July 20, 2006

Hundreds of Thousands?

The claim
It is commonly believed that during his 24 years in office Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. When he ruled, little evidence could be generated to support this view. It was widely rumored that Iraq was replete with mass graves, but with the Ba’th government in control, this claim was all but impossible to prove.

Shortly after the US-led invasion in 2003, our leaders announced that the evidence would now be forthcoming, that the mass graves would now be unearthed, that we would now know with certainty that Saddam’s government murdered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.

So mass graves started being uncovered. And the news stories started coming out. And our leaders started explaining the evidence to us. Tony Blair repeatedly stated that 400,000 corpses had been found. Congressman Pat Roberts (R-KS) claimed that he saw 18,000 bodies uncovered at Hillah and that the total number dead was 500,000. USAid (U.S. Agency for International Development) likened the newly discovered mass graves to the bloodied countrysides of Rwanda and Cambodia.

The discovered graves tell a horrific story, a story of bloodshed and murder, a story that undoubtedly condemns Saddam’s regime. Nevertheless, our leaders have greatly exaggerated the number of bodies found. Consider a few facts.

The evidence
First, our leaders have capitalized on the common misunderstanding of the term “mass grave.” When people hear the term, they tend to picture a crater filled with thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of bodies. The State Department, however, defines a mass grave as an unmarked grave containing six or more bodies. And, despite common belief, most of the discovered mass graves contain a relatively small number of people. (Archaeologists for Human Rights, “Mass grave sites in Iraq,” 2003) Aware of this misunderstanding, our leaders all too flippantly throw around the term and thus knowingly deceive.

Second, not all of the discovered mass graves contain victims of Saddam’s government. Although you’ll never hear this from our leaders, some of the graves contain individuals who died in the Persian Gulf War as a result of U.S. bombing that targeted civilian infrastructure. Others contain individuals who died as a result of U.S. bombing in the 2003 invasion (The Guardian, “Mass graves to reveal Iraq war toll,” August 21, 2003).

Third, by July of 2004, only around 5,000 corpses had been discovered (The Observer, “Blair grave claims ‘untrue,’” July 18, 2004). And since then, our major news sources have only produced a handful of stories about new findings. And, from what I have been able to find, these new findings only add up to a few hundred bodies. Tony Blair’s claim of 400,000 is simply false—so blatantly false that in July of 2004 his own office even admitted he was wrong (The Observer, July 18, 2004). Senator Roberts’ claim that 18,000 bodies were found at Hillah was refuted when, a year after counting, the exhumation at Hillah only uncovered 3,000 bodies (“Mass grave sites in Iraq,” Archaeologists for Human Rights). And USAid’s likening of the mass graves to mass gravesites in Rwanda and Cambodia is nothing short of ludicrous.

So let’s review the facts. Many of the mass graves contain a relatively small number of bodies. Some of the mass graves contain individuals killed by the United States military. Only thousands—not hundreds of thousands, not even tens of thousands—of bodies have been found.

That only a few thousand bodies have been found was conceded by Human Rights Watch in a report they released on November 4, 2004. The report chronicles the known documentary and forensics evidence that can be used to try Saddam and other former Iraqi leaders for their crimes against humanity. The report makes no attempt to corroborate the outlandish claims made by various politicians. Instead, it flat-out admits that evidence needed to convict Saddam for killing hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands, simply does not exist. They blame this lack of evidence on U.S.-led coalition forces, who failed to secure both mass graves and key documents during the 2003 invasion.

An explanation
Nobody seriously doubts that Saddam’s government killed far more individuals than have been found. In fact, it seems possible that, as Human Rights Watch claims, Saddam’s government is responsible for the deaths of between 250,000 and 290,000 people.

Why then haven’t more bodies been found?

Human Rights Watch gives three answers, all of which seem very plausible. First, it is undeniable that much evidence was lost during the 2003 invasion. Second, given the “secrecy under which the Iraqi military and police conducted burials in Iraq,” it seems likely that investigators will never uncover all of the mass graves. And finally, time, along with the manner in which many of Saddam’s victims were buried, makes it likely that many of the bodies have deteriorated and even disintegrated.

Of course, a fourth reason, one not given by Human Rights Watch, is that the number of estimated deaths has been exaggerated. I’m not convinced that this fourth reason is true, but, given everything we know, it seems at least as plausible as the claim that hundreds of thousands are still waiting to be unburied.

So what?
So what’s my point in writing this? Why does it matter whether Saddam killed 500,000 or 50,000 or 5,000 people? In one sense, it makes no difference. I believe that, even if Saddam only killed 500 people, he is a cold-blooded murderer who deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

So why then does it matter? Why am I making such a big deal over the number of dead Iraqis? I’m making such a big deal to point out that our leaders lied. They lied about WMDs. And they lied about the number of Saddam’s victims.

They, of course, could have told the truth and still argued in favor of the war.

They could have argued for the war without claiming that Saddam had WMDs.

They could have argued for the war without claiming that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands. But, evidently lacking confidence that the truth would win over the majority of the people, they chose to lie. And for this they must be held accountable.

For democracy requires that people be informed, and how can a people be informed when its very leaders deceive them?