Transcript

300:

What's In A Number?
Transcript

Originally aired 10.28.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/300

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In her two years in Baghdad, Hannah Allam lost over 10 close friends. She was dragged from her hotel in the middle of the night by Iraqi police. She was caught in an attack on a shrine. And things got so bad and lasted so long that she called her mom on her cell phone, thinking she might not make it out of there.

Then a few weeks ago she took a break from her job as Baghdad bureau chief for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers and game home to the Midwest.

Hannah Allam

What struck me most coming back this time, this is the longest I've spent in the states in two years, and it does not seem to me like this country is at war. I was just in the airport here in Oklahoma-- Will Rogers International Airport-- and I was waiting on a flight, and a female soldier in full camouflage got off a plane and it was clear she had just come from Iraq, and was kind of looking around and people were looking at her as if she had come from Mars. And it struck me that what was going through people's heads was, oh, yeah, there's a war going on. I mean, just that was the looks on their faces.

You know, I live in Oklahoma, I go to Walmart, I'm an Okie. I mean, generally, the conversation goes, oh, can I have your zip code. Oh, I live overseas. Where? Baghdad. Oh, Baghdad. Wow. Well, you must be happy it's going so much better there now. And me, stunned silence. And me, mumbling, yeah, yeah, OK. Where do I sign, and getting out of the shop.

Ira Glass

Right. This is you actually just giving your visa card to somebody and you're like yeah, yeah.

Hannah Allam

I get that comment a lot. And people want so much for it to be going well. Sometimes I just can't bear to tell them that it's horrible, or that I lost so many friends, or whatever. I don't. I don't say it.

Ira Glass

It's hard though, soldiers are risking their lives, contractors are risking their lives, she and her staff of reporters are risking their lives, and it's not even for something people are paying attention to? Captain Chuck Ziegenfuss has seen some of the same things now that he's back in the states. Here's the commander of Charlie Company 234 armor in Iraq. He was blown off the road by an IED in June 2005. Shrapnel in his legs, arms, and face. He woke up two weeks later at a hospital in the states. He says that Fort Riley in Kansas where he lives, so many people have been sent overseas. It's a military community, there's no escaping the reality of the war.

Chuck Ziegenfuss

But when I watch the news and even the local news coming out of Topeka, they cover Iraq in the world minute. It's like an aside to what's going on with the wheat report. And I think a lot of people are just kind of getting on with their lives and although they realize there's a war going on, unless it personally affects them, they don't see it as a war like we saw the second world war or even Korea. They see it as more of an over there, but it doesn't apply to them.

It doesn't anger me that people don't realize there's a war going on, it disappoints me. So it's hard to explain, but I don't want to get into the crowd that says, you weren't there, you don't understand. It's something that can be explained, just in a lot more detail than you would see in a 60-minute TV show or even an excerpt on the radio.

Ira Glass

Take the body count. It's been in the news all this week because the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq passed 2,000.

Chuck Ziegenfuss

The body count, to me is probably the most offensive thing as it scrolls past on headline news or things like that because it's not about what we've lost, it's about what we've done and what those 2,000 people were doing when they were killed. Like myself, what was I doing when I was wounded? I was trying to keep a road open and safe for not just my soldiers, but for the people that travel on it every day. Now that I'm included in the X number of people that have been wounded in Iraq, I'm more than a statistic, and what I did over in Iraq is more than statistics.

Ira Glass

It seems like every day we hear these numbers and facts come and go, car bombings, more deaths. All really fast, without a lot of explanation. And today on our radio program, we just try to slow down, and understand better one particular number from Iraq, and what it means, really. From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass.

In act one of our show we're going to talk about a number and a quick news story that nobody really seemed to take very seriously at the time that it happened and what was really behind it. In act two, the Air Force drops a bombs on the wrong target in Sunni Iraq and accidentally kills 12 people, including children. An army captain has to go apologize and try to make things right. A journalist was with them and recorded this very difficult moment. Act three, what do we do with these numbers anyway? Stay with us.

Act One. Truth, Damn Truth, And Statistics.

Ira Glass

Act one, Truths, Damn Truths, and Statistics. The number we're going to talk about right now is not how many Americans have died in the Iraq war, but how many Iraqis have. The fact is we have no idea how many civilians have died as a result of the war. Nobody counts. Not the military, not the State Department. The Iraqi Ministry of Health for a good while early on in the war, was compiling morgue figures from across the country, and making them public every week. But that practice was stopped. These days, the place that most people go when they need a figure is a privately run, nonprofit website called Iraqbodycount.net. It gets its figures by going through newspaper articles and other press accounts and simply counting the number of people reported dead in those articles.

Even the people who started the site and who run it today freely admit that this method gives you a huge undercount. At best it's a minimum. The true number could be much, much higher. One of the producers of our radio show, Alex Blumberg, started looking into all of this. And he found something surprising and disturbing about the death figures, and what we know about them. Here he is.

Alex Blumberg

Eveyone will tell you, counting civilian casualties in wartime is hard. First of all, you need to do something called a large-scale mortality study. And second of all, you need to do it in the middle of a war zone. To date in Iraq, there's only been one attempt. It was a Johns Hopkins University Study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in late October 2004, a couple of days before the US presidential election.

It concluded that probably 100,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war. This figure was astonishingly high. 10 times higher than any casualty estimates at the time. Even today, a year later, with all the extra deaths that have happened in that year, no other estimate comes close. Just this week, the New York Times ran a story based on the Iraq body count website that's estimating civilian casualties at a fraction of that number, just 30,000.

Since The Lancet study's figures were so high and the study itself got almost no traction in the press, I remember thinking at the time it came out, that it's probably bogus and slanted. I'm guessing a lot of people, if they even heard about the study, felt the same way. But recently, in trying to figure out how many civilians have died in the war, I've learned more about The Lancet study. And the more I learned about it and the remarkable story of how it was done, the more likely it seems that the 100,000 is actually the best estimate. And if anything, low.

Les Roberts

Before the Iraq study the main thing I was known for and that I had testified in front of Congress for was documenting how many people had died in the war in the Congo.

Alex Blumberg

This is Les Roberts, the lead author on The Lancet study and one of a handful of scientists in the world who could be called, an expert in counting war dead. In the Congo study, he found that 1.7 million civilians had died from the war, a figure cited by Colin Powell when he was secretary of state, and Tony Blair on the floor of the British parliament. Les has also done studies in Burundi, Rwanda, and Sierra Leon.

To a guy in Les Robert's line of work, the war in Iraq had a number of unique and interesting things that deserved study. The main thing that distinguished this work was that the military took unprecedented care to avoid civilian casualties. Almost 2/3 of the bombs dropped were precision guided, as compared to just 8% in the first Gulf War, and 0% in World War II. They limited daytime strikes and avoided civilian infrastructure, like power and sewer plants. Compare that to World War II where American forces fire-bombed entire cities as part of the military strategy, killing up to 100,000 people in Tokyo alone, and upwards of half a million civilians in Europe, and you can see why George Bush called the Iraq War one of the most quote, "humane military campaigns in history."

But Les knew that often it's not bombs and bullets that kill people in war, it's the other things that happen when society falls apart. Clean water and medical supplies get scarce. In a lot of the studies he did in Africa, diarrhea killed more people than weapons did. Women can't get to the hospital to deliver their babies, so infant mortality rates go up as well.

It took Les a long time to get to Iraq and see if the same things were happening there. First, an Iraqi doctor who he'd plan to work with died in an auto accident, another social ill, by the way, that tends to increase during wartime. And then insurgent violence spiked. It wasn't until August of 2004, five months after he'd originally planned to go, that he finally landed in Amman, Jordan. He had $24,000 in foundation money in his pocket, his passport, and a letter of invitation from the Iraqi Ministry of Education. He found a driver, a retired Iraqi army officer named Wahid, who agreed to take him to Baghdad.

Problems started at the very first checkpoint, on the border between Jordan and Iraq.

Les Roberts

Wahid takes my passport, he takes my letter of invitation, and he goes. And he comes out just a few minutes later and he is just terrified. Turns out he bumped into a former friend of his from his military days. And he had pulled out my passport in front of him and his friend just, like, blanched and pushed the passport back into his pocket and said, you have an American here, are you crazy? Don't let anyone see that. Just get the hell out of here and don't let me see you again. You idiot!

Alex Blumberg

Fortunately for Les, Wahid was something of a Han Solo figure, an unenthusiastic, but talented smuggler who didn't look for trouble, but didn't run away from it once it found him. He talked his way through that first checkpoint.

Les Roberts

And we drive up a couple of miles and he pulls off the road behind this abandoned old gas station. And in the upholstery of his car he's got hidden another pair of license plates with a different color. And he's got another registration form to go with those license plates. So quickly, he gets out and he changes his license plates. And he says, look, you must lie down. You must stay hidden. And so I spent the next, whatever, eight hours lying on the floor. And we actually had to go through two extra points where they stopped and looked around in the car and he chatted with folks. And here I am, I'm lying down behind the back seat on the floor.

Alex Blumberg

So when they stopped and looked around, you were actually hiding from them?

Les Roberts

That's right.

Alex Blumberg

And were you scared?

Les Roberts

That's a funny thing. I had consciously made the decision that it was worth trading my life for a chance at getting a realistic estimate of how many Iraqi civilians have died and how they've died, so I was quite at peace with the notion of dying when I went.

Alex Blumberg

Les finally made it to Baghdad, where he met for the first time in person, his Iraqi co-researcher, the man with whom he'd be working for the next month. His name was Riyadh Lafta and he was a doctor of community medicine at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. Riyadh had hired a team of researchers, mostly doctors from his university. All of them native Iraqis, but fluent in English.

Let's pause here a moment to talk about their methodology. Because when their study came out later, a lot of people wanted to believe that it was flawed or biased. In fact, the survey team used a standard methodology for measuring health and mortality over a geographic area. It's called a cluster sample survey and it works like this.

Using the most recent census figures available in Iraq, the team made what was essentially, a map of the population. They then used a random number generator to pick 33 points on that map. Baghdad was the biggest population center, so it got several points by itself. But the other points were spread all over the country, from the Kurdish north to the Shiite south, from small towns to big cities.

Once they'd picked a town though, the team still had to figure out who to interview there. Here again, they worked hard to leave everything to chance. Using GPS units, they would drive around the outskirts of the town and store the coordinates, creating a rough outline of the town border. They would then generate a random point within that border, drive to it, and interview the 30 nearest households. It was such a commitment to random sampling that the first few times the team did it, even the researchers Les and Riyadh were working with, found it obsessive.

Les Roberts

It was very annoying to them because here they are in the car. They're out, they're feeling like they're at risk. And they'd be driving around for a long time to get to the extremes of a city and draw their map before they interviewed the first house. They're like driving around and not getting any work done they felt.

Alex Blumberg

And this is all just to make it as scientifically valid as possible, right?

Les Roberts

This is a way of picking houses without any sort of preference for safe neighborhoods, dangerous neighborhoods, near the highway, far from the highway. It was a way of sort of transcending human laziness so that, in essence, every household in Iraq had an equal chance we would visit them. And that is, in essence, the definition of random.

Alex Blumberg

The survey went smoothly, at least for the first couple of days. People, it turned out, were much more willing to answer questions. Even to provide death certificates as verification, than the researchers had initially thought they'd be. In fact, the trouble, when it came, came from Les himself.

