If it weren’t for the cruel stakes of the violence, U.S. policy in Iraq would form the perfect parody of the idea that militarized response to threats against civilians is a viable policy, let alone that this tactic could be mistaken for a strategy. After all, given the patterns of assaults against civilians in Iraq, the intervention should have come in 2006 – 2007, or even earlier, in March – April 2003, because these are the periods during which the spikes of violence against civilians reached their peak. Of course, the great irony is that no one, least of all anti-atrocity advocates, could have called for U.S. military intervention then. If anyone had wanted to suggest this policy – and no one did — there was one fatal logical flaw: the intervention had already occurred. The only time you can call for intervention is after the U.S. had left; but it would be folly to pretend that just because this little catch in the intervention logic had been resolved that the policy itself would have improved.
Yet U.S. policy has demonstrated remarkable commitment to re-playing this course of action as if somehow, next time, everything would turn out better. Its worth reviewing how bad things have been. And so we turn to record of brutality as provided by Iraq Body Count. Let’s review the most lethal months in Iraq’s recent history.
One brief detour: It is well understood that no one has perfect war fatality figures; this insight holds for all conflict data including that which I will cite. However, Iraq Body Count has done an admirable job verifying their data, but even still their numbers should not be treated as absolute. More crucial to my argument than the precise number are the trends in spikes and declines, which can be treated as accurate.
If we limit our view to months when the spikes of killing surpassed 2500, we find three periods, only one of which is sustained. They are:
March – April 2003. At 3977 deaths, March is by far the most lethal month of Iraq’s recent history. It was followed by a brutal April, when 3435 people were killed. But by the next month there was a significantly sharp falloff in numbers. These two months witnessed the launch of the U.S. war on Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The spike in violent deaths is the inevitable effect of a large-scale military incursion by a major power. This is how large armies conduct war to defeat enemies. While it has probably gotten less indiscriminate over time, major power warfare is invariably accompanied by very high levels of killing.
June 2006 – July 2007. During this period the numbers of dead vary from a high point of 3297 (July 2006), with the toll dropping to 2198 (below our threshold) in June 2007, rising again in July, dipping slightly in August (2481), with significantly and sustained declines beginning only in September 2007. This period is commonly called the Iraqi civil war. Violence, perpetrated by a range of Iraqi armed actors and coalition forces, increased as resistance against the Coalition and a sectarian-political groups gained momentum. In 2006, U.S. forces largely retreated to their bases and the civil war amongst Iraqi factions intensified. While many in the U.S. understand the ending of this period as solely or largely related to the “surge,” more detailed analysis suggests a range of other factors, including foremost the Iraqi leaders’ political calculations, were crucial.
June 2014. This spike, which reached 2534 deaths, can largely be attributed to violence associated with the ISIS/ISIL/IS offensive and their treatment of populations that came under their control. But the litany of locations where violence occurred does not stop at the borders of their territory. Increases have occurred in Baghdad, for instance, as well. Subsequent months have been marked by a significant decline in violence, hovering around 1500 deaths per month, which is nonetheless high by any standard and in Iraq, it is high for the post-2007 period. It is also worth noting that the spike dropped two months before U.S. policy of bombing Iraq began in early August 2014 (which also preceded the arrival of a strategy).
If we were to chart how these spikes in violence reflect on the atrocities prevention and response agenda, a very different story appears and its one that is instructive for how “solutions” are imagined. Up to and until U.S. forces left Iraq, the country and its populations were notably absent from the agenda of the anti-atrocities groups in Washington DC. The periods noted above surpass the cases that occupied place of utmost concern on the anti-atrocities agenda. Compare with Darfur, Sudan, for instance, where about 40,000 people were killed in violence between June 2003 and January 2005. An estimated five times that number died from hunger and disease, destruction captured in terms of excess mortality.
Overall, Iraq Body Count estimated the number of Iraqi civilian killed from 2003 – 2007 at well over 80,000, and to date this number ranges between 129,794 – 145,546. Estimates of excess mortality in Iraq remain highly debated, but several surveys have indicated it is likely in the range of 500,000 between March 2003 and July 2011, the overwhelming number of which occur between 2003 – 2007 (more about the various numbers put forward and the controversies they have caused).
Yet Iraq has always been treated as a case apart from the morality-laden narrative of ending atrocities. The advocates avoided Iraq as if its thousands upon thousands of dying civilians were irrelevant to paradigm of atrocities prevention and response. I recall a colleague in anti-atrocities advocacy movement, not from my own organization, who once stated that we cannot address Iraq because it will mean losing access to the Bush administration on Darfur. Iraq, after all, was political.
Calculation by triage meant that advocates would prioritize places where they could stick to a savior narrative. And, after all, what could they advocate for in Iraq? The U.S. was already occupying the country; one could not call for intervention. And so the “tool” for engaging atrocities prevention and response effectively carved Iraq out of the picture. It only found a place on the atrocities prevention agenda when the majority of U.S. forces left and ISIS/ISIL/IS made its appearance.
It is no wonder that there is a crisis of confidence today with the dominant atrocity prevention and response paradigm. It is, of yet, a sense amongst advocates who work in this area that events are outpacing or complicating an essentially sound framework. Their story is… just let us get it right this time (as we did in Libya?).
But what if the crisis is inherent in the belief structure that underpins the entire framework? Overly reliant on coercive military response, such action is the organizing principle for its policies even when it is not considered a realistic policy option. We have militarized the imagination of atrocities prevention–tied it to a particular tactic. This is an approach that has stunted our ability to conceptualize a strategy of preventing atrocities. In its place, we are instead left with parody.
Surely, the history of Iraq’s recent past might challenge the centrality of military adventures as the ultimate tool for civilian protection? Allow a little doubt to whittle away the presumptions that coercive power is necessary, overthrowing governments is a beneficent action, and coherent political strategies should be considered only after the bombs have fallen.