More denial on Darfur —this time from the “left”

It is endless, and it comes (tellingly) from the both the right and the left. The latest entry is from Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani, writing in the March 8 London Review of Books—who probably fancies himself on the left. But like his counterparts on the right and even in the Bush administration, he has a lot invested in denying that there is genocide in Darfur. What’s particularly maddening is that Mamdani’s piece, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency,” could be a good starting point for a sorely needed discussion—could, that is, if it were not guilty of exactly what he accuses his opponents of…

Mamdani begins:

The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

We can anticipate his answers from the start: the “genocide” charge is a propaganda charade to justify “humanitarian intervention.” But the dishonesty is also evident from the start: Mamdani can only find “roughly similar” casualty counts in Iraq and Darfur by using the highest estimates from the former and lowest from the latter. The 2004 figure of 100,000 killed in Iraq since the US invasion published in the Lancet medical journal, based on the findings of a team from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities, has been widely questioned. So has the 655,000 figure published by the same team in the Lancet last year. These were extrapolations based on a supposedly representative survey of Iraqi doctors. The far more cautious figure calculated by Iraq Body Count, based on killings documented in the world press, currently stands at not quite 65,000. The low estimates for Darfur meanwhile, stand at 100,000, with the high estimates at 400,000, and the increasingly accepted figure 200,000.

Mamdani also fails to address the critical question of proportionality to total population. Darfur has perhaps 6 million inhabitants; Iraq more than four times as many. Ironically, after such numbers tricks, Mamdani has the chutzpah to call out Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times for playing fast and loose with the Darfur body count.

This bean-counting often strikes us as vulgar, and we acknoweldge that the violence in Iraq is in fact approaching genocidal levels. But in Iraq, the state-backed forces and the “insurgents” both massively target civilians of the rival ethno-religious faction—with the “insurgents” being perhaps more ambitious and ruthless on this count. In Darfur, in contrast, it is overwhelmingly the state-backed forces which have carried out massive attacks on civilians. In Iraq, Sunni and Shi’ite are slaughtering each other in roughly equal numbers. In Darfur, the victims are overwhelmingly of the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalliet peoples. Mamdani obfuscates this reality. He writes:

What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics – a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.

Where are the responsible observers who contend that there is anything aproaching rough parity between the Janjaweed and the guerillas in their attacks on civilians? There aren’t any. This is an insidious distortion. Mamdani does concede: “The worst violence came from the Janjawiid, but the insurgent movements were also accused of gross violations.” He also concedes that the UN Commission on Darfur in its January 2005 report assigned only “secondary” responsibility for the violence to the guerillas, finding them guilty of “war crimes” but not “crimes against humanity.” The commission found the government-backed forces guilty of “crimes against humanity,” while absolving the Sudanese regime of pursuing a “policy of genocide.” But the thrust of Mamdani’s argument goes the other way—Darfur is just a civil war, not a genocide. He writes:

In the Kristof columns, there is one area of deafening silence, to do with the fact that what is happening in Darfur is a civil war. Hardly a word is said about the insurgency, about the civilian deaths insurgents mete out, about acts that the commission characterised as ‘war crimes’.

Again, this is a valid point—but Mamdani has little moral ground from which to make it. He is engaging in a bogus moral equivalism. We agree that US intervention in Darfur, as in Iraq, may only make things worse. There is a good case to be made against “humanitarian intervention.” But kneejerk genocide denial is assuredly not it.

The left has a very funny double standard on the question of genocide. When it comes to the crimes of the US empire, we are all supposed to agree with Ward Churchill that paper-pushers at brokerage firms are “little Eichmanns.” But when the question is posed in terms of use of military power to help the victims, 200,000 dead civilians fails to constitute genocide.

See our last posts on Darfur and the Sahel crisis and the politics of African genocide.

  1. from Brian Hennesey
    We already know why we have this unusual focus on Darfur (compared to other
    conflicts) because Ned Goldstein’s already exposed it in Save Darfur: Zionist

    Concisely, it pulls attention off Israel (and a tinge off Iraq), fits in
    with the clashOcivilizations narrative, and it allows us to repeatedly refer
    to Khartoum as a “Muslim” or “Islamic” gov’t to hammer home that important
    message. Even though, when we’re reporting on conflicts in other parts of
    the world, we never say a “Jewish gov’t bombed Lebanon” or a “Christian
    gov’t invaded Iraq” or a “Hindu gov’t massacred in Kashmir.” Then religion
    is irrelevant. But not when BOTH sides are the same religion (which would
    seem to indicate it isn’t a factor), as is the case in Darfur. For some
    reason, we must still emphasize that they’re Muslim even then.

