before the US elections, there is an upsurge of visitors to the site.
John Sloboda says that, in contrast to what they had expected, it turned out that in the beginning most visitors were pro-war activists who searched for proof that the so called high-precision bombing campaign in Iraq spared civilian lives as claimed by the coalition forces. When they found that IBC's research instead proved the opposite, they started to bombard the team with thousands of abusive and threatening e-mails, which overflowed the official IBC email accounts. According to John Sloboda this was an orchestrated psychological operation (psyops), which is a specialty of extreme right-wing organisations in the US, with the purpose of demoralizing and distracting the recipients. The project team had to develop countermeasures to avoid the normal e-mail traffic from drowning in the flood of hate-letters. The campaign slowed down dramatically after May of 2003, but they still receive a couple of these e-mails every day.
The mainstream media quickly found their way to the IBC web site and started to publish the results of the counts. Even the very same media agencies from which the data had been extracted in the first place, like Reuters, BBC and the Associated Press, have made reference to the IBC counts, something that I find quite absurd. Shouldn't at least the larger press bureaus keep a record of the results of their own reports, as a service to the press at large? John Sloboda says that the media has neither the time nor interest for such collection and analysis of data, as IBC does. I wouldn't be surprised though if press, at least those on the left of centre, adopts this method in the future.
The attention has also meant that the team is often asked to comment on major incidents, and is also sometimes asked what should be done to ascertain the exact number of civilian deaths in Iraq. The group has released a document answering such questions, in which they demand that an independent tribunal with members from either the US, the UK, the Iraqi government, the UN, or all of the above should be set up to do a proper count of the total human cost, which implies gathering of reports from all sources available and knocking on every door in Iraq to find out how many civilians lives have been lost.
PUTTING THE METHOD TO WORK
The work of collecting and refining data seems to be hard, especially in times when campaigns like that in Fallujah are going on full force. I ask John Sloboda how the group works on a daily basis. "Every day, principal researcher Kay Williams visits Google News Search to find press reports on civilian deaths in Iraq. Google News is an excellent tool for extracting the necessary data but it has to be done several times a day because some news bulletins only stay online for a couple of hours. The press reports of interest are posted on a private bulletin board where a second researcher analyses them and extracts the exact number of killed civilians from each article. No incident will be recorded if it has not been reported by at least two news sources. In the next step, two other members of the team must confirm the numbers by checking the sources before they are finally published. Today, the database includes around 2000 examined press reports, covering 500-600 reported incidents." One of the robust features of the method is that it is designed to avoid the recording of the same incident twice, an otherwise common problem with this type of research.
The source material is stored both on a secure server, and in the form of hard copies, so that the counts can easily be verified, which is sometimes necessary. An American newspaper that wanted to publish the IBC figures asked for proof that sources were correctly referenced, and therefore requested digital copies of news reports used as source material for twenty randomly selected incidents recorded in the IBC database. Because of the well-organised catalogue system, team members could effortlessly pick out the requested news reports and send it to the newspaper.
THE FUTURE OF THE IBC PROJECT
For how long will this project continue? John Sloboda says that they first planned to run it for two years but that they will continue with the research as long as there are UK and US troops involved in combat in Iraq. Since all members of the IBC are UK or US citizens and since the invasion was the decision of George W Bush and Tony Blair, who funded the war with tax money, with the result that civilians are being killed, they feel that it is their duty, as UK and US citizens, to continue for as long as the war continues.
A few days after this interview was conducted, the coalition forces started their campaign on Fallujah and the situation in Iraq has deteriorated quickly since then. It unfortunately looks like the IBC project will have to continue for quite a while. It might even extend its actions. John Sloboda reveals that the project group has already bought the domain name iranbodycount.org should coalition forces decide to invade Iran.
It would be interesting to see this method developed on a global level, but John Sloboda says that it is useful only in conflict zones from which there is extensive reporting, as in Afghanistan or Iraq. The current conflict in Sudan is just one example where the method wouldn't be efficient. On the other hand, there are examples where casualty figures are already regularly published, such as in the Al-Aqsa Intifada of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
IBC is not alone today in their effort to count the civilian deaths in the Iraq war. On their web site they have published a survey listing around thirty organisations that are involved in similar research. IBC's conclusion is that a mix of direct research from the ground and indirect research analysing media reports is perhaps the most efficient way of finding out the correct number of deaths. One of the more promising groups they mention is CIVIC, which organised a door-to-door operation staged by around 175 Iraqi researchers, which has collected over 2000 names of civilians killed, a list which is also included in an online memorial-in-progress at the IBC web site, and further described in the article "Cross-National Commemoration in the Iraq War".
Sloboda, Dardagan and their co-workers at the IBC project have made a truly amazing effort in their work of establishing the cold, hard facts of the war. When I tell John Sloboda that I'm from Sweden he says that he has visited my country frequently in the past as part of his professional activities, and says he'd love to go again but adds that he has spent the last 18 months counting the dead with no time for travel. Whatever the future for the IBC project holds, the group has brought the work of Marc Herold to the public, reaching hundreds of thousands of people, and I'm absolutely convinced that this method is going to be used and further developed by them or other groups in the future, and that it will indeed be needed. In Sloboda and Dardagan's own words: "It would be optimistic to believe that IBC is about to render itself, and projects like it, obsolete. A commitment from an international body such as the UN or the Red Cross always to undertake such assessments in the future might be an outcome which would incline the activists to hand over the work to the professionals. However, the realists among us believe that no powerful aggressor nation will ever willingly submit to an external agency monitoring the behaviour of its own military. /.../ It is likely that body counts will remain a task for the dissenting civilian population for the foreseeable future. So long as such counts are undertaken with the methodological rigour and transparency that we have shown is possible, then this need not be the serious disadvantage it might seem to be." (3)
1) An article on this scepticism can be found in an interview with Mark Burgess, a researcher at the Center for Defense Information in Washington in the article "Number of Iraqi Dead May Be Unknowable" By John M. Broder, The New York Times April 10, 2003. http://www.musiciansforpeace.org/librarydocs/number.html IBC's own research shows that the casualty numbers released by the Iraqi MoD was in hindsight quite accurate.
2) For more information on Marc Herold's research visit the web pages http://pubpages.unh.edu/%7Emwherold/" , which also includes an online memorial to civilian victims, and http://www.cursor.org/stories/archivistan.htm .
3) John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan, The Iraq War and Democratic Politics, Edited by Alex Danchev and John MacMillan. Routledge, 2004.