We must not just remember them. We must count them

Editorial

The Independent

12 December 2004

The return of the Black Watch from its tour of duty, including five weeks filling in for overstretched US forces at Camp Dogwood, is an important moment for the British part of the occupation of Iraq. Relief at the safe return of the regiment was coloured by sadness at the loss of their five comrades who will not be home for Christmas. Notwithstanding this newspaper's opposition to the war, we pay tribute to all the members of the armed forces who have served in Iraq and we honour the sacrifice of the 37 British service personnel killed in combat since the invasion. In particular, we recognise that there is no responsible alternative to the coalition seeing through its duty as the occupying power to try to ensure the security of the Iraqi people. That requires US and British soldiers to show courage and professionalism, for which they deserve respect.

The US combat death toll has just passed 1,000. This is a significant milestone, not least because when President George Bush declared the end of major combat operations and the toll stood at 109, few could have imagined that, 18 months later, it would have reached nearly 10 times that number. Yet other aspects of the cost of war have not been so carefully counted.

All the names and causes of death of their troops have been recorded by coalition governments, but estimates of the death toll among Iraqis have been left to under-resourced attempts by committed groups of concerned individuals. Nor do the US and British governments dwell much on the injuries and mental trauma suffered by their troops. Much of the human cost of this war is therefore hidden from view.

But it seriously weakens the moral case for the war - especially the humanitarian argument - that the US and British governments do not know and do not appear to want to know how many Iraqis have died as a result of their decision to "liberate" them. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, rejected The Lancet's estimate that 100,000 Iraqis had died as a consequence of the invasion, and regarded it as sufficient to say that the Geneva Conventions did not put him under an obligation to produce his own figure. That was a shameful, legalistic evasion.

The Lancet authors, who defend their findings on our Letters page today, had drawn attention to Convention IV, article 27, placing a duty on occupying armies to protect civilians from violence. They merely asked how a military force could monitor the extent to which civilians are protected "without systematically doing body counts or at least looking at the kinds of casualties they induce".

That, surely, is the point. And this is not only a matter of doing what is right, but also of doing what Machiavelli would regard as necessary. How on earth is the coalition to persuade the Iraqi people that it has their interests at heart when it appears to care so little about them that it makes no attempt to find out how many of them have died, and obstructs those who try to do so?