Atrocity-Deniers Try to Poke Holes in Lancet Study

Daniel at Crooked Timber has done a bang-up job of answering the critics (“deniers” would be a better word for the bulk of them) of the Lancet study of mortality in Iraq. By coincidence, I was reading some Orwell yesterday, and found his “footnote on atrocities:”

I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish civil war. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists. But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.

It impresses me that a political sophisticate like George Orwell found this to be impressive; it’s so commonplace now that it’s hard to imagine a time when it would have been considered remarkable. American opinion over Iraq has certainly been a case in point. , it was the liberals and the Democrats in Congress who were making noise about Saddam’s human rights record and his pursuit of nuclear weapons. And it was the George Bush White House that refused to declare Iraq a gross violator of human rights and that lifted Congressional sanctions against Saddam, and it was the Republican Senators Bob Dole and Arlen Specter who were dispatched to Mosul to tell Saddam we were still happy to work with him.

, suddenly Bush was gravely reading aloud from Amnesty International reports, and the anti-war protesters for their part suddenly discovered a new concern for women’s suffrage in Kuwait.

During the long warm war in Iraq, the peacenik community sobbed and moaned over the children killed by sanctions-caused deprivation. (The more sober-minded wondered if Saddam might be persuaded to raise some milk money by renting out one or two of the palaces he’d built for his family.) As the war threatened to go hot in , “let sanctions work” was the new cry. Now, if the Lancet numbers are to be believed, the infant mortality rate in Iraq was nowhere near as bad as the sanctions critics believed — will you wonder if they fail to criticize the Lancet for its cover-up?

Addendum: See The Picket Line of for an update on child malnutrition and infant mortality in Iraq before and after the war.

And then there are the hawks, who dismiss the Lancet study with something half-remembered from Statistics 101 but who will throw out anecdotes and numbers about Saddam-era atrocities that are backed by nothing but the flimsiest guesswork or propaganda.

(They also claim angrily that the study was released when it was in order to influence the presidential election. Perhaps that much is true, but what influence did it or could it have been expected to have? If it had told a tale twice as bad, or ten times as bad, would any votes have switched? Would that I lived in a country in which such a report would influence an election.)

The fact of the matter is that the Lancet study, for all its imperfections, contains some of the best data we have about the effects of the war in Iraq, and it paints an ugly picture of the occupation’s toll. And yet, if you’d prefer this data did not exist — that is if you’d prefer the picture to be pretty — there are multiple ways to wish the data away that all sound (to one who is ignorant or not paying attention) very similar to a fervent and dispassionate striving for the facts of the matter. You’ll find them on your favorite pro-war web log.

“This kind of thing is frightening to me,” said Orwell, “because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world… In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘the facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

Also coincidentally, and also during ’s lazy rainy day, I was reading Hannah Arendt’s essay Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers () and came upon this quote, which I find either prescient or naïve, depending on my mood:

Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality.

That essay is full of awful déjà vu moments that make me believe that among the tragedies of the Iraq War is that it represents a second American defeat in the Vietnam War: not only was that war a savage sacrifice of life to bureaucratic hubris and cold ideology, but now even the hard lessons that the United States bought so expensively with its money and its reputation and its blood have been utterly forgotten, squandered, and repudiated like so many other ugly facts.