« Weekend Trivia Challenge - Top Cited Law Review Article of All Time | Main | Those who don't learn from history . . . »

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How much is the life of a foreigner worth?

The question is particularly poignant today, because the politics surrounding withdrawal of troops from Iraq require one to identify the ideal ratio of U.S. citizens’ deaths averted to foreigners’ deaths averted. Sadly, no one wants to ask this question candidly.

Take withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. There seems to be a widespread consensus would result in increased mortality of Iraqis. No one can accurately determine how many more people would die in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from increased ethnic cleansing, deterioration of health and sanitation services, or even starvation. But does even the most avid proponent of immediate U.S. withdrawal deny that the death rate would worsen after the departure of U.S. troops, with resulting excess deaths? To deny this truism would be to pay an extraordinary compliment to the Bush Administration, by accepting their claims that Iraq is making progress towards stability – something that, I assume the MoveOn.org crowd would be reluctant to concede.

But let us be as optimistic as possible and assume that the effects of such a departure would be minimal – say, a mere 5% increase in Iraqi deaths from the intensification of ethnic cleansing, increased flow of refugees, breakdown of the health and sanitation system, etc. (I realize that a 5% estimate seems ridiculously low, but I am trying to be conservative in my guesses to appeal to the proponents of immediate withdrawal).

How many extra Iraqi deaths would a 5% increase entail? It depends, of course, on the base. Estimating the current excess mortality in Iraq as a result of the current civil war is obviously controversial. But, again, let us assume high figures, in order to win maximum agreement about the costs of our departure from the proponents of immediate withdrawal (who presumably think that the war is going very badly). One of the highest estimates comes from the 2006 Lancet Study , which estimated 655,000 excess deaths between 2003 and 2006, or roughly 220,000 excess deaths per year. The Iraqi Ministry of Health's rival study offers the lower estimate of 150,000 deaths over three years, or roughly 50,000 per year.

Let’s split the difference and say that an average of 135,000 Iraqis have been dying annually as a result of the invasion and ensuing civil disorder. A 5% increase in deaths would, therefore, constitute about 6,750 extra dead Iraqis. The United States has taken 4,000 mortal casualties over five years, or 800 U.S. deaths per year. This figure does not count civilian contractors, so let’s add a fudge factor of 25%, making the annual U.S. death toll of 1,000 per year.

It seems to me, therefore, that a supporter of immediate withdrawal would have to believe that one saved American life is worth at least six extra Iraqi deaths. (My guess is that an intellectually honest assessment of the costs of withdrawal would be much higher – more along the lines of 10:1 or 20:1 -- but, again I am trying to make my numbers as uncontroversial as possible).

Is there any way to defend the notion that an American’s life is six times as valuable as an Iraqi’s? if so, can such a defense offer a persuasive account of the proper ratio of value of foreign-to-American-lives that ought to guide U.S. policymakers? I’m assuming there is some limit to the greater weight that we accord to American deaths – that even the most adamant fan of MoveOn.org would agree that continued U.S. casualties would be worthwhile to avert, say, a Rwanda-style genocide. But what is that limit? That is, how many Iraqis’ lives are equal in worth to a single American’s – 10? 100? 1,000? 100,000?

Just curious.

Posted by Rick Hills on April 20, 2008 at 11:58 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference How much is the life of a foreigner worth?:


The real tradeoff in the atomic bombings was lives of Japanese civilians vs. lives of civilians in countries occupied by the Japanese, Chinese being the most numerous.

Posted by: Bama 1L | Apr 20, 2008 7:09:55 PM

Since staying in Iraq is costing over a billion dollars a day, there are some other things worth considering. What if we spend another half trillion and then pull out anyway?


We're the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam, but we're paying $1,000,000,000/day for the "privilege" of keeping our finger in the dam. Downstream is Iraq. We don't pull our finger out because we don't want chaos in Iraq, but we can only sit here so long. We are yelling at the Iraq leaders to fix the dam. They claim to be working on it, but sometimes they seem to be lounging on the side of the river.