Les Roberts

Must be about the fifth day I was out with them, the eighth cluster I attended. I, and two of the interviewers were up in a town to the north called Balad. And there was a huge picture of the cleric Sadr as you rolled into Balad. So clearly, it was an anti-coalition city in a big way.

Alex Blumberg

Sadr of Sadr militia?

Les Roberts

Of the Sadr militia, that's right. And as fate would have it, the first or the second door they knocked on was the governor's house. And so somebody calls the police.

Alex Blumberg

Les watched from the car as the police took the two researchers-- both doctors, one a dignified man in his 50s and the other a single mother-- and drove them away. He was terrified that somehow the police would find out that they were working with him, an American. But he could do nothing but sit in the parked car and hope no one discovered him.

Les Roberts

I had done everything I could to be invisible. I wore boring Iraqi clothing. I had dyed my hair black. I had grown a beard, so I would look right. But it still didn't look right. They had made up a fake business card that said, Dr. Abdul Salaam. That I was from Bosnia because that would explain me being blue-eyed, non-Arabic speaking. But I could still be a Muslim and that would make me OK. I was just so worried that us sitting there for an exorbitant length of time would draw attention that I put the back of the passenger seat down and I sort of laid on my side to pretend I was asleep, so I wouldn't have to speak to anyone if anyone came to the window of the car.

And I had probably been lying on my side for about 20, 30 minutes and these two little kids, they might have been 10, they came up to the window beside where I was, they stuck their head in the car, they looked around, and I'm pretending to be asleep. And they said to me, in English, hello mister. And you know, even with my eyes closed pretending to be asleep, there's just no way I could pretend I was an Iraqi. And there was no way around it, so that was a pretty just horrifying experience all around. And I'm wondering have I gotten these two lovely interviewers arrested or killed? And after an hour or a little more, a car brought back the two interviewers and they went right back to work. They didn't come to the car. They didn't look at us. They didn't acknowledge us. They just went right back to work and finished out the 30 houses randomly picked in that neighborhood and off we went.

But after that day, no interviewer ever spoke to me again. Not in person.

Alex Blumberg

Riyadh and Les decided that for everyone's safety, he should lay as low as possible. So for the next 16 days straight he didn't leave his hotel. To pass the time he crunched the numbers that the survey teams were calling into him every night.

The surveyors were getting basically two pieces of information from each household. How many people in that household had died in the 14 months before the invasion, and of what, and when? And how many had died in the 17 months after the invasion, and of what, and when?

By the time the teams had completed their 32nd out of 33 clusters, over 900 households, and over 7,000 people, the results were pretty shocking. The death rate itself had gone up about 60%. Large increase, but one that Les had expected from his other surveys. The shocker was how people were dying. For the first time in any of his surveys, the leading cause of death wasn't disease, it was bombs and bullets. In the 32 of the 33 clusters sampled, 21 people died of violence, as compared to just 1 violent death in the period before the war.

There was a second shocker. Of those 21, 2 people died in firefights where it was unclear where the bullet came from. 3 were killed by insurgents or Saddam loyalists. 7 died from criminal violence, carjackings, revenge killings, that sort of thing. And the biggest number, 9, were killed by the American-led coalition.

Les Roberts

I just didn't expect violence from the coalition to have dominated the causes of death in Iraq. In no way reading the New York Times and listening to National Public Radio would I have believed that the coalition killed far, far, far more people than did the insurgents setting off car bombs.

I should mention that only three of them involved guys with guns. All the rest were helicopter gunships and bombs from planes, so it's not about individual soldiers doing bad things. In fact, two of those three cases when soldiers shot civilians with their guns, they actually went to the houses of the decedents and apologized to the families. There's no evidence here of soldiers running amok. There's evidence here of a style of engagement that probably has relied very heavily on air power that has resulted in a lot of civilian deaths.

I was at a presentation last November and a Pentagon spokesperson said that they've dropped about 50,000 bombs in Iraq. 50,000 bombs. Very, very small fraction of them would need to miss their target or be based on bad information to explain 100,000 civilian deaths.

Alex Blumberg

At the end of three weeks, there was only one more cluster to survey. The team had saved it for the end because it was the most dangerous one: Fallujah.

Remember, this is September 2004, insurgents control the city and it's basically under siege from the coalition. They're shelling it regularly.

Les Roberts

It just seems crazy to go there. And I said to Riyadh, Riyadh, we have been to 32 of our 33 picked neighborhoods. We actually only thought in the end we would get to 30. We had aimed for 30 and picked 33 with the thought that 10% of places would be too unstable for us to get to. So we've done better than we expected. We have a terrible story to tell, the mortality is way up. Whatever you find in Fallujah is not going to change the story. Think of what we're going to gain. We're going to gain nothing. And he said, God picked those random locations. God wants me to do this work. I must do this. And we went back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and-- I was brought up Catholic, and I had never really thought about it or understood it until that moment in time.

But in my head, I actually sort of build up a weight. What's the likelihood of something bad going to happen to these guys, and how bad is that? What's the likelihood of something good coming from what they do? And how good is that? And I sort of put a weight on each of them and as I spoke with Riyadh, he actually did not have the capacity to do that. Because for him, doing God's will and this work were inseparable. He couldn't separate out risk because that was separating out sort of faith. The more we spoke, the more I understood that on some very, very fundamental level that we couldn't communicate with each other about our motives here. And in the end, he went.

Alex Blumberg

Only one other interviewer agreed to go to Fallujah with Riyadh, a doctor who had relatives there he wanted to check up on. Their car was stopped three times on the way into the city. Heading to their random spot, they saw devastation everywhere. Houses were bombed, rubble lay in the streets. The block they stopped on was no different. They had to visit 52 households to get the requisite number of interviews. 23 homes were either temporarily or permanently abandoned. Neighbors said that in the abandoned houses, most people had died. But this data couldn't be substantiated, so it wasn't even included in the survey results.