    Furthermore, while there’s no Darfur Denial on the Left, the US isn’t
    supporting that conflict or (we hope) arming it (at least directly). That’s
    why the left sees the conflict in Iraq and Israel differently. We are
    directly responsible for those and can change them. I hope thinking people
    can see the difference.

    What bothers me most about Bill’s piece is his unlearned commentary on the
    Iraq death estimate by Hopkins. We have worked with the study’s authors and
    they are giants in the field. Gil Burnham also happens to be former US

    Where on Earth to begin?

    First, it’s breathtaking that anyone would compare a website (Iraqbodycount)
    with Johns Hopkins University, one of the most respected seats of learning
    in the world, certainly the best medical institution and its School of
    Public Health, which did the report, is indisputably the best and most
    respected on the planet.

    As I huff and puff here about how to explain this to a layperson, I’m
    reminded of Al Gore’s presentation in Inconvenient Truth, where he says the
    NYT is forced to give the other side in every story about Global Warming.
    But there’s been complete consensus in the scientific community on this
    issue with no serous dissent in decades. Bill says the Hopkins study has
    been questioned but only by people like him, who have no grounding in stats,
    public health or working in conflicts.

    Shortly after the release of the Iraq study, the preeminent conference of
    statisticians took place in the US. They decided to do a panel for the
    press on the report and its methods. The press salivated at the prospect of
    a catfight debate. But there was none. Not a single statistician could
    criticize the study’s methods because they are industry-standard and
    bullet-proof. Nothing even new about them.

    Never mind that it was by Hopkins, it’s was published by THE world’s
    foremost medical journal, the Lancet, which is completely peer-reviewed.

    The Iraqbodycount (I just can’t believe I’ve been dragged into comparing
    them!!!) is by lay bloggers with no training in any methods. They literally
    count, no analysis and no comprehension. As Bill points out they rely on
    Drs to count for them. Anyone following Iraq knows there are no Drs left in
    Iraq. The educated have left as part of a 3 million refugee population
    (another underreported story). This is NORMAL during wars and so NO ONE
    counts during conflicts (or even disasters). You have to use these
    statistical sampling methods to estimate (within an predicted range) the
    toll. And these surveys are routinely used. In fact, while the US admin
    was complaining about these ‘controversial’ methods THEIR Census Survey has
    been using the EXACT SAME methods for years, without any controversy.

    The Iraq body count people accept (without question) the numbers given to
    them by the Iraqi gov’t that’s controlled by the US. Recently, a Shia party
    has been given the Health Ministry and they’ve only been reporting Shia dead
    and no Sunni dead. And Iraq Body count, just counts them as if they’re real
    and complete. Body Count numbers aren’t just much lower compared to the
    Hopkins study, they’re lower than all other studies and estimates, including
    the UN’s.

    The body count people can be seen here:
    As they accept, uncritically, Iraqi gov’t figures (when we all know their
    gov’t doesn’t function outside the Green Zone and is hostage of the US), one
    wonders why then need such luminary backgrounds and qualifications like
    “free lance researcher”
    “recently retired librarian”
    “Associate Professor in the School of Music”
    “co-author of “Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development”
    “currently doctoral student studying computer science”
    “a guitarist and private instructor”
    “doctorate for his holistic critique of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte”
    “author of JavaScript: The Definitive Guide”
    “professor of music”
    “lecturer in music”
    “senior research fellow in neuroscience”
    “mother of two. Supporting member and event coordinator of Musicians
    Opposing War
    “is a post-graduate student”
    “doctorate on Nationalism in Bosnia”

    In fact, there are more musicians than any other occupation AND NOT ONE
    statistician, public health expert or even a doctor.

    And, to wrap this up nicely, a similar study was made of the Congo, using
    the exact same methods, and showed that 5 million have died in that
    unreported conflict. But that number is too uncomfortable and doesn’t stay
    ‘on message’ with Muslims as killers . . . as there none are involved.

