DEAD BODIES DON'T COUNT - Civilian Casualties and the Forgotten Costs of the Iraq Conflict

Dead Bodies Don’t Count  

Hugh Mackay – author, social commentator and columnist The Sun Herald, The Age and The Sunday Age  

“This book is no fun to read. Paul Wilson and Richard Hil are unflinching in their determination to remind us that in amongst all the politics, the religion, the posturing, the spin and the rhetoric, there’s one incontrovertible fact about the invasion of Iraq : it has brought violent death on a massive scale to innocent civilians.”  

Philip Adams (AO) – ABC Late Night Live and Australian newspaper columnist  

“The invasion of Iraq is the greatest fiasco since Vietnam —made worse by the lies and censorship swirling around the Iraqi fatalities. At last a book that tells the truth!"  

Dr Richard Hil is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University. He has researched and published extensively in the areas of criminology, child and family welfare and youth justice. Dr Hil is Associate Director of the Centre for Peace and Social Justice at Southern Cross University and Director of the Bellingen Institute.  

Paul Wilson is a social commentator and criminologist who is the author of 25 books on crime, justice and social issues. He has been Director of Research at The Australian Institute of Criminology , Dean at two universities and is currently Chair of Criminology at Bond University , Gold Coast , Australia . Paul also co-authored (with Graeme Crowley) the investigative study, Who Killed Leanne? also published by Zeus in 2005.

In Store Price: $AU21.95 
Online Price:   $AU20.95

ISBN:   978-1-921240-51-5
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 125
Genre: Non Fiction


Author: Richard Hil and Paul Wilson 
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2007
Language: English



By Professor Emeritus Stuart Rees AM, University of Sydney , Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, and Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.  

Suppression of information is a strategy of war, even in democracies. This is one of several timely conclusions from Richard Hil and Paul Wilson’s powerful study of the human costs of the Iraq war. The authors identify other controversies, from conservative claims that 60,000 innocents have died to sophisticated research estimates that over 600,000 lost their lives. With compelling evidence, the authors expose those costs of the Iraq catastrophe which go ‘beyond the body bags’: the disability and unemployment, the destructive mental trauma and broken families; the environmental destruction; the prolonged individual and collective grief.  

The study also illustrates the formidable obstacles to achieving peace in Iraq . If President Bush and Prime Ministers Blair and Howard had been concerned about the unnecessary loss of even one life, they might not have been so fascinated by war as a tool of policy; the occupation of that country might never have happened or would have been halted years ago. In response to the Bush administration’s love of violence, coupled with its belief in an entitlement to take unilateral action, the rules of humanitarian law have proved ineffective.

This book provides other invaluable insights for politicians and policy makers, for those members of the public who may still support wars and for the militarists who trade in weapons and who may continue to think that killing is a noble art. The lessons are contemporary yet time worn: silence about casualties must eventually be broken; violence begets violence; the human costs of this war are incalculable and will last for generations. For the devastated people of Iraq , for the grieving families of any soldiers, for the worldwide opponents of war, this is a highly significant work. One of the major themesthe culture of official silenceimplies an unforgettable couple of questions: ‘Can the powerless ever be heard? When will the powerful ever learn?’


Without the help, advice, encouragement and support of many, this project may never have reached fruition. We are particularly indebted to the following for their knowledge, insights and support: Alex Kouzmin, Humphrey McQueen, Baden Offord, Liz Porter, Rosemary Webb, Rob Simpson, Anna Bloemhard and especially Robyn Lincoln for her encouragement and editorial input. We also express our deep gratitude to Jo Jones who put considerable energy into getting this book to its final state.  

Our thanks also go to members of the Australian Kurdish Association, the Australian Arabic Community Council and the Community Relations Council for a Multicultural NSW, and Waratah Rose Gillespie whose courageous work we have referred to in this book. A special debt of gratitude goes to Firas Naji who was generous with his time and thoughts. His insights have proved invaluable.

