Toting the Casualties of War

Beth Osborne Daponte talks about how her estimates of Iraq's Gulf War dead got her in deep trouble with the White House

Beth Osborne Daponte was a 29-year-old Commerce Dept. demographer in 1992, when she publicly contradicted then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney on the highly sensitive issue of Iraqi civilian casualties during the Gulf War. In short order, Daponte was told she was losing her job. She says her official report disappeared from her desk, and a new estimate, prepared by supervisors, greatly reduced the number of estimated civilian casualties.

Although Cheney said shortly after the 1991 Gulf War that "we have no way of knowing precisely how many casualties occurred" during the fighting "and may never know," Daponte had estimated otherwise: 13,000 civilians were killed directly by American and allied forces, and about 70,000 civilians died subsequently from war-related damage to medical facilities and supplies, the electric power grid, and the water system, she calculated.

In all, 40,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the conflict, she concluded, putting total Iraqi losses from the war and its aftermath at 158,000, including 86,194 men, 39,612 women, and 32,195 children.


  Daponte was finishing her doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago at the time and had been assigned to update an annual world-population survey by Commerce's Census Bureau of Foreign Countries. That required her to estimate how many Iraqis had died from the war and its aftermath, including the rebellion of Shiites in the South and Kurds in the North (an additional 30,000 deaths, she estimated). Daponte used a 1987 Iraqi census and U.N. figures as her base of comparison. (The Defense Intelligence Agency eventually estimated 100,000 Iraqi military were killed in the war, plus or minus 50,000.)

After a reporter called Daponte and included her estimates in a story about war casualties, her boss informed Daponte in writing that she was being dismissed for releasing "false information." A Commerce spokeswoman denied that the cause of Daponte's firing was retribution, saying the information had been released prematurely.

Daponte consulted lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union and Covington & Burling. The American Statistical Assn. weighed in on behalf of her methodology. Eventually, the Census Bureau backed down, and Daponte continued her work until she left for Pittsburgh in 1992.


  She has since published two studies in scholarly journals about the effects of economic sanctions on Iraqi children, and casualties from the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. Her final estimates were higher than her original ones: 205,500 Iraqis died in the war and postwar period, she believes today.

"In modern warfare, postwar deaths from adverse health effects account for a large fraction of total deaths," she wrote, an inclusion that continues to be debated. "In the Gulf War, far more persons died from postwar health effects than from direct war effects." And casualties this time, while virtually impossible to predict, will depend on the kind of war the U.S. wages.

BusinessWeek Washington Correspondent Paul Magnusson recently reached Daponte at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she's a senior research scientist. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: How, exactly, are war casualties estimated if you can't count all the bodies?


Demographers break a problem down into its components. One is civilian deaths from direct war effects, such as missed bombs and misdirected bombs. Indirect war effects come from the destruction of infrastructure.

There are direct casualties to the military as well. For Iraq, there was another category of casualties -- people killed after the war during the uprisings [by Shiites and Kurds]. The contribution I made was in looking at civilian casualties from indirect war effects. It was hard to separate some of these from the economic sanctions. But there was damage to the electrical grid, health-care facilities, roadways and the distribution system, and, most importantly, the sewage system. When you contaminate the water, you cause all kinds of health problems.

Relatively few bombs missed their targets. I went to different human-rights sources and created a database of death in each incidence of a missed bomb. Often there were reports on who died. That gave us figures for direct deaths. We calculated indirect deaths in part from age distributions.

Q: What's usually the greatest danger for civilians?


If it's a bombing war, being a refugee is the most dangerous aspect. Refugees are in tremendous danger. Refugees are exposed to the elements, bad sewage, cholera, outbreaks of diarrhea. The youngest and oldest are most vulnerable and generally don't have the strength to begin with.

Q: After you were fired, you appealed and won reinstatement. Whatever happened to your estimate of war casualties?


I took a leave of absence because I wasn't being given any worthwhile work to do. I went to Greenpeace, and they funded a follow-up study. I spent a whole summer redoing the estimates and submitted it to a professional publication for peer review and then went to Carnegie Mellon. What I had done at Census was the best that could have been done in a short time period. By the time I went to Greenpeace, more data was available.

Q: Was your estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths confirmed by later demographers?


The Commerce Dept. rewrote the report to the point that if you'd read it, you'd have thought it was impossible to make inferences about civilian deaths in war.

Q: Any idea whether the civilian casualties in a current war would be lesser or greater? What factors would be important?


There's no way to tell now. You'd need a crystal ball. If the allies target infrastructure like they did last time, civilians will suffer. The last time, we targeted the electrical grid and bridges. Even military targets can have an effect on civilians -- say a plant producing truck tires for the military is attacked. That can end up affecting civilians, too.

Q: Any views on the current crisis with Iraq?


I don't think we've exhausted effective diplomacy. It's very early. I don't think war should be on the table yet.

Q: What saved your job in 1992?


The lawyers were incredible, but so was the social-science community. Many professional academic people got involved and stood up for me. A lot of [Census] colleagues stood up for me and went in and protested, even though they were risking their jobs.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht