Civilians versus Combatant Watch: Ewen MacAskill edition

Here is a decent article by Ewen MacAskill reporting on a plan by Jeremy Corbyn to apologize to the Iraqi and British people over the Iraq war if he becomes Labour leader next month.


Unfortunately, the article also provides a perfect example of the shoddy practice, discussed just a few weeks ago on the blog, of blurring the distinction between  combatants and civilians.

The Iraq Body Count project puts the civilian death toll at 219,000 since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, though others put it much higher. The number of British personnel killed in the war was 179 and the US 4,425.  (Note: the quote is of MacAskill, not Corbyn.)

Dear Readers, please google “Iraq Body Count” and look in the upper left-hand corner.  You will find this:

Documented civilian deaths from violence

142,939 – 162,177

Total violent deaths including combatants


In short, MacAskill presents the IBC number for civilians plus combatants as a civilians-only number.

As a side point, notice that IBC’s civilian range is for documented civilian deaths so the true number is surely higher, as the above quote implies.  Still, there is no actual measurement of violent deaths of civilians only that comes out higher than the IBC number.  The higher estimates are always of civilians plus combatants.

3 thoughts on “Civilians versus Combatant Watch: Ewen MacAskill edition

  1. Thanks for this, Mike. The argument is occasionally raised that the distinction is under some circumstances a false or morally dubious one. Of course many combatants would feel positively maligned to be described as non-combatant, but that the issue can be complicated and the lines blurry is quite generally acknowledged (indeed one of the uncertainties dealt with by the min-max number in IBC’s count is the civilian vs combatant status of some of the killed).

    But sometimes (not by Ewen Macaskill here, who I think was simply writing in haste) the line is more deliberately blurred in reporting or commentary. The motive in those cases, some of which you will be familiar with, appears to be to draw on a presumed-deeper well of “civilian” sympathy, as if only they merited or could win our concern. This is patronising as well as dishonest, which is always a sure recipe for ultimately doing more harm than good.

    The solution to this is uncomplicated: if one really believes this distinction unimportant, one should simply refer to “people” killed.


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