Attrition: Pump It Up


June 24, 2007: A decade after the fighting died down in Bosnia, researchers have confirmed what many analysts and journalists suspected; far fewer people were killed there than the media reported (over 200,000) at the time. Researchers believe the number of dead was, about 100,000 (including accidents with weapons, which was common cause of injury or death). Despite all the attention civilian deaths got, some 60 percent of those killed were soldiers or paramilitaries. The Bosnian Moslems were the major victims, accounting for some 65 percent of the dead. Serbs accounted for 25 percent, Croats eight percent, and various other minorities the rest. Most of the dead civilians were Moslems (83 percent), while ten percent were Serbs, five percent Croats and the rest other minorities.

Exaggerating wartime casualties is a media staple. Dramatic headlines and scary statistics attract more eyeballs, and advertising revenue. But those inflated numbers also tend to influence public policy and political, and military, decisions. This is increasingly the case as mass media has become more massive, and 24/7.

The same inflation is happening in Iraq, and it will be years before reliable casualty figures, especially for Iraqi civilians, are available. Actually, reliable data is available now, but it rarely gets reported. For example, civilian deaths from terrorist attacks and combat were about 1,400 last January, but that has been down to about 500 a month over the last two months. You'd never know that from perusing media accounts of what's going on in Iraq, where every terrorist bomb is reported with whatever spectacular adjectives the reporters think they can get away with. The media does not like good news, because it does not excite viewers nearly as much as bad news.

The terrorists, in particular, have no interest in seeing accurate casualty statistics reported. The bigger the numbers, the more terrified people are. In Bosnia, everyone pumped the numbers up. The Bosnian Moslems wanted international sympathy and aid. The Serbs, who were doing most of the killing, wanted their own losses to appear as high as they could get away with, to show that Serbs were victims too.

Back in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media reporting of casualties tends to ignore normal losses from violence. Before 2003, Saddam's "peacekeepers" (several hundred secret police and paramilitary thugs) ran up quite a body count each month, in order to keep Iraqis in line. Ironically, some of those same killers are still at it, trying to pass themselves off as "insurgents" devoted to liberating Iraq from democratic rule. Also not reported are the large parts of the country where there is hardly any terrorist violence, and foreigners can travel freely. Alas, the truth is that too much detail on casualties will be ignored by most news consumers. Simple sells. Worse yet, and simplistic and misleading reporting isn't even noticed for what it is.


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