MARCH 2003



MEDIA cover of the 1991 Gulf war made war seem so clean. The Department of Defence gave Americans daily briefings that were just tightly controlled shows. To many Americans for whom Vietnam was a childhood memory, the Colin Powell and Dick Cheney shows seemed a postmodern perversion of high school show and tell, where the world was shown the defence industry's new toys. What was not shown was what happened to the Iraqis after the war. Journalists have trouble making a story out of children and the elderly suffering "excess mortality".

What is happening now has led us to ask how many civilians perished in the 1991 Gulf war? Was it the clean war we were led to believe? In my research, I divide casualties into five categories - civilian deaths due directly and indirectly to war; military deaths due directly to war, and to postwar uprisings; and civilian deaths due to postwar uprisings.

The first category includes civilian deaths when bombs miss their targets, or when bombs hit targets but kill civilians, those killed by strafing, etc. By compiling data from witness reports along with information from the Iraqi government and confirmed by witness reports), I estimate some 3,500 civilians died from direct war effects. If this were all, I too might have bought into the "clean" war.

But before that war, there were surveys showing that infant and child mortality in Iraq steeply declined in the 1980s. Then in 1991, researchers surveyed Iraqi women of childbearing age, asking about children born since 1985, and supplying for them a date of birth and, if applicable, date of death. Analysis of surveys suggests that the infant mortality rate (deaths per 1,000 live births) in Iraq in 1991 was 93, rather than the 37 that it would have been had trends continued uninterrupted.

Demographers use model life tables when only some parts of the mortality curve are known. Using information on infant and child mortality before and after the war with model life tables allows the estimate of the number of expected deaths in Iraq to be set against those that would have happened in 1991 had trends not been interrupted. This way, there were 111,000 "excess deaths" in 1991 - due to disruptions to Iraqi society and economy.

Military experts provided estimates of Iraqi deaths for other categories. Military deaths due to direct effects were 49,000-63,000. Postwar uprisings caused the deaths of about 5,000 military personnel and 30,000 civilians, 75% of them "civilian combatants".

Deaths to civilians from indirect health damage dwarf the other statistics. More civilians died after the war than during it. Of postwar civilian deaths due to indirect damage, some 70,000 were of children under 15. What were the causes of these deaths? Destruction of infrastructure was the major cause - as it is after earthquakes, floods and other catastrophes that knock out water supplies, electricity, heat, food and medicine.

It is clear that the rules of war have not kept up with changes in military technology. The rule of proportionality, meant to protect civilians, dictates that in military operations constant care must be taken to spare civilian populations and property. Those who plan an attack must take all feasible precautions to avoid, or at least, minimise, loss of or injury to civilian life, and damage to property, and refrain from launching any attack expected to cause such results and excessive in relation to the direct advantage anticipated (1).

The rule is being applied only to direct civilian casualties. But when wars are fought to keep such deaths to a minimum only to have civilians suffer indirectly, then either the rule or interpretation of the rule needs to be updated so that the calculation is based on concrete military advantage versus civilian deaths, direct or indirect. Economic sanctions adversely affect civilians so that instead of being a sterile alternative to war, they are almost an extension of war and, like traditional war, cost civilian lives. There is no safe way to conduct a war. We can learn from the past, though: we learn that civilians suffer disproportionately when diplomacy fails.

Beth Daponte, researcher at the Carnegie Mellon University, lost her job at the US department of commerce in 1992 when she contradicted Dick Cheney, then defence secretary, over civilian victims of the Gulf war. She is author of 'A Case Study of the Impact of Sanctions against Iraq prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War', American Journal of Public Health, April 2000.

(1) US Department of the Air Force, International Law: The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations, 19 November 1976.
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