There are two pieces of prevailing conventional wisdom about the Iraq War: first, that the U.S.-led invasion was a mistake and, second, that things started turning around in 2007, when the U.S. changed strategies, Iraqi politics sort of came together and the death toll went down dramatically. That, in the most general terms, is the basic American narrative of the Iraq War: from very bad to less bad.
An extensive new study into Iraq’s war deaths makes that storyline look a bit different. The study, conducted by four American and Canadian universities along with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, estimates that 461,000 Iraqi deaths can be attributed to the war, of which about two-thirds were direct violence; the other third is from indirect causes such as breakdowns of health-care systems that are attributable to the war. Those numbers are much higher than earlier estimated. Worse, they tick back up in the final years of the war – when things were supposedly getting better.
The results, charted below, show the number of war-related Iraqi deaths over time. It’s grim – and a direct challenge to our understanding of the war as having improved after 2007:
This study confirms two components of the Iraq War narrative: that fighting dropped sharply after 2007 and that 2008 was a relatively successful year in reducing combat deaths. You can see that the dark-red bars get smaller, meaning there are fewer deaths from direct violence. But this chart still contradicts our overall understanding: It turns out that deaths picked back up in 2009 and then even further in 2010, to 2005 levels. The gain was temporary and in the process of reversing by the time we left.