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A Few Corpses Past 'Whatever'

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The judgment of history is closing in on us. A new study in a respected British medical journal has put the "excess death" toll in post-invasion Iraq at a soul-numbing 650,000, which, of course, can't be true.

No way. Can't be.

Those who have wedded themselves to this war, beginning with President Bush, prefer the figure 30,000 - a nice, safe number, apparently, which won't gum up the media. What's 30,000 dead? It's a few corpses past "whatever." It's Kankakee, Ill., Paducah, Ky., Hoboken, N.J. It is, in short - among the dwindling ranks of the gung-ho - a small price to pay for a war as important as this one.

So let's pause and absorb the number Bush and his apologizers are willing to concede: 30,000. Let it stand naked in the spotlight for a moment, out of the shadow of those six-figure estimates that make it seem trivial, and listen to the silent heartbeats:

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"Ahmad Walid al-Bath, 33, a Jordanian taxi driver, became the first casualty of the war on March 20 (2003). He had stopped to make a phone call at a public telephone office when a missile hit it, killing him. He (left) a wife and a 10-month-old child. . . .

"Khalid Ali Saleh, 72. My dad was shot by an American tank on April 7 as he was being driven to his house. He died instantly, and my cousin who was driving was injured. My cousin dragged herself out to get help but the car was shot at again by a 20mm tank gun and set ablaze with my dad still inside. . . .

"Ali Nasaf, 6, was killed in a missile attack on the Bab al Muadan telephone exchange in Baghdad on March 31. His mother, Lamia, 31, (said): 'Even the doctors and nurses cried when he died. They remember him as the boy who played football in the streets and always laughed.'"

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Amazingly, each of the 30,000 has a name. The above names are courtesy of the Guardian Unlimited Web memorial, which was put up in the pre-quagmire, "Mission Accomplished" glory days, when the neocon fiction that we could bomb a country into democracy was still getting rave reviews. Back then, we didn't do body counts. Think how far we've come.

But few Americans - certainly none of those who still support this cynical, criminal war - are ready to hear the results of the study a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, in conjunction with Iraqi public-health scientists, conducted between May and July of this year.

These researchers risked their lives to visit 1,849 randomly selected households in 47 areas throughout Iraq, gathering data on household members who died since January 2002 (obtaining death certificates verifying more than 80 percent of the reported deaths). When the post-invasion death toll was compared against the pre-invasion death rate, the findings, extrapolated for the whole country, disclosed "excess" deaths - above the pre-invasion death rate - of between 400,000 and 900,000, with the likely total of excess, or war-related, deaths put at 650,000. The results were published last week in The Lancet.

And, of course, the study was dismissed - as "politics, not science," as "total crap" - by every stay-the-course zealot with a media forum.

Well, OK. Maybe they're right. Maybe the war we unleashed on Iraq has only wiped out Hoboken, not Boston or Milwaukee or San Francisco. Either way, it's an incalculable disaster. But if the researchers are right - and their methodology is standard, having been used without controversy to estimate deaths in war zones no one here cares about, e.g., Darfur, the Congo - the word for what we're facilitating in Iraq requires an upgrade, to "genocide" or "holocaust."

At the very least, it makes us "worse than Saddam," which is like being worse than Satan. I can see why supporters of this debacle are pedaling so furiously to rebut the study, but I'm not inclined to trust the objectivity of their criticisms.

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In any case, something bigger is at stake in this struggle over numbers than passing blame. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, wrote in a courageous editorial following publication of the study:

"And finally, we can truthfully say that our foreign policy - based as it is on 19th-century notions of the nation-state - is long past its sell-by date. We need a new set of principles to govern our diplomacy and military strategy - principles that are based on the idea of human security and not national security, health and well-being and not economic self-interest and territorial ambition. The best hope we can have from our terrible misadventure in Iraq is that a new political and social movement will grow to overturn this politics of humiliation. We are one human family. Let's act like it."

This is not a marginal viewpoint. I'm positive it's a hope that most of us, from Hoboken to San Francisco, embrace, and I urge all those who do to stop embracing it in private.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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