BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Thursday, U.S. airstrikes pounded the City of Fallujah in preparation for a major offensive there. Five civilians were reportedly killed in the bombing, bringing the total number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war to, well -- we don't know. Rough estimates range from ten- to thirty-thousand, until last week, when the British medical journal The Lancet published a study placing the figure closer to 100,000. In it, public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore compared mortality estimates from the 15 months before the invasion with the 18 months following it, and subtracted the difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Critics immediately pounced on the methodology, claiming that sampling errors rendered the findings meaningless. Some accused Lancet editors of trying to influence the election by fast-tracking the study for publication. But has the debate over how many died shifted attention from how they died and if it can be prevented? Last year, a Human Rights Watch report examined why civilian casualties occur in Iraq. It was authored by Marc Garlasco, someone well versed on the topic.
MARC GARLASCO: Right before I took my job at Human Rights Watch, I was the chief of high value targeting working out of the Pentagon, and was pretty heavily involved in the war in Iraq. I think the most aim points I had going down in any one night was about 411 weapons. On the 11th of April of 2003, I left. I, I worked my last air strike. And so I'm intimately familiar with targeting and how bombs actually meet their targets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So did the numbers of the Lancet study surprise you?
MARC GARLASCO: Well, at first it was really quite shocking. When Human Rights Watch was in Iraq, we came up with a number of about a thousand, a little more than that, of avoidable civilian casualties, and the British government has come up with a number of about 10,000 civilian deaths during the war over all. And so to think that in the intervening period there have been some 90,000 civilian deaths --it was really almost mind-numbing for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But have there been? I mean there have been some serious questions raised about the study's methodology. In fact, in a parenthetical phrase, the Johns Hopkins study group said that there was a 95 percent confidence interval that the deaths lay somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000. As someone in Slate remarked, "this isn't an estimate; it's a dart board."
MARC GARLASCO: Sure. Well, you know, I think the value of the Lancet study is primarily that they're raising the issue; that they're showing that, in fact, there are more civilian casualties than people really understand, and that in fact they may be eminently avoidable. You know, the Lancet group, it's not like you've got some people just ranting on the left. This is a organization with a long history of stunningly important work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The group Iraq Body Count estimated that about 15,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the war. What do you think of their methodology?
MARC GARLASCO: Well, their methodology looks at press reporting, and it's important for us to understand that, as the Lancet report pointed out, they will only be able to report on deaths that happen where a reporter is or is able to cover the story. And there are many areas in Iraq that people just cannot get to. You cannot report on. And so, I'm sure there are a lot of things falling through the cracks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the study that was published in Lancet succeeded in nudging the story of Iraqi civilian deaths into the news cycle?
MARC GARLASCO: Well, it certainly did raise the issue, but I was quite amazed that the media calls I was receiving were about 10 to 1 foreign media to U.S. media. Now, partly of course, that's because of the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc, we talked to a lead researcher with Iraq Body Count, John Sloboda, and he was concerned that the argument over Johns Hopkins' methodology could backfire on the whole enterprise of counting civilian dead. This is what he told us:
JOHN SLOBODA: I think you're going to find, in the weeks and months to follow, that there's going to be very, very serious debates and criticism of the study, and maybe, at the end of the day, the figure will be retracted or modified. And one of the lasting problems of this is that then, somehow, everybody who's trying to do estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq might be tarred with the same brush, and the whole enterprise kind of written off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think about that, Marc?
MARC GARLASCO: Sure. I can understand that. But I think part of that is: those opposed to doing casualty estimates or those people who might say, hey, you know, you've got to do what you've got to do in warfare -- they look to grab on to the first thing that they can. And in this case, it's methodology. Really, the bottom line here is not whether it's 10,000 or 20,000 or even a hundred thousand. The bottom line is that civilian casualties in Iraq are at an unacceptable level, because of actions taken by the U.S., U.K. and other militaries, and there are things that can be done to bring these civilian casualties down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say it's not about the numbers, and the bigger story here is that more innocent Iraqis have been killed in the war than most people would have expected, but numbers are important. Wouldn't you agree the number of 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust is seared into our historical memories? The number of 50,000 has come to stand in for everything that was wrong with Vietnam? If you can't get real numbers, what have you got to sway the public and the policymakers to act?
MARC GARLASCO: You're absolutely right. Numbers are critical. But for our work, we need to understand the how and why. For us to be able to say "People are dying because of cluster bombs," for example, or "because of problems of attacks in the ground and faulty rules of engagement." These are things that we can influence and can change. Now, we do, of course, while we're working on that, try to get a, a general idea of the numbers. But this is an evolving thing, and as our report showed, it's very difficult to get the definitive number, especially in a country like Iraq, where people are buried almost immediately, where hospital records are very difficult to get a hold of. And so I don't think you're going to get more than a ball park figure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that it would be better for the media to raise the issue of civilian deaths, report on the issue of civilian deaths, but just leave numbers off the table all together? Maybe they just cloud the issue and serve as a distraction?
MARC GARLASCO: I think during the time, sure, it does. But in the end game, you really need to try to understand how, how it's quantified. We have to be able to do some kind of a, a relative analysis. Why do we have such an order of magnitude larger in the war in Iraq, for example, than we did when the war occurred in Kosovo? The problem, though, is I think that the media is, you know, really pushed by these fantastic number stories, and that if you can come out with a story and say hey, in this strike 20 people or 30 people or a hundred people were killed, in the end, that's a big story, and that's something that's going to get out there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc, thank you very much.
MARC GARLASCO: Thanks. You have a great day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc Garlasco is a senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch. [MUSIC]