We also wish to thank students at Southern Cross University and Bond University who had to listen patiently to our latest thoughts about the war in Iraq and who encouraged us to think harder. The librarian at Southern Cross University ( Coffs Harbour ), Jan Small, provided enormous assistance in researching material for the book. She has come to our rescue on several occasions but was especially helpful in alerting us to appropriate source material.

We further wish to thank Ann Simpson whose energy, generosity and indefatigable activism are well known to many others in Australia . Finally, we wish to express our gratitude to all those members of the Bellingen Institute who contributed in various ways to the production of this book. The Institute is committed to promoting the voices of those who have been silenced by the powerful and this book is a small contribution to this political objective. But above all, our book is dedicated to the people of Iraq who have paid more than most for a conflict fought out by powerful armies for reasons widely recognised as somewhat less than noble and just.

As with any text, the final responsibility for errors, intellectual myopia and occasional idiocy rests with the authors.


The Politics of Death

The terror and ‘collateral damage’ inflicted by governments on civilians leave them just as injured or dead as a terrorist attack would.[i]

Silence plays a key role in the exercise of power. It creates spaces that are occupied by those who seek to assert their views of the world and establish their place in it. Some people therefore possess voices that are powerful and noisy, while others are rendered voiceless, bereft of an opportunity to speak out about their experiences, and seemingly unable to assert their grievances. They become what John Pilger recently referred to as ‘unpeople’—a shadowy population whose identities are stripped away and, in effect, consigned to the distant footnotes of history.[ii] This book is about a group of unpeople who have suffered extreme harm and yet received precious little attention from the Western media and virtually none from military or political elites.


The people of Iraq —men, women and children—have experienced considerable pain and suffering over the past few decades. In addition to having endured well over twenty years of brutal dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, they have also borne the brunt of a prolonged and bitter war against Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, several years of UN-imposed sanctions, repeated bombings by US and British forces during the 1990s, and the US-led invasion in 2003 followed by a bloody and protracted period of occupation. Perhaps the most tragic phase of Iraq ’s recent history is this period of occupation because it has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, more often than not at the hands of their own people. A virtual state of civil war has led to unprecedented acts of random killings and tit-for-tat murders in a country torn apart by ethnic and religious rivalry and bloody resistance to military occupation.

What started out in March 2003 as a war of ‘liberation and freedom’ has ended in years of bloodletting, with the prospects for peace and stability becoming increasingly remote. For the people of Iraq , the war and subsequent occupation have resulted in extensive death and injury as well as significant damage and destruction to the environment, economy and society. There is of course nothing new about this—wars and conflicts have always resulted in significant harm to innocent people.

Our primary concern in this book is with the bodily harm as well as the many other personal, social, economic, political and environmental costs of the conflict from March 2003 to late 2006. Additionally, we discuss how the question of civilian casualties has, or has not, been addressed by the instigators of the war, namely the US -led ‘coalition of the willing’. This is a political story about how the world’s leading superpower, along with its acolytes, sought to prosecute a war which many legal experts regarded as both illegal and unjust, and how it proceeded to ignore or play down the issue of civilian casualties.[iii] In shrouding this issue in silence the leaders of the coalition were intent, consciously or otherwise, on presenting their role as the benign guardians of Iraqi interests. Yet as is now clear, this sanguine picture has been repeatedly shattered as events have unfolded since March 2003. This apparent tension between image and reality, representation and actuality, is in part a function of war since the victors are almost always able to present a certain sanitised, self-serving view of events.

In attempting to break the official silence over civilian casualties, we are contributing to a view of events that is somewhat at odds with many of the official claims and justifications made by politicians and military leaders. Our aim is to develop a reading of events relating to the second Gulf War that focuses on the lived experiences of ordinary Iraqi people. In so doing we are adding to the growing and important body of literature—much of it written by journalists on the ground in Iraq —that documents some of the realities of war from the perspective of everyday citizens caught up in this calamitous conflict. We also draw on more formal studies of the conflict—usually conducted by non-government organisations, research institutes and centres—that have attempted (bravely at times) to amass evidence on the Iraqi dead and injured. Although our focus is on civilian casualties we do not forget about the thousands of Iraqi, US and other troops who have died or been injured, nor the police officers, security personnel and reconstruction workers who have suffered severely as a result of the ongoing insurgency.

