Iraq War Coverage: Reporting Civilian Deaths. A DBQ & Reading

A document-based question exercise and reading on the difficulty of assessing Iraqi civilian casualties.

To the Teacher:

Information about civilian deaths in the Iraq war has been hard to come by. The U.S. provides no specific numbers, but independent groups have made varying estimates. The quotes that follow might be used as practice for a DBQ (document-based question), the type of question used in standardized tests such as the New York State Regents examination in history or for small-group and whole-class discussion (Item H).


Read each paragraph, then write an answer to the question following it. After you have read all of the documents, write an essay in response to the question in G.


A study published by Lancet (the London-based medical publication) says the risk of death by violence for civilians in Iraq is now 58 times higher than before the U.S.-led invasion....Lancet published research by scientists from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US city of Baltimore....Before the invasion, most people died as a result of heart attack, stroke, and chronic illness, the report says, whereas after the invasion, 'violence was the primary cause of death.' Violent deaths were mainly attributed to coalition forcesóand most individuals reportedly killed were women and children. Dr. Les Roberts, who led the study, said, 'Making conservative assumptions we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more, have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.'"
?BBC News online, 10/29/04
Question: According to the research, what difference is there between the causes of civilian deaths in Iraq before and after the invasion?


"There is no accurate way to validate the estimates of civilian casualties by this or any other organization. The loss of any innocent lives is a tragedy, something Iraqi security forces and the Multi-National Force painstakingly work to avoid. Former regime elements and insurgents have made it a practice of using civilians as human
shields, operating and conducting attacks against coalition forces from within areas inhabited by civilians."
?a Pentagon spokesman, BBC News online,10/29/04
Question: According to the Pentagon, what is a significant cause of civilian deaths in the Iraq war?


Civilian death toll estimates in Iraq war as of 10/04:
Question: How would you explain the differences in estimates of the civilian death toll?


From Tom Engelhardt, The Nation Institute (, 12/5/04)
"A few examples from many to give a sense of the range of Iraqi cities hit from the air in recent months:
"Baqubah: 'Some 30 insurgents were stationed in buildings near the stadium in eastern Baqubah....Rather than clear the buildings?two vacant schools and a swimming pool?Colonel Pittard decided to demolish them with four 500-pound bombs.' (Christian Science Monitor, 7/21/04)
"Tall Afar: 'Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division...launched a fierce attack on Tall Afar on Thursday. The fighting, which included three airstrikes involving AC-130 gunships and F-16 fighter jets, killed 67 insurgents according to the US military.'" (The Washington Post, 9/12/04)
"....Samarra: 'By US military estimates, about 125 rebels were killed and more than 80 captured. Most of the deaths occurred early Friday in the first hours of the strike, when US helicopter gunships blasted suspected rebel positions with rocket fire.'" (Los Angeles Times, 10/4/040)....
"Fallujah: 'Highly accurate, 500-pound bombs...were dropped on suspected insurgent hideouts overnight in the southern sector of the city, military sources said. The US Air Force also used AC-130 Spectre gunships, armed with 105 mm cannons and 40 mm guns, to blast remaining insurgent pockets.' (CNN, 11/16/04)
"Normally, only a few lines, as above, are devoted to the air war against urban areas which is, by the nature of the situation, a war of terror. Such...reports represent the bare minimum the military offers journalists in Iraq on the subject. I have yet to see any cumulative figures on air strikes in Iraq per day, week, or month...or more than a few photos of its results; nor, in fact, have I found a single article of any significance on the air war in Iraq itself...what it's like for civilians... in most of Iraq's major cities to experience such periodic attacks, or what kinds of casualties result...or, in fact, anything on any aspect of the regular bombing missiling, or strafing of city neighborhoods."
Question: What would you expect to be the result for civilians in the air attacks reported above?



"Operations by US and multinational forces and Iraqi police are killing twice as many Iraqisómost of them civiliansóas attacks by insurgents. Iraqi officials said the statistics proved that US airstrikes intended for insurgents also were killing large numbers of innocent civilians. Some say these casualties are undermining popular acceptance of the American-backed interim government."
?Nancy Youssef, correspondent for Knight Ridder, September 2004 (quoted in Michael Massing, "Iraq, the Press & the Election," New York Review of Books, 12/16/04)
Question: Why do you suppose that, reportedly, attacks by US, multinational forces, and Iraqi police kill twice as many Iraqis as the insurgents?


"We don't do body counts."
?US General Tommy Franks, Commander, US Central Command during invasion of Iraq
Question: What is General Franks' attitude toward "body counts" and why do you suppose this is his attitude?

G. Essay

An inevitable result of modern warfare is the death of men, women, and children who are not in the military. Using information from the documents and your knowledge of events in Iraq, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs, and a conclusion in which you:
  • discuss the inevitable maimings and killings of civilians in modern warfare and the extent to which they have been reported during the Iraq war
  • compare the views of researchers and the military regarding civilian casualties

H. Discussion

After students have read the quotes, divide the class into groups of four to six to discuss their responses to the questions following the quotes, then the essay item. A reporter from each group might summarize its findings for the class and whole-class discussion can follow.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: