I’m not going to go over the existing disputes about the methodology or findings of the Lancet study on civilian casualties in Iraq. That’s been done at a great many other blogs.
I’d like to instead talk about how I tend to approach quantitative debates in history in general.
I’m not much of a quantitative thinker myself: I lack the expertise to do really fine work myself along these lines, and numbers rarely seem to me to meaningfully adjudicate a lot of the questions and issues that draw me as a historian. But there are plenty of discussions among historians where the importance of numbers is indisputable, debates which I read appreciatively.
The thing is, numbers don’t have a self-evident significance. It’s largely a matter of whether there is a question on the table within which numbers play a decisive role.
Let me take the example of one of the great “numbers games” in historiography: the Atlantic slave trade. Philip D. Curtin’s important census of the Atlantic slave trade, first published in 1969, kicked off a long-running discussion of the numbers of Africans who were taken into slavery across the Atlantic. Curtin observed that the numbers which had previously been offered rested on little more than random conjecture, on “common sense” of various kinds, on casual repetition of claims across a long series of texts. He was right: his book was the first truly systematic account. It was followed by various systematic corrections, objections, amendations and observations by other historians, and sometimes also by sharp debate about whether or not Curtin’s figure underestimated the magnitude of the trade.
The tone and character of that debate sometimes puzzles me, but then so to does the sheer amount of labor invested by some in methodically updating or testing Curtin’s numbers. Having a figure that was meaningfully systematic mattered, a lot. But for many of the questions and interpretations surrounding the trade, it really is only important to know a rough order of magnitude. In particular, the moral and ethical questions raised by the Atlantic slave trade are not necessarily transformed much by whether the final magnitude is 8 million, 12 million or 20 million over four centuries.
The nitty-gritty of the numbers–and the methods used to generate them–matter intensely only in relation to very specific discussions or problems, some of which are themselves quantitative in nature. For example, evaluating the demographic impact of the slave trade on West and Equatorial Africa requires both the best numbers of slaves taken and the best numbers of people living within those regions that we can generate. But it doesn’t really matter how hard you try: the second set of numbers are never going to be anything more than a good guess. More importantly, the numbers alone don’t resolve the discussion, or speak for themselves. That really comes down to deeper theoretical arguments about population dynamics, economic production, kinship structures and the like. Having one number of people taken and one number of people remaining really is not self-explanatory at all: common sense can lead us badly astray. We might think that if the numbers taken are a very large proportion of the total population numbers, that is self-evidently a catastrophe. It might well be, but the case for that lies well beyond the numbers.
This, I suppose, is one reason I find the discussion over the Lancet findings a bit frustrating. Almost everyone is acting as if the significance of that number, large or small, is obvious. From my perspective, even a small number is something that supporters of the war should take seriously, but that’s got nothing to do with how we count civilian casualties in methodological terms. It has to do with the (supposed) aims of the war. If you’re fighting a conventional war to take territorial or geographic objectives, civilian casualties of any magnitude may or may not be morally worrisome, depending on your own moral system. But they do not, in most cases, directly impact your success in achieving your objective. Whether or not you capture a bridge, a strong point, a key resource site: the magnitude of civilian casualties are a side issue if the question is, “Did we win?” in this instance. In some cases, of course, killing civilians IS the objective. I can well imagine that some of the insurgent factions care very much about how accurate the Lancet figures are, as these are direct measures of the magnitude of their success.
But as I understand the declared objectives of the American effort in Iraq, the exact number of civilian casualties is not altogether that important, save perhaps for the symbolically important question of whether more would have died under Hussein’s rule than under occupation. Even that can be well sidestepped with a certain amount of cliched rhetoric about omelettes and eggs. The problem here is that the civilians ARE the objective: not killing them, but protecting them. Not just protecting their lives, but their well-being, their ability to live freely and securely under the rule of law. If that’s the objective, 50,000 or 300,000 or 600,000 all strike me as deeply worrisome numbers, just as once you cross the threshold of “many millions”, the moral gravity of the Atlantic slave trade is forever established. More millions doesn’t do anything more than put a few more weights on a scale that is already firmly crushed to earth. So there is one sense in which the sturm und drang of the last week seems to me another “numbers game”, and not a terribly illuminating one in terms of defending the case for the war.