    So, even though the Congo numbers were much higher that Hopkins’ Iraq
    study’s no one complained about their methods or gives a shit about those

    1. Cut the crap, willya Brian?
      It’s not like we’re the only ones to question the Johns Hopkins team’s findings. Iraq Body Count provides a minimum baseline, not a total figure. But it is based on an actual individual count, not conjecture and extrapolation.

      And since you are so concerned with the numbers being determined by the “message” of “Muslims as killers”—I hate to disillusion you, but the growing dynamic in Iraq is Muslims killing Muslims over a difference of opinion on the legitimate successor to Caliph Uthman. In case you didn’t notice.

      1. Brian replies
        Bill, if you think the violence in Iraq is “over a difference of opinion on
        the legitimate successor to Caliph Uthman” you have formed an enormously
        ignorant and bigoted view about that conflict and you are a willing victim
        of the neocon mythologicians who absolve all American guilt and hide the
        painful fact that this kind of violence is unprecedented in Iraq’s history .
        . . a history of Shia and Sunni living together. And, until recently, ruled
        by secular Ba’athists.

        Once again, if it needs repeating, the Hopkins study was published in the
        world’s preeminent medical journal and was peer-reviewed by the world’s
        foremost experts. Since its publication no serious public health
        practitioner or statistician has negatively critiqued it. No serious
        scholar would even bother critiquing the IBC, which is little more than a
        blog of British musicians.

        Typical of any real science writer, Lila Guterman wrote in the Columbia
        Journalism Review, “I called about ten biostatisticians and mortality
        experts. Not one of them took issue with the [Hopkins/Lancet] study’s
        methods or its conclusions. If anything, the scientists told me, the authors
        had been cautious in their estimates. With a quick call to a statistician,
        reporters would have found that the probability forms a bell curve – the
        likelihood is very small that the number of deaths fell at either extreme of
        the range. It was very likely to fall near the middle.”

        Britain’s Military Chief Scientific Adviser, Roy Anderson, said, “The study
        design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to “best
        practice” in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and
        verification in the present circumstances in Iraq.”

        There is no controversy about the Hopkins/Lancet study among those who do
        this for a living.

        IBC is populated by musicians and not a single statistician nor a public
        health expert. They’ve never been published in any scholarly journal and
        none of their work has been peer-reviewed (even by other musicians!). They
        have no methods (they count what the media choose to give them). And it’s
        demonstrable that their passive surveillance (counting numbers given to
        them) actually goes down during the time of the most intense killing
        because, as anyone who’s been in a conflict knows, you can’t just accept
        numbers given by one side and you can’t count anything in chaos. But our
        simplistic media have fawned over IBC.

        Typical is Fred Kaplan, who you cite. Kaplan isn’t even a science writer
        let alone trained in any discipline that would allow him to understand
        methods. He preposterously writes (after being unable to find any credible
        statistician or public health expert to help him build a case against
        Hopkins/Lancet) that “There is one group out there counting civilian
        casualties in a way that’s tangible, specific, and very useful-a team of
        mainly British researchers, led by Hamit Dardagan and John Sloboda, called
        Iraq Body Count.”

        He doesn’t mention what Dardagan and Sloboda have previously researched
        (mainly politics) and what they do for a living or how Kaplan can make this
        glowing leap of uncritical faith.

        Maybe the media love these guys precisely because IBC’s “methods” are to
        count the numbers that the media give them. So, IBC unquestioningly accepts
        media reports of the dead and then the media reports IBC’s numbers. A
        beautiful circle of self-confirmation and self-congratulation.

        Bill, you pick the amateur musicians of IBC and denigrate Hopkins and Lancet
        only because it fits your Orientalist belief system . . . like the war in
        Iraq was started by Shia’s and Sunni’s still arguing about who’s the next

        1. Against my better judgement…
          This is hardly even a relevant question, because whether the Johns Hopkins team was right or wrong, Mamdani could still only have used high estimates from Iraq and low estimates from Darfur to arrive at his “roughly similar” assesment. But the Johns Hopkins findings have certainly been questioned by professionals in the field. From an overview of the controversy on Johns Hopkins’ own website:

          The Lancet had sent a press release announcing the study to John Bohannon. Bohannon is a Vienna-based contributing correspondent for Science who happened to be writing about a pair of Oxford University physicists, Neil Johnson and Sean Gourley, who were studying statistical patterns in casualty figures from more than 10 wars. Bohannon asked Gourley what he thought of the Lancet article.