In the 30 households they did survey, there were 53 deaths. 52 of these were violent deaths, all but one caused by coalition weapons. 24 of the people killed by coalition bombs and bullets were children under 12 years old. And with that, the survey was over.

Reporter 1

Five days and counting, tonight the newest polls, the latest trends, and breaking developments from the campaign trail on America's News Live.

Alex Blumberg

This is Fox Evening News October 28, 2004, on the day the results of Les' survey that just shy of 100,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war were released. Les had not even considered the Fallujah data in coming up with this number. Fallujah had so many deaths, it was too much of a statistical outlier to even include.

Fox never mentioned the study, neither did ABC or CBS. The only national network that carried the story was NBC for 21 seconds.

Reporter 2

Tom, thanks, and we begin here with Iraq Watch tonight and one measure of the high cost of war. A new study from Johns Hopkins University estimates that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the start of the war. The majority as a result of US air strikes. This is a much larger figure than some previous estimates. The Pentagon had no comment on the number, but said it had taken great care to prevent civilian deaths. And there is word--

Alex Blumberg

Morning Edition and All things Considered on NPR, devoted 45 seconds to the story. And it didn't make the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any national newspaper. The Iraq study had provided information about the war that up until that point, no one had been able to provide. The number it gave was much higher than anyone would have expected. It was just as accurate as Les' previous studies in Africa that he'd done using the exact same methods and which were widely reported in the press and quoted by lawmakers. His Congo study was page one in the New York Times.

The only differences with the study were that he'd risked his life to do it and it was about Iraq. Which, if anything, should have made it more interesting to the media. So why didn't it get any press?

Partly, it was the timing. The study came out five days before the US election, and so the media was pretty preoccupied. Plus, there was a suspicion that the team had timed the release of the survey specifically to influence the election, a suspicion that Les didn't really help dispel. He said to an AP reporter about the study quote, "I emailed it on September 30 under the condition that it come out before the election. My motive in doing that was not to skew the election. My motive was, that if this came out during the campaign, both candidates would be forced to pledge to protect civilian lives in Iraq. I was opposed to the war and I still think the war was a bad idea, but I think that our science has transcended our perspectives. As an American, I'm really, really sorry to be reporting this."

One desk editor at a national news organization told me that when the study came out he sent an email to one of his colleagues saying, "The Lancet had in the past, published some studies with a political slant, but that this study seemed sound and maybe they should report on it." Then he saw Les' comments and he didn't follow up. This is exactly the type of story that those who believe the media has a liberal bias love to pounce on. And so, in essence, if the research turns out to be flawed, this desk editor's organization gets the heat for it. He had a very small window of time during a very busy news cycle to decide whether the study was legit or just an angry and easily debunked researcher pushing an agenda. And Les' comments seemed to be all the evidence he needed.

And there was one other thing that made it easy for the media to dismiss the report. A researcher at Human Rights Watch, who himself had done studies of civilian casualties during wartime said he didn't believe the study. The researcher's name was Marc Garlasco, and he told a reporter for the Washington Post quote, "The number seems high to me." And quote, "It seems like a stretch."

Marc Garlasco

I was actually on the Long Island Railroad when he called me. It was sometime in the evening and I had yet to read Les' report.

Alex Blumberg

This is Marc Garlasco. He said he told the reporter from the Post that he hadn't read the study, but the reporter said he really needed a quote and could he just respond to the number. Garlasco's quote was cited elsewhere and he appeared on CNN, although none of the study's authors were interviewed on CNN, or any of the major networks. Here's what Marc Garlasco says now.

Marc Garlasco

First of all, I'm not a statistician. I know absolutely nothing about it. And when I then went and spoke to statisticians they said, well, the method that he's using is a really accurate one. This is something that we use in studies all throughout the world and it's a generally accepted model. That kind of made me think about it. Think about my prejudices going into reading his report because I had been on the ground in Iraq immediately after the war. But I also had taken part in the targeting for the war.

Alex Blumberg

OK, let's just stop here for one minute. You heard what he said. He'd taken part in the targeting for the war. Get ready, because this story's about to take a turn. Marc Garlasco isn't your typical human rights advocate.

Marc Garlasco

Well, I worked in the Pentagon almost seven years, and my last job there was chief of high-value targeting on the joint staff. And basically, that means that I was one of many people that was involved in the tracking and attempted killing of Saddam Hussein and all those people in the deck of cards. And I would sit there with my compatriots and we would put X's on buildings one day, and the next day those buildings are gone.

Alex Blumberg

So you were literally in this invasion?

Marc Garlasco

Absolutely, I was involved in the war planning. In January of '03 I was involved in the final targeting of Iraq, when we put the final target lists together. And of course, those got brushed up as we got closer to the war. During the war I was working 18 hours a day, at least, in the Pentagon. You know, putting in hours trying to get and kill Saddam Hussein and others. And after Baghdad fell, then on April the 11 I walked out of the Pentagon and it was a Friday. And then on Monday morning I walked into Human Rights Watch and suddenly I'm now a human rights advocate. And got on a plane and flew to Iraq to see my handiwork.

Alex Blumberg

Literally, like how soon after?

Marc Garlasco

Literally, it was just the next week. Got onto a plane and went to Iraq. And I was standing there in craters that I had helped cause.

Alex Blumberg

Marc doesn't see moving from the Pentagon to a human rights nonprofit as the 180 degree flip most people might. He says all he's ever wanted to do was fight bad guys, and both organizations do that, just in different ways. He'd been thinking about leaving the military before the war began and he hadn't supported the war himself. But he stayed through the fall of Baghdad because he knew the targets better than anyone else. And he figured if there was going to be a war anyway, might as well be him targeting the bombs rather than someone else who might not know or care as much as he did.