Dead Bodies Don’t Count comprises five chapters, beginning with The Culture of Official Silence that examines the way in which the governments of the ‘coalition of the willing’ have consistently refused to undertake a count of the Iraqi dead and injured. This is followed by a discussion of the term ‘civilian casualties’ and what this means when we take into account the full consequences of war on civilian populations. In Chapter 2, Counting the Casualties, we discuss the specific context of Iraq and summarise findings from key international studies on the nature and extent of casualties that have resulted from the invasion and subsequent occupation. Chapter 3, Beyond the Body Bags, builds on this account by arguing for a more comprehensive view of the harm done to the Iraqi people. Specifically, we examine the personal, social, environmental, economic and political implications of the conflict and what this means for the present and future challenges faced by those caught up in a bloody battle. Chapter 4, Media Spin, Media Silence, discusses the ways in which the US-led coalition has responded, or not, to the question of civilian harm and how they have represented their own position in relation to the conflict. We examine the implications of the official refusal to conduct a body count and how this has given rise to competing explanatory narratives. In the final chapter, Breaking the Silence, we discuss the political implications stemming from public knowledge about the harm experienced by the Iraqi people as a result of the ongoing conflict.

We argue that the resounding silence over Iraqi victims is in fact symptomatic of various exclusionary processes that underscore relationships between the powerful and the subjugated, and that this relationship is characterised by narratives that emphasise one account over others, and which ultimately seek to legitimate the actions of the victor. However, in the case of Iraq the attempt by the powerful to sanitise the war, to render it ‘clean’ and ‘swift’, have gradually crumbled in the face of evidence of widespread atrocities. Such accounts have brought into sharp relief the gulf between official claims and the lived realities of the Iraqi people. In acknowledging the pain and suffering of ordinary Iraqis we insist on the necessity of taking seriously the consequences of war and recognising fully the rights of non-combatants under provisions contained in the Geneva Convention and Hague protocols.

If this book achieves anything, it is to draw greater attention to the central role that international law, conventions and protocols should play in determining relations between countries, especially during times of tension. These legislative measures have been put into place to ensure the protection of various legal and civil rights of innocent people and that capricious decision-making on the part of the victors is kept to a minimum. In challenging the official silence about death and injury, harm and destruction, we wish to highlight the consequences of war including the deaths and injuries suffered by coalition troops since the time of the invasion.



The Culture of Official Silence

“…for the men, women and children blown to pieces in Iraq, the solidarity we extended naturally to the London victims, was denied; we were not allowed to know them. Why? Certainly, they were not ‘us’, but they were ‘our’ victims – that is, they had died at the hands of forces in collusion with our government and in our name”.[iv]

Admissions and deep regret

The official silence surrounding the question of Iraqi civilian casualties became progressively more difficult to sustain following the start of the invasion in March 2003. More than two and half years later, US President George W Bush, in response to a question from a delegate of the World Affairs Council about the extent of Iraqi civilian casualties said, ‘I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis’, but stressed, ‘we’ve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq’.[v] This was the first time since the beginning of hostilities that the US President had made any such announcement. Prior to this, there was evasion, denial and obfuscation aplenty from government officials and military leaders, but no actual number. Quite where the President drew his figures from remained unclear, and the White House official spokesperson, Dan Bartlett, was quick to say that the figure was unofficial and that the President was merely responding to inquiries.