          Gourley, Johnson, and Michael Spagat, an economist at Royal Holloway, University of London, who is working on a book about conflict analysis, all read the article. Says Johnson, “I got hold of the Lancet paper, and as I read it, I began to feel uneasy about the Hopkins group’s particular implementation of the methodology.” According to the summary that appeared in The Lancet, the Hopkins researchers had randomly selected a section from each of the study’s 50 population areas. Next they randomly picked a main commercial street, then randomly selected residential streets that crossed it. In one more random process, they picked a single house from one of those cross streets as the starting point for the cluster. Johnson and his colleagues believe that violence in Iraq is concentrated on just the sort of commercial streets that were near the start points of the survey’s clusters. By having repeatedly sampled too near where the most violence occurred, they reasoned, the study might be fatally skewed. Johnson labeled the sampling problem “main-street bias,” and the three Brits wrote an article about it. (At press time, Johnson, Gourley, and Spagat’s paper, titled “Bias in Epidemiological Studies of Conflict Mortality,” had yet to be published, but Johnson made a draft copy available to Johns Hopkins Magazine.)

          In the October 20, 2006, edition of Science, Bohannon published a story headlined “Iraqi Death Estimates Called Too High; Methods Faulted,” in which he cited the main-street bias argument and quoted Johnson as saying, “It is almost a crime to let [the survey’s procedures] go unchallenged.”

          This dissent is also noted by (of course) the Council on Foreign Relations:

          Others criticize the report’s sample size. The researchers randomly chose fifty clusters from sixteen provinces, with each cluster consisting of forty households. The trouble with this methodology, Michael Spagat, a conflict studies expert at the University of London, tells Nature (subscription required) is what he calls “main-street bias”: researchers randomly selected residential streets that crisscross busy thoroughfares in each survey area, which are more prone to car bombs and heavy violence, but left out safer streets off the beaten path.

          The CFR plays up this dissent for obvious, political reasons. Hennesy and Mamdani and Left-Wing Consensus Reality generally all ignore the dissent, for equally political reasons. It isn’t about facts for either side. It’s about scoring polemical points.

          Since the question of “guilt” obviously determines everything for Hennnesy, he might consider taking time to read the newspapers once in a while. The daily cycle of Sunnni-Shi’ite massacres and mosque-torchings are not a hallucination of my Orientalist mind. They are (unlike the Johns Hopkins findings) quantifiable, verifiable fact.

          But the left seems constitutionally incapable of honesty on this question. As I wrote in 2005:

          In July, the team that maintains the website Iraq Body Count made a minor media splash when they announced that the number of Iraqi civilian deaths they had arrived at through media monitoring since the US invasion had passed the 25,000 mark. This figure is now used by the anti-war movement to imply 25,000 dead at hands of US forces. (So, often, is the 100,000 figure published in the Lancet medical journal last year, based on the far less cautious findings of a team from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities that conducted interviews with Iraqi doctors.) However, the Iraq Body Count website states that its toll “includes all deaths which the Occupying Authority has a binding responsibility to prevent under the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations. This includes civilian deaths resulting from the breakdown in law and order…” In other words, this figure includes deaths at the hands of the insurgents.

          Thirty percent of those 25,000 deaths occurred during the March-May 2003 “major combat” phase of US operations. This is not surprising, as aerial bombardment is a very effective way to kill large numbers of people, even as “collateral damage.” But since then, the majority of the deaths is attributed to criminal and insurgent violence, with the insurgents claiming an ever-growing share.

          So those who cite this figure as representing directly US-inflicted casualties while simultaneously cheering on the Iraqi “resistance” engage in the most disingenuous of numbers tricks—actually attributing deaths by the forces they support to the forces they oppose.

          Nuff said? I sure hope so. This is tiresome.

          1. For the record
            Spagat, at least, does seem to have axes to grind. He runs a Bogota think-tank whose website prominently features studies “proving” that Amnesty International over-estimates the death tolls in Colombia.


