“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.” ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran seem to be growing, I think it’s important to remember how destructive the war with neighboring Iraq was.
Estimating civilian casualties is a notoriously difficult task (Roberts 2010), though several studies have attempted to elucidate how many civilians died as a result of the war (below). These were done at different points in time and primarily entailed through surveys that inquired about deaths in a sampling of households. Some of these studies included violent deaths only, while others looked at “excess deaths” that included deaths directly due to violent causes and indirect ones due to a breakdown in infrastructure. Estimates ranged from 8,000 to as high as 940,000+.
All wars are unique, and predicting how a potential US/Iran war might play out is pure speculation. However, as the Tim O’Brien quote above suggests, there are at least some generalizations we can make. It is safe to say that civilians in Iran, like civilians in all wars, would pay a heavy price in terms of casualties.
In addition, wars leave a mark on survivors, in terms of long-term costs to physical and psychological health to veterans and civilians alike (I recently published on the physiological impacts of war in the Annual Review of Anthropology). To summarize, as Orkideh Behrouzan (SOAS University of London), said in her TED talk: war is often “told in the language of military and geopolitical analysis, which creates the illusion that the war ended… (but) each war has an afterlife.”
Finally, the Watson Institute at Brown University once wrote that “Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.” Unfortunately, whether intentional or not, the civilian costs of war are often overlooked or ignored altogether. We could all use a reminder.
Burnham G, Lafta R, Doocy S, Roberts L. 2006. Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey. The Lancet. 368(9545):1421-8. Link
Hagopian A, Flaxman AD, Takaro TK, Al Shatari SA, Rajaratnam J, Becker S, Levin-Rector A, Galway L, Al-Yasseri BJ, Weiss WM, Murray CJ. 2013. Mortality in Iraq associated with the 2003–2011 war and occupation: findings from a national cluster sample survey by the university collaborative Iraq Mortality Study. PLoS Medicine. 10(10):e1001533. Link
Iraq Body Count. https://www.iraqbodycount.org/ [Accessed 27 May. 2019].
Iraq Family Health Survey Study Group. 2008. Violence-related mortality in Iraq from 2002 to 2006. New England Journal of Medicine. 31;358(5):484-93. Link
Roberts A. 2010. Lives and statistics: are 90% of war victims civilians? Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 52(3): 115–136. Link
Roberts L, Lafta R, Garfield R, Khudhairi J, Burnham G. 2004. Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey. The Lancet. 20;364(9448):1857-64. Link