The thing that finally prompted him to leave, he says, didn't have anything to do with the war. His wife got a great job offer at the Bronx Zoo and they'd always wanted to move back to New York. When Marc went with Human Rights Watch to Iraq, it wasn't to get a comprehensive count of civilian casualties. His mission was to look at specific attacks and see which kinds of attacks caused high civilian death tolls. Because Marc had planned many of the strikes he was now going to investigate, it was a little complicated.

Marc Garlasco

There was the attack on Chemical Ali in Basra and I'll never forget sitting in this tiny cubicle in the bowels of the Pentagon watching it on the television as we had the predator overhead. And you're watching this black and white screen because it's a night shot and anything that's white is hot and black is cold. And we were watching people walking in front of it and all of a sudden this building just erupts and was gone. And we watched as bodies flew out of it. And you could see the legs kicking in the air like rag dolls. And we just erupted in cheers and we were ecstatic. You know, here we are, we killed Chemical Ali. This is great.

And, what is it, three weeks later? I'm standing in the crater with this 70-year-old man who's got tears in his eyes and he's telling me how 17 members of his family, including his grandchildren, were killed. And I still feel very-- I have very mixed emotions about the whole situation, the whole experience.

Alex Blumberg

What are those mixed emotions, like on the one side and on the other?

Marc Garlasco

Well, on the one side, I feel like I took part in this wholesale slaughter of this guy's family, which is very difficult to swallow. But on the other side I know that we truly, truly did what we could. We were going after some very bad people. You know, war criminals. Chemical Ali had gassed the Kurds. He was singularly responsible for thousands of deaths. And so he was certainly a legitimate military target. But I think this just goes to show how difficult the job really is. You know, this is one of those strikes where we did everything right, where we thought we had the bad guy, where it was weaponeered correctly, and yet, it just was the wrong place to hit at that time and people died for it.

Alex Blumberg

The attack had hit the intended buildings, but it also destroyed the two neighboring buildings. That's where the man's family had died. Also, Chemical Ali hadn't been in the targeted building anyway. It's unclear who died there.

Marc went to lots of places in Iraq he'd studied on maps and aerial photographs and heard about from defectors. And there's no way around this, after all those years of imagining these places, what they must be like, it was exciting to actually be there.

Marc Garlasco

I was walking through bunkers that I knew about. I went to Saddam Hussein's bunker. I went to his family's bunkers. One of my favorite moments was when I actually met one of the bunker builders and hired him as a translator. And he took us into Sajida's palace and Sajida was Saddam's wife. And we knew that there was a bunker under the building and we had targeted it and dropped a weapon into it. And he took me in and we go into the building and I'm seeing the inside for the first time, which had before only been described to me by defectors. And here it is and this picture that had been painted in my mind. And we get there and the guy says, now I will walk you down to the bunker. And we walked down to it and we get to the bunker. And when we look down on it from the top, there's a hole-- as the Penetrator went in-- through the four floors straight down into the bunker. And he looks at me and he says, whoever did this was a very smart man. And I lost it. I just completely lost it.

Alex Blumberg

Because you're like, I did that.

Marc Garlasco

I was like, hey, thanks. I appreciate it.

Alex Blumberg

The military denied my request to talk on the record about civilian casualties. But Marc Garlasco says that civilian casualties are one of the primary factors he and his colleagues considered when planning the war. Say he had a target he wanted to take out. The headquarters of the Iraqi Secret Service maybe, or one of Saddam's palaces. He'd work with the weaponeering guys to figure out how many and which bombs to use. And then--

Marc Garlasco

Once that's established, they'll work up these collateral damage estimates. And tell you, OK, in this strike 10 people are anticipated to be killed-- civilians. Or 20 civilians, or whatever. And in this war in Iraq, there was a magic number, and the magic number was 30. And for any target where it was anticipated that 30 civilians or more would be killed, it required the signature of either the President or the Secretary of Defense for that strike to actually occur.

Alex Blumberg

How was that magic number arrived at, do you know?

Marc Garlasco

I have absolutely no idea how the magic number came to be 30.

Alex Blumberg

A lot of times when the collateral damage assessment came back too high, they would try to get it lowered. For example, a strike Marc planned early on in the invasion. An Iraqi division was holed up in a big, multi-building convention center in Baghdad. Which unfortunately, was right across the street from a hospital.

Marc Garlasco

Now because of the amount of guys there and the construction of the buildings, we knew that they needed to use 2,000 pound bombs. The problem with this is a 2,000 pound bomb has a very large, destructive radius. And it certainly would have enveloped the hospital. But there are things that you can do, even when you're dropping large munitions, to reduce civilian casualties. One of those is to change the angle of attack.

And so imagine if you will, a plane is coming in and drops bombs at such an angle that they actually push the debris away from the direction of the hospital. Additionally, you put a time delayed fuse on it. And in this case, I think it was maybe five nano seconds, which is an incredibly short period of time, but it's enough that allows the bomb to bury itself in the ground. And what this does is, it basically lets the building implode. And it falls in upon itself and contains a lot of that blast and fragmentation damage that would come out and injure civilians, or destroy some of the hospital. And then additionally, you're using a penetrating warhead, so it's burying into the ground. So you're not just willy-nilly dropping bombs like in the second world war.

And when I got there I went into the hospital and spoke to the director and all the people in there. And you know, nothing worse than a few broken windows. And I was like, wow, this is great. We did a really good job on this one.

