Sunday, 7 February 2010

The real dead, and the imagined dead

John Rentoul points to an error by BBC journalist and presenter Andrew Marr in attributing a figure of 600,000 dead in the Iraq war to the UN. It comes of course from The Lancet*. Andrew Marr has made this mistake before, as you can read in a feverish post by a blogger who thinks that Marr is soft on imperialists because he quotes this ‘low’ figure.

Earlier, John Rentoul argued that it would have been in Tony Blair’s interest to have engaged more with the question of how many died, and with how many of those were deliberately killed by the insurgency. Rentoul also pointed to the truth that people would have been killed by the regime had Saddam Hussein stayed in power, a number unknowable.

I agree that these questions are central, and the arguments must be made, and yet I’m not sure that Blair could have gained much by going further into such a discussion. The known dead leave behind bereaved friends and families. To engage in the morbid weighing of lost loved ones in an attempt to judge or justify the invasion seems repulsive. It is repulsive to anyone of any sensitivity. But the imaginary dead are grieved over by no-one. No matter how many hundreds of thousands might have died in a counterfactual history, they weigh nothing in our hearts. Less even than the hundreds of thousands of distant dead killed by Saddam’s actions prior to his fall. And I heard Blair being derided for invoking those dead prior to the invasion.

*More on The Lancet here and here and here and here.

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