And there have been no shortage of inquiries as journalists and representatives of various non-government organisations have sought official responses about Iraqi civil casualties. One of the most startling admissions to come from the Ministry of Defence in the UK during the war was their stated preparedness not to undertake any sort of casualty count. This refusal was issued on the grounds that military forces had attempted to avoid casualties. Regret was expressed and the observation made that in a war of this scale civilian deaths and injury were ‘unavoidable’. The Defence Secretary said:[vi]


Any loss of life, particularly civilian, is deeply regrettable, but in a military operation the size of [this one] it is also unavoidable. Through very strict rules of engagement, the use of precision munitions, and the tactical methods employed to liberate Iraq’s major cities we are satisfied that the coalition did everything possible to avoid unnecessary casualties. We do not therefore intend to undertake a formal review of Iraqi civilian casualties sustained from 19 March to 1 May.


On 8 March 2005 the British government, via its Iraq Policy Unit, sent the following email to one of the authors (Richard Hil) in response to his inquiry about Iraqi civilian casualties sent several months earlier. The response was less dismissive than that of the Defence Secretary but nonetheless sought to deny the need for the government to undertake a body count since the best available source was the Iraqi health ministry:


Thank you for your e-mail calling for an independent inquiry into Iraqi civilian casualties ... We agree that the civilian casualties that have occurred in Iraq , including under the previous regime, are of significant concern.


You asked about the possibility of an assessment by the UK of civilian casualties. As the Foreign Secretary explained in his written statement to Parliament on 17 November 2004, it would be impossible in many cases for non-Iraqi agencies to make a reliable assessment of either civilian casualties resulting from particular attacks, or of civilian casualties since March 2003.We believe that the Iraqi authorities remain in the best position to record casualties in their country. The Iraqi Ministry of Health has collated statistics from hospital records since April 2004. On 28 January 2005 the Iraqi Ministry of Health stated that between July and December 2004, 3,274 Iraqi civilians were killed. The Ministry of Health does not give details about who or how they died, or attempt to determine responsibility. An independent inquiry is highly unlikely to be able to gain better access and provide more accurate information on civilian casualties than the Iraqi Government itself.


We regret that accurate civilian casualty figures are not available from the Iraqi Ministry of Health prior to April 2004 but this does not mean that we do not value Iraqi lives. Our armed forces, and those of other nations making up the Multi-National Force (MNF), are risking their lives on a daily basis to help the Iraqis bring much-deserved security, stability and democracy to their country.


As the Prime Minister noted in the House of Commons on 8 December 2004, the casualties that have occurred since major combat activities ended on 1 May 2003 have occurred as a result of actions by those determined to undermine the political process. Events of the last few weeks continue to reveal how terrorists are targeting the very Iraqis who are working hard to build a better future for their country. Terrorists and insurgents must lay down their weapons, and enable the vitally important reconstruction and humanitarian work to go ahead. [vii]


The proposition that it is ‘impossible’ for non-Iraqi authorities to come up with any reliable figure of the dead and injured flies in the face of the available evidence presented in the next chapter which suggests that such a figure is indeed possible and has been made so through the enormous efforts of non-government organisations. The somewhat disingenuous nature of the government’s approach to the question of a body count is compounded by its refusal to acknowledge the efforts of those many organisations that have gone to great lengths to come up with estimates of civilian casualties. The idea also that the beleaguered Iraqi health authorities are in the best position to conduct a count appears ludicrous given the fact that the Iraqi health services came in for sustained attack by coalition forces and considerable damage was caused to hospital and other health services.

The process of counting the dead and injured under conditions of acute crisis is far from reliable. The British government’s refusal to establish an independent inquiry into the question of civilian casualties is yet a further rebuttal to those who have called for active measures on the part of the coalition forces to carry out a count. The final part of the email identifies ‘terrorists’ and others as responsible for the mayhem in Iraq but does not acknowledge that the invasion itself and the subsequent occupation have led to considerable social, economic and political instability as well as an increase in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

[i] Stevens 2004: 32

[ii] Pilger 2003

[iii] Sands 2006

[iv] Pilger 2005: 3

[v] Sydney Morning Herald 14 December 2005

[vi] Defence Secretary cited in Iraq Body Count 2005b: 4

[vii] Email from British government, via its Iraq Policy Unit to Richard Hil (2005)


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