Alex Blumberg

What got Marc thinking about civilian casualties in the first place was a battle damage assessment he did after the war in Kosovo. He targeted the bombs for that war and then afterwards the military sent him over to see how well he'd done. He measured how often the bombs hit their targets, whether they'd destroyed what they were supposed to destroy. Pretty much the only thing he didn't check the accuracy of were the collateral damage assessments.

Marc Garlasco

That's what got me. That's what really surprised me. At no point in time did we ever have to report back on civilian casualties. And so my question has always been, if you're looking if the weapons worked correctly, if the targets were correct, shouldn't you also be asking, were your civilian casualty estimates correct? I mean, shouldn't that be factored into it to make sure that your models are accurate? Because if your models are not accurate, what are they worth? You know, why do you even bother doing it? Because it's just throwing darts at a board at that point.

Alex Blumberg

Wow, did you ever find out an answer to that question?

Marc Garlasco

No, but it's something that I keep asking the military now that I'm in Human Rights Watch. You know, when I was there I was wondering, why isn't it done. And now I ask them why isn't it done and why don't you do it? And you know, I guess the answer that I get back just hasn't satisfied me.

It's we're still fighting a war in Iraq, it's really hard to do. Or it's very difficult to account for civilian casualties for a variety of reasons. And you get kind of the bureaucratic double talk. And it's just not good enough because I've been there and I know that people care and want to do the very best they can. And they don't want to kill civilians. And here's an opportunity to really make a difference and to show that you're doing your utmost best to make sure that you're upholding the Geneva Convention and not killing people unnecessarily.

Alex Blumberg

In talking to people in the military off the record, I heard a couple of arguments against counting civilian deaths. First they say, it's not the military's job. If what you're trying to do is win a battle, it could be a dangerous, and in the long run, counterproductive distraction to worry about counting all the civilians you accidentally kill along the way. Second, and perhaps more persuasively, they say no one would believe them anyway. Just ask Les Roberts.

Even though Les' study didn't get much mainstream attention, it did provoke, like so many things these days, a bitter debate on the internet. The attacks came mainly, though not exclusively, from right wing blogs. Several charges leveled that the study were simply untrue and seemed designed to willfully muddy the waters.

For example, there was a claim repeatedly made, both in the press and online, that the data weren't random because the researchers had been blocked from going certain places, or had decided against certain places because it was too dangerous. This is simply false.

A couple people suggested that the researchers had gone to Fallujah on purpose to boost their numbers, even though exactly the opposite was true. Les had wanted to skip Fallujah altogether and they hadn't even included the data in their final casualty estimate.

Several objections had merit, though. First of all, the study makes no distinction between combatants and civilians. Les actually acknowledged this in the study itself and went to great lengths not to claim, as others did on his behalf, that the study was a measure of civilian mortality. Certainly, some of the people the coalition killed they intended to kill. But half of all the casualties were women and children, so even in the unlikely event that 50% of the men who died were actually fighting us, it's still a large number of innocents.

The critique that got most traction on the internet though, has to do with something called the confidence interval. Let's take an election poll as an example.

If candidate X is projected to receive 55% of the vote, what that really means is that he's projected to receive some percentage within two numbers. Let's say 52% and 58%. That range is called the confidence interval. The confidence interval in Les' survey was very wide, between 8,000 and 194,000. It was this wide for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the sample is relatively small relative to the population, and because violent death, unlike death due to malaria or diarrhea, isn't very uniformly distributed. So you have Kurdish areas where mortality actually went down during the war versus Fallujah, which averaged almost two violent deaths per household. Such a wide confidence interval means that statistically speaking, Les' estimate of 100,000 dead isn't very precise. The number could be thousands or tens of thousand smaller. Or equally likely, bigger.

But a lot of people made wrong conclusions from the wide confidence interval. They interpreted it to mean it was just as likely that 8,000 people had died as it was that 100,000 had. The online magazine, Slate, wrote "This isn't an estimate, it's a dart board." In fact, the likelihood follows a bell curve, with 98,000 being at the top of the bell, the most likely number. So actually, there's only a 2.5% chance that the number is 8,000 or below, but a 90% chance that it's 44,000 or above. Here's Les.

Les Roberts

A couple of people told me that Sunday before the election, their minister from the pulpit had said this study in The Lancet was flawed and wrong. And my next door neighbor, who was listening to talk radio, spoke to me the day of the election and she said, well I just heard on talk radio today that The Lancet study finding 8,000 Iraqi deaths was flawed and wrong. And so it was discussed, but I don't think it was discussed in a very sort of scientifically rigorous process.

Alex Blumberg

Clearly, the people on talk radio weren't attacking the study out of a commitment to experimental rigor. They were attacking it for the same reason that the news media was hesitant to report it. Because the very act of counting civilian casualties is political. The moral logic of war is this. We're willing to undergo X number of costs in lives, money, resources, to accomplish some goal. The goal we hope will be worth it in the end. So assuming the goal in Iraq is good, is it wrong to kill 100,000 civilians?

Saddam, himself, probably killed 230,000 of his own people. A number, by the way, no one seems to go out of their way to dispute. If you add the million or so lives he lost in the futile war he launched against Iran, 100,000 seems like a bargain in comparison. Maybe he would have gone another killing spree and this 100,000 is insurance against the later, far worse death toll. Or Maybe 100,000 lives is worth it if in the end, democracy does blossom through the Middle East. After all, we killed far more Japanese with just two atomic bombs than, according to Les, we did in a year and a half in Iraq.

If we don't count civilian casualties, we don't have to get into this kind of horrible math. And most of us don't want to. So instead, we leave it to the professionals. The military are the only ones who even try to come up with a formula, the collateral damage assessment. 30 dead civilians for 1 bad guy.

For Les, he doesn't really care who counts, just so long as someone does.