The Bush policy (to stay until the job is done) is a carrot without a stick. The Democratic policy (to begin to remove our finger and watch the reaction among the leaders of Iraq) makes a lot more sense.


If you want to read a great history book with lessons for this situation, read Barbara Tuchman, "Stillwell and the American Experience in China". It's about the General who had to deal with Chiang K'ai-shek during WWII. We wanted Chiang to fight Japan, and gave him tremendous resources to do it - ultimately delaying victory in Europe. Chiang, who cared more about the Communist rebels, always promised to get to work and then did what he wanted to do. We couldn't drop him because we didn't want to see the Communists take over, and he knew it.

We had a carrot, but no stick.

The lesson of the book is that sometimes you need your allies to fear you leaving them to get them to be useful. If the Iraqi government knows that we won't leave or stop funding them, why should they do what we say if it is not also their own preference?

At the end of the day, we spent tremendous resources in China, they did absolutely nothing to help us fight Japan, victory in Europe (Afghanistan!) was significantly delayed, and the Communists took over China anyway. Complete and utter waste.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Apr 20, 2008 6:08:36 PM

I completely agree with James. This is a boil that has to be lanced, and the longer we wait, the worse it gets.

But I really doubt anyone has any clear idea of what will happen within the few months or year after an American withdrawal. Given our common deficiency in futurology, wouldn't this post more fruitfully contemplate, say, the degree to which consumption of biofuels by the wealthy disadvantages the starving? Or whether there's some duty to give to charities once one has satisfied one's own needs?

In other words, the Iraq question inevitably raises a number of charged assumptions and may well be unanswerable. But every day very many of us make decisions to, say, support candidates who cut taxes and thereby "starve the beast" of, say, the foreign aid that could keep the starving fed...or, more directly, simply fail to give to charities that could aid the sick, dying, or increasing proportion of the "bottom billion" who can no longer buy food. That's where the action is regarding "morality and mortality."

Posted by: Frank | Apr 20, 2008 5:24:30 PM

Oh, I don't disagree that there'll be terrible violence after the U.S. leaves Iraq. It's just that the longer we wait, the worse the violence will be.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Apr 20, 2008 4:01:45 PM

A. One response to James Grimmelmann and Charlie Martel:

It is, of course, conceivable that Charlie Martel's theory is correct -- that ethno-religious factions that seek to dominate the country through war and ethnic cleansing will see that this strategy is irrational once the United States exits the scene. As I understand MoveOn.org's position, each militia will see the irrationality of continued war and also believe that their rivals similarly will also perceive continued war to be irrational. Thus, they will reach a political accommodation in the name of collective rationality and mutually lay down their arms.

I cannot predict that such a happy event would never occur. Nor can Mr. Martel confidently predict that it will. We can simply play the odds. But against such a rosy prediction are one theoretical and one empirical observation.

1. First, theoretical: MoveOn.org's position seems oblivious to the problem of collective action described by political theorists from Thomas Hobbes to Thomas Schelling. The problem takes the form of a prisoner's dilemma. It might be that the very best outcome for both Shit'ites and Sunnis would be for both factions to lay down their arms and stop fighting. But the very worst result for either faction would be to be the only faction to lay down their arms and stop fighting. Given that neither can easily verify whether the other has disarmed, it is individually rational for each faction to keep their weapons and vie for power.

2. Second, empirical: There have been lots of ethno-religious wars in this century and other centuries in which no Leviathan intruded to impose order on the warring factions. The massacre of Greeks in Smyrna in 1922 after the evacuation of the Italian and French troops, the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda after the failure of the UN forces to protect them, the partition of India upon the withdrawal of the British, the continued civil war in Sri Lanka, are just a few examples of cases in which the magic of collective rationality on which Mr. Martel relies did not prevent a slaughter. In each case, the body count was, or continues to be, horrific, despite the absence of a foreign occupying power: The factions did not magically overcome familiar collective actions problems simply because it was collectively rational for them to do so. MoveOn.org has not provided one scintilla of evidence that Iraq would be any different.

