Counting the War Dead

A sharp increase in war deaths in Afghanistan during 2010 again confirms the incalculable human cost of war. It’s also an occasion to acknowledge a debt to those who try to count the victims – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the more than two dozen other wars – and to offer at least some minimal public recognition of loss.

The Kabul based Afghanistan Rights Monitor has just issued a new report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, showing 2010 to have been the deadliest year yet, with at least 2,421 Afghan civilians killed.[i]

That trend was confirmed by the UN late last year. “Civilians continued to bear the brunt of intensified armed conflict,” according to the Secretary-General in his most recent report. There were 2,412 civilian deaths recorded by the UN in the first 10 months of 2010, a 20 percent increase over the same period in 2009.[ii]

On average, civilian deaths make up almost 50 percent of all Afghan combat deaths, according to numbers collated from multiple sources at Unknown News.[iii] In Iraq the numbers cover a much wider range, from about 100,000 violent deaths recorded at Iraq Body Count[iv] to the 800,000 range in a widely quoted, and debated, study reported in the British medical journal The Lancet in October 2006.[v]

The broad variation in numbers obviously indicates that counting war deaths is an imprecise enterprise. Most studies of direct combat or violent deaths rely on public reports of violent incidents, but such reports are far from systematic. In the 2009 reports on casualties in the fighting that climaxed in Sri Lanka ranged from 7,000 to 40,000 combat deaths that year. And it is at least intuitively obvious that many clashes and deaths that occur in remote places are never reported.

Epidemiological surveys do not count individual deaths through incident reports but measure excess deaths in war by comparing pre-conflict mortality rates with mortality rates during and after conflict as well as population surveys in order to estimate direct deaths by combat and indirect deaths due to war.  

However difficult it is to measure war deaths, the victims are owed at least that much. After September 11, 2001, the New York Times ran photographs and personal accounts of all the victims, at least momentarily rescuing all those who had died from anonymity, putting a face on the statistic and giving public acknowledgment to loss. To similarly honour all those who die due to current wars (direct deaths by violence and indirect deaths due to the deprivations of war) would require upwards of 1,000 photos and brief biographies each and every day.

Most victims of contemporary wars will never be featured in the New York Times. Their loss will be felt by those closest to them, but they should also be publicly acknowledged, counted, in the name of public recognition and accountability.

The 2008 report on the Global Burden of Armed Violence (GBAV)[vi] tried to do just that and put the average annual death toll from armed combat, actual combat deaths (combatants and civilians), at 52,000, or 1,000 per week. That figure is roughly confirmed by the informal count maintained by Project Ploughshares[vii] (Ploughshares does not publish combat death figures due to the fact that it is impossible to be comprehensive, nevertheless it maintains tabulations from public sources in order to give a broad assessment of the severity of each conflict). Ploughshares’ unpublished figures from 2006 through 2009 also indicated about 45,000 to 50,000 direct war deaths per year.

These are no doubt conservative estimates.  The GBAV report, in reviewing epidemiological surveys done in the DRC, concludes that combat deaths there alone could be averaging 50,000 per year. If extraordinary events like the genocide in Rwanda and the invasion of Iraq are taken into annual averages, the numbers are much, much higher.

It is therefore likely that the global estimate of an average of 1,000 war combat deaths per week is a low estimate, but even at that it is only about one-quarter of the total annual death toll due to war. That estimate is also at the conservative end of the scale inasmuch as the GBAV report, while indicating that some 200,000 people die annually due to the extraordinarily harsh conditions of war, also notes that surveys in the DRC, where people in the fighting zones are subjected to the most heinous of conditions, estimate that it is more likely that about 400,000 people have died each year in recent years due to war.

The Canadian Human Security Report disputes the latter figures. It doesn’t dispute the high mortality rates in the DRC, [viii]  but it says that the pre-conflict mortality rate was already high so that it is not possible to say that the current abnormally high mortality rate is war-related.[ix]

What of course is widely agreed is that wars are extraordinarily costly, and that the human cost of war is not found in deaths alone. To them must be added the consequences for the survivors. There are the injured, many of whom suffer lifelong physical disabilities and psychological scars. War displaces people from their homes – in southern Sudan the majority of the population was internally displaced. Indeed, prior to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with southern Sudan it was the deliberate strategy of the government of Sudan to bomb villages and IDP camps for the purpose of inducing people to flee – to keep the population unhinged and dependent on international assistance.

The relatively low level of direct combat deaths (compared with the high levels of indirect deaths) reflects the nature of most contemporary wars. The objective, with the obvious and tragic exception of Rwanda, is not to maximize the number of deaths but to maximize the level of terror and social upheaval. That is accomplished even by relatively low levels of combat deaths, as well as through the forced displacement of people. The UN reports that at the end of 2009 there were 43.3 million people that had been forcibly displaced, as refugees and internally displaced, due to conflict – the highest number since the 1990s. More than a million people were newly displaced during the course of 2009.[x] The top source countries are the scenes of the world’s most prominent wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, DRC, Myanmar, Colombia, and Sudan. For example, in late October, fierce factional fighting in Somalia near the border with Kenya forced an estimated 60,000 people from their homes in a matter of a few days.[xi]

We have information on the human toll of war, however speculative some of it must be, because some take the trouble to tabulate the numbers. But of course the point is that they aren’t just numbers. They are individual lives lost, and each one leaves behind a family stricken with tragedy.


[i] ARM Annual Report: Civilian Casualties of War, January-December 2010. Afghanistan Rights Monitor, Kabul, Afghanistan. February 2011.

[ii] “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security: Report of the Secretary-General, UN Security Council, 10 December 2010 (A/65/612–S/2010/630), para 55.



[v] Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey.” Published online October 11, 2006 DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69491-9.

[vi] Global Burden of Armed Violence, a detailed study of armed violence in all its form, is a 2008 publication of  the “Geneva Declaration.” The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development is a diplomatic initiative by more than 100 countries aimed at addressing the interrelations between armed violence and development.

[vii] Armed Conflicts Report 2010.

[viii] The Canadian Human Security Report undertakes a detailed analysis of war death toll estimates in the DRC and questions the reliability of the data and methodology used in some studies. Accordingly the Human Security Report concludes that the number of deaths attributed to war have been significantly overstated. That the death toll in the DRC is extraordinarily high is not disputed; rather the point is that the pre-war death rate was already much higher than the African average, so it is not appropriate to describe the current high rate of death as being a consequence of war. Human Security Report 2009, “Shrinking Costs of War,” The Human Security Report Project (an independent centre at Simon Fraser University), Chapter 3: The Death Toll in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

[ix] The Canadian Human Security Report says of the GBAV estimates: “More recently, the wide-ranging Global Burden of Armed Violence report published by the Geneva Declaration Secretariat estimated that for every person who died violently in wars around the world between 2004 and 2007, another four died from war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition. 4The report did not claim there was a consistent ratio between the two, simply that on average, the indirect-to-direct war death ratio was 4:1. This ratio is certainly not implausible, but the evidence base used to calculate it is far too narrow and uncertain to place any confidence in its accuracy.” Human Security Report 2009, “Shrinking Costs of War,” The Human Security Report Project (an independent centre at Simon Fraser University), Chapter 1, “Deadly Connections: Wartime Violence and Indirect Deaths.”

[x] “2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons,” UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), 15 June 2010.

[xi] “Tens of thousands displaced by clashes in Somalia,” UNHCR news release, 26 October 2010.

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