Les Roberts

Under the Geneva Conventions, an occupying army's relationship to the occupied is roughly the same as a police department's relationship to its population. And in my hometown if a policeman pulls out his gun and shoots six shots at someone, another policeman will come and try to find where each of those six bullets landed and decide, was this excessive use of force? Well, how can we say that we are really looking after the well being of the Iraqi people, if we don't sort of go through some sort of minimal effort to decide, what are we doing to them and what can we do to limit the adverse consequences?

Alex Blumberg

One of the most surprising things Les discovered in Iraq is that despite what everyone says about the difficulty of counting civilian casualties during wartime, it's actually not that hard. The survey teams got participation rates that most American pollsters would kill for. Only 5 of the 988 households the team surveyed refused to answer the questions. And people were able to provide death certificates over 80% of the time. That confidence interval? Les is sure that based on the results of the first survey and with a little more money-- remember, this whole thing cost only $40,000-- he could design a follow-up survey that would narrow that interval way down.

We can count civilian casualties in wartime, we just have to want to.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg. Coming up, so a military that's trying as hard as it can not to kill civilians makes a mistake. What do they do then? Well, we have a recording to play for you of what they do then. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Not Just A Number.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, What's in a Number? In act one of our program we heard about the number of Iraqi deaths that occurred in the first year and a half of the war there. And how the majority of those deaths, according to this Johns Hopkins study, were caused by US led forces. Now we're going to move to act two, where we hear US forces trying to cope in the aftermath of some of those deaths. This is act two, Not just a Number.

The civilian deaths in this particular story came at a unusually bad time for captain Ryan Gist. He was the American officer in charge of the US army presence in a section of the Nineveh and Salahuddin Provinces in Iraq, a Sunni area. And this meant that he dealt with everything from seeing that the region had water and fuel, to dislodging insurgents and winning over the local population. He faced all sorts of problems.

On November 10, 2004, for example, insurgents blew up most of the police stations in his area. And the next day, Iraqi army and police simply stopped showing up for their jobs. One town called Aitha was especially troublesome. US had not made many allies there.

Ryan Gist

And it was turning into probably the greatest threat to stability in our region. So to begin with, we knew we were going into a very hot spot. We went in and for weeks we'd go in there and we would try and talk to leaders, try and talk to people. And they were scared. The terrorists literally had a grip on everybody. And that is the challenge in Iraq. And what it takes is just feet on the ground every day going to different houses and just talking to people. And finally, we found someone whose family had been killed, every one of them had been killed by the terrorists within the last month, and he wanted revenge. And he wanted to see his town free of this threat.

Ira Glass

So the guy gives him names and locations of people that he identifies as insurgents, and the army launches an operation to get those people. And this is where things went wrong. As part of this operation, US forces were supposed to drop a bomb into a nearby field just as a show of force. But instead, the bomb was dropped onto the house that the army was just about to raid, killing 12 people inside, including children. And nearly killing the US troops who were about to go in. That's according to an American photojournalist, Sheryl Mendez, who was there.

In addition to the human tragedy of these deaths, for Captain Gist this could not have been worse.

Ryan Gist

It was the hardest time in my life. And the most difficult part for us was in the weeks afterwards. We had to show that it was an accident and that we are someone who can be trusted and we are here to help them.

Ira Glass

The photographer Sheryl Mendez tape recorded him as he went to the sheiks who were the local leaders and to the police, as he went around trying to make things right. Here's one of those recordings. He's in a police station.

Ryan Gist

I'm here for a couple reasons today. The first reason is to express my regrets to you.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

I feel much pain in my heart for what happened.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

We did not intend to hurt any innocent people here.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

We did not mean for any women and children to die.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

I had men hurt in the explosion as well.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

You're sitting there in a room with five, six, seven people that are definitely angry at you. They believe you did it intentionally. That hate you for being in the town in the first place.

This is a very sad situation.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

It's also important that I get all the facts and all the names from you because we will compensate the families of those who were killed and wounded.

And what I just kept repeating and kept saying was, what happened was a horrible mistake. And I want to make amends in whatever way that I can.

I know that we cannot bring thdm back, only Allah can do that.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

But I hope to be able to help with the healing process.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

And I'm also here to ensure this does not destroy the relationship we've established with the people of Aitha.

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Ryan Gist

I know there's a lot to do to rebuild this relationship and this is my first step. But it's also very important that I get all the facts here. Right now I have 12 names of those who were killed and three that were wounded, so I think I'm missing one here.

Ira Glass

It seems like such an incredibly awkward thing having to do.

Ryan Gist

I don't think awkward is at all the word you would use to describe something like this. It was, I mean, possibly the most emotional event of my life, going out and dealing with these people in such incredible grief.

Noman Huessein? Afmed Noman?

Man 1

No [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].

Translator

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].

Man 2

Noman.

Ryan Gist

Noman.

Man 2

Akmed.

Ryan Gist

Akmed.

Man 2

Addeb.

Ryan Gist

Addeb.

Man 2

Hasna

Ryan Gist

Hasna

Man 2

Debuyah.

Ryan Gist

Debuyah.

Man 2

Leya.

Ryan Gist

Leya.

Man 2

Azizah.

Ryan Gist

Aziz.

Translator

Azizah.

Ryan Gist

Azizen.

Man 2

Azizah.

Ryan Gist

Azizah. Azizah, that's a woman, you don't know who she is?

Ira Glass

What happened after that?

Ryan Gist

Well, this took about-- the way it works in the Arabic culture is there's about a 7 to 10 day mourning period, or grieving period after the death. So of course, I wanted to go in there. We're Americans. We want to go in, we want to fix it immediately. I wanted to go in there and make the payments to the families and talk to them and express our regrets. So the hardest thing for me was I couldn't go into the town for seven days. So it was incredibly difficult for me.