But, as I say, anything is possible. It is unlikely but conceivable that Iraqis could eventually overcome their prisoner's dilemma and somehow escape the maelstrom of civil war that has engulfed every other society in their predicament. But it seems to me to be wishful thinking amounting to intellectual dishonesty to think that there will be no period of "adjustment" in which Iraqi casualties will spike after the U.S. withdraws. That's why I set the deaths from a U.S. withdrawal at a measly 5%: I am adopting a really rosy scenario in which the Iraqis defy the normal odds of collective disaster.

B. One quick response to Will Hendricks: I am more interested in the answer to the general question than in supporting any particular position about our involvement with Iraq. On the latter subject, I am completely agnostic: There seems to me to be powerful arguments to leave Iraq quickly. For instance, it seems to me very difficult to tell servicemen to lay down their lives to protect Iraqis, when they enlisted to protect the Constitution of the United States. I am entirely sympathetic to the self-interested argument for withdrawal because such withdrawal will best serve the interests of the United States. But I think that it is intellectually dishonest to refuse to take very seriously the high probability that such a withdrawal will cost thousands of Iraqi lives.

Thus, Ben's last paragraph seems to me to reflect plain good sense: Obviously the policy of U.S. policymakers cannot be that U.S. lives and non-citizens' lives weigh equally in the balance. The ratio of value of American to foreign citizens for U.S. policymakers cannot be 1:1. U.S. policymakers, after all, are elected to represent We the People of the United States, not We the World. But what exactly is the correct ratio?

Since I really have no idea what to do about Iraq, I am more interested in a genuine answer to the original "ratio" question: How many of their citizens' lives can any nation's policymakers legitimately sacrifice to save foreign lives (or vive versa)? The issue arises in contexts as varied as the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to save U.S. troops from the need to invade the Japanese Islands; the failure of the French to protect the Tutsis in Rwanda; and our current unwillingness to intervene in Darfur with air strikes to protect civilians from the Janjaweed militias.

That the supporters of withdrawal from Iraq are unwilling to contemplate such a trade-off just shows how difficult it is to be candid about a pressing policy issue. It is pleasant to pretend that we can have it both ways, but it is not honest policy-making.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Apr 20, 2008 3:14:53 PM

There is no contradiction in asserting, though I do not necessarily do so, that things in Iraq are going poorly and that they would get better if we left. The only assumption that those statements really require is that the U.S. is part of the problem. I think it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the people who have screwed up pretty much everything about the Iraq war so far do not in fact have the secret recipe now, and that the best thing for Iraq and the world would be for them to leave it alone.

I also wonder about whether this life balancing can be applied universally. Should the U.S. intervene every time that the cost to us in lives is less than the lives of some other country saved? Obviously we do not do this and should we really appoint ourselves the world's matyrs?

Posted by: Ben | Apr 20, 2008 2:42:19 PM

Rick--With all due respect, you have misstated the position of those of us who honestly believe that the best thing for both America and Iraq would be a swift withdrawal of US troops. I can't speak for all of us, but as for me, I believe that a measured withdrawal that starts soon would lead to the best humanitarian result.

Before explaining why, I'll concede that I do not know for certain whether this is right, as no one can know for certain what is best now. This is because the tragic results of our invasion and occupation is a humanitarian disaster--a tangle of war, multi-factional conflict, deprivation, and displacement that has created a constant risk of death for every single person in Iraq, including our troops. All of us who proscribe solutions ought to do so with moral humility, because anything our nation does now may compound the death and suffering we have already caused and because we have been terribly and fatally wrong about so many things so far.

Having said that, it seems to me that the only way to forestall more conflict is to do all we can to foster a political agreement among the warring factions. If we pull out slowly but certainly, those factions will realize that we will no longer be there as a buffer shoring up their military positions. And this is precisely what we have done over the last five years, because during that time we have provided some sort of military support to virtually everyone who is fighting in Iraq with the exception of Al Qaeda.

As we leave, the factions will have to decide whether to make a deal or fight. Fighting is an enormous risk, because there are so many factions fighting--and using guerilla tactics that cannot be easily suppressed--that no faction can be sure to have an easy or permanent military victory. And we can incent a deal by offering support for the rebuilding and humanitarian aid needed, and conditioning that support on a peaceful resolution of political disputes.

The alternative seems to be continued US military occupation, in the midst of which an ongoing multi-factional war is being fought. All of the factions are seemingly gaining greater military capacity and have no incentive to make a deal as long as we are the true power in Iraq.
If we leave, there will be a power vacuum that will be filled by Iraqis, and they can either do this by peaceful political accomodation whereby all factions share a piece of power or by violent conflict in which one or a few factions gain all the power through force. Again, we can do much to encourage the peaceful route by conditioning needed support.

So Rick, here is the answer your curiosity about the worth of foreign lives to those of us opposed to indefinite continuation of our occupation: the lives of everyone in Iraq are all sacred, including our troops. So far, millions have been displaced, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are dead, many more have been terribly maimed, thousands of innocents have been detained, many of those have been tortured, and everyone in Iraq lives in constant deprivation and fear.

Each time any of these things has happened to a human being--American, Iraqi, or any other person--is a tragedy beyond remedy. Those of us who want to withdrawal swiftly choose this option because we sincerely believe that withdrawal will end this tragedy for everyone effected. We are not making narrowly nationalistic, parochial utilitarian calculations that disregard the innocence and sanctity of Iraqi lives. To the contrary, many of us opposed the war from the start precisely because we feared that a war would cause exactly the sort of horrific civilian suffering it has caused.

My hopes and prayers before the war were that those of us against it would be proven wrong, and that it would be successful with relatively little human cost as its proponents contended.

In view of the suffering this war has caused, it is out of place for anyone to sneer at war opponents as "the MoveOn crowd" or insinuate that people who want our military involvement to end it don't care how many Iraqis die. A majority of Americans, including but hardly limited to patriotic MoveOn members, oppose the war. And one reason why is the great suffering of the Iraqi people, though certainly the safety and well-being of our service men and women is sacred to us too.

Perhaps those who have been for the war ought to take a moment to join those of us who are against the war and sincerely grieve for those who have suffered and died in the war.


Charlie Martel

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Apr 20, 2008 1:42:27 PM

What you're getting at here is a responsibility argument, if I am correct, Rick. We have direct or indirect responsibility for some or all of the population of Iraq. To precipitously withdraw would be irresponsible.

In many American jurisdictions, a similar argument concerning undertaken responsibility occurs in tort law. One having voluntarily undertaken a duty upon which another now relies cannot suddenly shirk that duty, leaving the one who relied "in the lurch," so to speak.

Posted by: Jonathan | Apr 20, 2008 1:18:48 PM

Were you asking this question prior to our invasion of Iraq? More to the point, were you asking this question in the lead-up to our invasion of Afghanistan? That was a military action almost everyone supported, but one that would have predictably resulted (as it has - http://preview.tinyurl.com/3x4svo) in the deaths of as many or more Afghanis (not involved in Al-Qaeda) as the 3000 deaths in the World Trade Center. Which is not to say that we shouldn't have done it, or that we shouldn't weigh the cost of human suffering that military intervention and/or disengagement is likely to cause. But my gut tells me that you only trot this argument out when it suits you.

Posted by: Will Hendricks | Apr 20, 2008 1:10:43 PM

But does even the most avid proponent of immediate U.S. withdrawal deny that the death rate would worsen after the departure of U.S. troops, with resulting excess deaths?


Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Apr 20, 2008 12:53:16 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.