            On the other hand, he has another paper on the site with an analysis we can all agree on: “Aid Designed to Diminish Terrorist Atrocities Can Increase Them,” arguing (with Colombia as an exemplar) that “counter-terrorist” paramilitary groups can go terrorist themselves.

            Science is politicized, what else is new? What’s interesting (as I stated at the top) is how both ends of the spectrum have so much invested in minimizing the reality of Darfur.

            1. Hennesey replies
              “Nuff said? I sure hope so. This is tiresome.”

              And then you, Bill, continue on your own with yet another post 🙂

              Before you respond to yourself again let me.

              “professionals in the field”:
              John Bohannon has no qualifications (other than as a journalist) that I know
              of and he lists none on his website:

              He interviewed two physicists and an economist about a statistical public
              health study in a medical journal. That would be like asking two plumbers
              and matchmaker to critique an artificial heart.

              The Council on Foreign Relations critiquing the Lancet on the subject of
              medical science has no comparison that I can think of.

              [So far no statisticians, biostatistians or public health specialists. And
              none of them very notable even in their own fields.]

              The “main-street bias” is, to be charitable, a lie reported by a pisspoor
              journalist. I attended Robert’s (1st study) and Burnham’s (2nd)
              presentations of findings at Hopkins (and later in DC at the Global Health
              Council) and before this absurd bias theory. It’s just not true that they
              stuck to main streets. Patently false. I’ve seen with satellite maps the
              homes and streets they randomly picked and I’ve seen how they randomly
              picked the homes. Gil responded in Science and that issue is now dead.

              “researchers randomly selected residential streets that crisscross busy
              thoroughfares in each survey area, which are more prone to car bombs and
              heavy violence, but left out safer streets off the beaten path.”

              Just listen to the counterintuition there. The researchers would’ve had
              completely understandable bias towards places that were safer (that’s the
              human and even animal condition) . . . not more dangerous places where
              they’d risk their lives. In fact, there was one area that they ruled out in
              the 2nd study as too dangerous. So, any case that could be made would be
              made about missing dangerous areas and the numbers being low (which as been
              the reaction of most professionals to the study, as you’ve seen).

              So, you’ve still got zilch in your hands there but rather than keep losing
              this battle why don’t you dig up all the statistical pros and public health
              experts who applaud Iraq Body Count’s “methods.”

              “Hennesy and Mamdani and Left-Wing Consensus Reality generally ignore the

              I don’t ignore what doesn’t exist. The criticism from Bush and other
              ignoramuses has no basis in fact or training. None of these ‘critics’ have
              a clue what they’re talking about.

              Bill, I know your trust your newspapers (and blogs that then count up
              newspaper articles for newspapers to re-report as verified) and you trust
              them more than logic itself. But your racist slander that the fighting in
              Iraq is about the succession of a caliph is slanderous racism.

              I asked you why this hadn’t been happening before a foreign occupying force
              showed up (as this caliph predated America). No countries in the Middle
              East don’t have both Sunnis and Shias living together. Where are the civil

              “They are (unlike the Johns Hopkins findings) quantifiable, verifiable

              Wow, you’re saying American journalism is empirical to a higher extent than
              science. So, why they reporting Darfur till the cows come home and not a
              word on the Congo (another question you ignored).

              “So those who cite this figure as representing directly US-inflicted
              casualties while simultaneously cheering on the Iraqi “resistance” engage in
              the most disingenuous of numbers tricks-actually attributing deaths by the
              forces they support to the forces they oppose.”

              OK, who said they support the Iraqi resistance?

              We have a death rate before and after the invasion as the index. This is
              the effect of the invasion. That’s inescapable. Had this not happened,
              600,000 people wouldn’t be dead. And this death rate included high
              abnormalities related to the embargo, which killed over a million.

              Would there’ve been an Iraqi resistance without an occupation? This ain’t
              no chicken and egg here.

              It’s rare in any conflict (especially WWII) for most deaths to be direct to
              a bullet or shrapnel. It’s much more complicated than that.

              Science isn’t political. It’s that politicians hate it (proves them wrong
              all the time) and journalists can’t understand it and want to make it into
              something controversial (for a good story).

              I know both Les and Gil. Les is political (and has run for office) but it
              doesn’t affect his science AND there’s no way the Lancet or its reviewers
              would accept anything political. Gil, just plainly isn’t political. He’s
              from Alabama and former military.