Ira Glass

Because during those 7 to 10 days you're thinking, these people are deciding they hate us and they're spending word about how we killed these people, like it's just the worst thing from a propaganda point of view and winning over people's hearts. That's what your fear is?

Ryan Gist

That's part of the fear. But also, I'm a human being. I'm an American. I want to get in there and I want these people to understand that we are good people and we are here to help them. So really, at that point, I'm sure you can hear it in my voice there, is that I know I can't fix it, I know I can't bring them back, but I want to make it better.

But out of respect, we waited 7 to 10 days, went to neighboring towns and villages and told them what was going on, and got the message out. And I know the message got to the people in the town. But then the following three weeks, we went in and did exactly what we were doing before. Was meet with people, and begin to develop, or rebuild relationships. And we continued to conduct operations, continued to pull bad guys out of the town.

Ira Glass

This is pretty much the standard way that he'd operate in these villages. He said, sure, there were some villages and local leaders who were sympathetic with the insurgents. But in other places, they were being bossed around by them.

Ryan Gist

A couple of terrorists who intimidated the leaders of that village could effectively control the entire village. People were scared to leave their houses. Kids stayed in the houses. Kids didn't go to school. So when you went in and you took those guys out, and you came back and said, yeah, I just caught this guy, this guy, and this guy. And I found all kinds of explosives, threat CDs, beheading CDs in their house, they're gone. They're never coming back. And the most incredible thing was you saw the change within a day. Within 24 or 48 hours, you would go back into that town and a town where kids would not even wave to you or kids would throw rocks at you, you'd go in the next day and they would be crowded around the humvees just wanting to touch you or talk to you.

Ira Glass

In Aitha, he says, people waited to see who was going to win-- the US led forces or the insurgents. Until there came a turning point.

Ryan Gist

There was a distinct turning point. The turning point was when the sheik of the town came to see me, which would never have happened before.

Ira Glass

And do you remember what he said at the beginning, like so as to explain? What do you remember of what he said?

Ryan Gist

What he said was I need your help. And that was it right there. I knew what was going to come after that.

Ira Glass

You know, just thinking about that accidental bombing, the way that it ended up working out, did that accidental bombing actually give you access to people and a way to meet with them and a reason to meet with them that you might not have had otherwise?

Ryan Gist

It wasn't that it gave us a reason to. We had a reason to, we're going to be in the town regardless. But it forced them to listen to us because they were so hurt by the incident and they began to understand what we were there for. And they eventually offered us forgiveness and asked for our help. And to this day, I probably have the strongest bond with that town than any other town over there.

Of course, a month later, I knew we were going to have elections in the town. The town was secured by Iraqi security forces and it seemed like every five minutes the Iraqi security forces were coming under fire, we were coming under fire. The most incredible thing was the Iraqi security forces held their ground. They fought the terrorists off. A lot of fire, very intense night. And then that morning, about 4:00 in the morning, I remember sitting on the hill, all the American forces pulled out in the morning, so the Iraqi security forces could secure the actual election site during voting. I remember sitting on a hill overlooking the town of Aitha and the sun started to come up, and all of a sudden I realized, there was a line of about 1,000 people in front of the polling site. The whole town almost came out to vote. It was absolutely incredible.

Ira Glass

Captain Ryan Gist and the 65 men that he commands returned safely to their base in Fort Lewis, Washington, at the end of last month.

Act Three. What Do We Do With These Numbers Anyway?

Ira Glass

Act three. What do we do with these numbers anyway? So if in fact, 100,000 Iraqis died because of the war, and that number is a year old, or at least like Alex said in his report, there's a 90% probability that at the time it was over 44,000 dead, what do we do with that number? You know, the problem at the heart of the whole thing is that it instantly brings you to all of these imponderable questions about what is worth it. What is worth so many people dead?

And in a way, once I understood this number and believed this number, I wasn't even sure if it's a helpful thing to think about that. What do you do with that? So I called a woman named Nancy Sherman, who has the unusual set of jobs of being a philosophy professor at Georgetown University. And also, she's taught ethics at the US Naval Academy. She interviews military people, she writes about how they think in books like Stoic Warriors, and she thinks you do want to know how many civilians die in a war, so you can understand the trade-offs.

Nancy Sherman

Now, many would argue that once you include the numbers of civilians killed, the trade-offs don't start looking so good. But of course, then there's the problem, what exactly are we measuring against? What's the good we're bringing about in the name of which violence is incurred?

Ira Glass

Right. And that's where you get into such immeasurable things. Because if, in fact, a democracy is created in the Mideast and it changes the whole shape of the Mideast--

Nancy Sherman

That's right. But these goals and goods have to be tangible and there has to be evidence.

Ira Glass

I know, but the thing that seems so hard is we're measuring an actual concrete number against a benefit that really can't be measured at all. If by changing the shape of the Middle East we prevent a nuclear attack on New York City, or Cairo, or just anywhere, then it just changes the equation. And it seems like what you've got is you've got a certain number of dead bodies on one side, and then a future that's yet unlived on the other.

Nancy Sherman

Exactly. These kinds of calculations about how much cost can you incur in order to get a good at the end are very, very troublesome. Because when you're doing these kinds of calculations, you'd like to have a concrete good that's here and now existing. Numbers are always tricky, but the massiveness of numbers does matter. And when does the moral psyche break, at what number? I don't know. Tell me about Darfur. The world hasn't broken on that number yet and that seems pretty horrific to me.

Ira Glass

Nancy Sherman from Georgetown University.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig and Amy O'Leary. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Sam Hallgren and Chris Ladd.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You can download today's program at our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, whenever he finishes a budget or correctly orders lunch, he calls me into his office, leans back in his chair--

Marc Garlasco

And he looks me and he says, whoever did this was a very smart man.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.