Published on 31 May 2013

Poll shows public at odds with reality of Iraq war

The Iraq war saw the biggest-ever protest in the history of London – the mother of all focus groups, you might say. We know from opinion polls before during and after the war that it was a historically unpopular enterprise for the Brits.

Yet now comes a poll about perceptions of the war which, notwithstanding the above, shows public perception wildly at odds with reality.


By common consent the war cost at the very, very least, 100,000 Iraqi lives and the figure may well be several times that.

Yet the poll, by ComRes shows the following in establishing public perceptions of the Iraqi death toll since the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

  • Two-thirds (66 per cent) of the public estimate that 20,000 or fewer civilians and combatants have died as a consequence of the war in Iraq since 2003.
  • One in 10 (10 per cent) think that between 100,000 and 500,000 have died and one in 20 (6 per cent) think that more than 500,000 have died.
  • According to public estimates, the mean number of deaths in Iraq since the invasion is 189,530.
  • Women in Britain are more likely to underestimate the number of deaths in Iraq since the invasion than men. Half (53 per cent) of women think 5,000 or fewer deaths have occurred since the invasion compared to one-third (35 per cent) of men.

Perhaps that last figure is the most startling – a majority of women and more than a third of men polled say fewer than 5,000 deaths have occurred. That figure is so staggeringly, mind-blowingly at odds with reality as to leave a journalist who worked long and hard to bring home the reality of war, speechless.

If we believe the results, then war-makers in government will take great comfort, as will the generals who work so hard to peddle the lie of bloodless warfare, with all the cockpit video propaganda video news releases and talk of “collateral damage” instead of “dead children”.

Equally – questions for us on the media that after so much time, effort and money, the public perception of bloodshed remains stubbornly, wildly, wrong.

ComRes interviewed2021 British adults online between 24 and 27 May 2013. Data were weighted to be representative of all GB adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council.

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22 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    Just shows how “successful” was the disgusting propaganda of neocon media hacks like Jonathan “Chemical Armageddon” Miller and his ilk.

    Josef Goebbels lives.

  2. Aidan Turner says:

    Sadly, most people are not very well informed. Whilst 1million adults watch your excellent programme that means 39 million do not. Many of the other news programmes are too short and cover too many stories.

  3. adil says:

    I find this a little bit naughty. When you see the news the hard numbers that come across are often buried. If you ask people how many people died as a result of the 2012 Japanese Tsunami I’m sure that the numbers would be orders of magnitude off as well (I wouldn’t be able to guess anywhere near the 15,000+ dead). But, if you ask the question whether it was a terrible event many would say yes. In this case perhaps asking if people still think the war was justified and has resulted in a more stable country perhaps you may see a lot more don’t knows or nos than yeses.

    I think the reality is most people would doubt the intelligence arguing for war since we have a comprehensible example of it being warped to justify an unjust action.

    It I hope goes in spades for Syria which is a civil war (it almost seems a tribal conflict further agitated by external interests). Is there any reason for UK or any arms manufacturers to supply either side? No. It is good to see from you and others a more intelligent argument arguing against sending arms to the region.

  4. John Surgeon says:

    That’ll teach Saddam to try to flog Iraq’s oil in Euro Dollars, which would have devastated the American economy. This being the real reason for the hundreds of thousands of deaths.

  5. Mike says:

    Only 2% of the British public put the death toll at over one million? This is just staggering! Not only the true death toll, which by most scientific reasoning, now stands at 1.3 million, but also that so few Brits have any real idea of the scale of the devastation wrought on Iraq and all based on lies.

    What are we to deduce from this? That ITN News is guilty of lies by omission or that its viewing figures are much lower than one would imagine?

    With history being so well written, effectively shielding those responsible for the bloody carnage by keeping the public ignorant of the tragic consequences of our foreign policy, it’s hardly any wonder there was no mass protest against the NATO bombing of Libya or UK policy of providing military, financial and diplomatic support for the cannibals terrorising the people of Syria.

    The results of the survey represent a triumph of the corporate media propaganda machine, which in line with the goal of a former BBC director general, has now become ‘a fully effective instrument of war’

  6. douglas dixon says:

    If the figures scare you, then look at yourself and your news editors – it is you who sanitise the news items to contain no sensitive material that may shock viewers, and thus miss the opportunity to make viewers aware of the true atrocities being committed in our name.
    “The Girl in the Picture” (Vietnam War) … naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack, had a huge effect on public opinion. A similar image from recent military campaigns would be censored long before the western public got to see it and reach to it.

  7. tom cullen says:

    Not surprised but the going to war was not so opposed as suggested. A vocal minority made the headlines. Most people were simply not interested. Surprised that most people do not realise the extent of post-war deaths, it has been well documented and not just by Channel 4, just underlines the lack of interest in our Goverments forays into foreign adventures.
    The number of post war deaths should be compared to the number that Saddam would have killed if he was still in power.
    The worry is that the Government is becoming involved in a bloodbath in Syria. It doesn’t matter which party is in power they cannot resist playing global policeman, will they ever learn?

  8. Daniel Baguley says:

    Another important piece, Alex. Please do not remain speechless for long, your voice is needed.

  9. Antony says:

    Adil commented that perhaps people couldn’t recount other death tolls. –
    Who doesn’t know the death toll from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and holocaust. Although not as accurate I bet the estimates for the Rwandan massacre would be better also. We can do a good job of informing the public if we really want to!
    With organisations like support the troops and key milestones in UK troop deaths receiving significant coverage in the news, I bet the estimates on UK deaths would not have been orders of magnitude out.
    With hindsight it would have been a good idea to poll for UK deaths in Iraq war

  10. SimonJenkins says:

    Hi Alex,

    You stated that:

    “By common consent the war cost at the very, very least, 100,000 Iraqi lives and the figure may well be several times that.”

    Why not instead give the links to the different studies that have taken place on the casualties of the Iraq War, so people can see the range of estimates themselves? Info on the different studies can be found here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Iraq_War

    You could also have stated that one of the only peer reveiwed Studies, The Lancet Survey, concluded that “601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths” occured in Iraq during the period March 2003 to June 2006.

    More info on Lancet Survey here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lancet_surveys_of_Iraq_War_casualties

    You could also have stated that the

  11. Philip says:

    Not knowing exactly how the question was worded means that it’s difficult to be sure what the results show. It’s possible that people may link the deaths directly to the military action – as opposed to the subsequent Iraqi on Iraqi killings which make up the bulk of the deaths. Deaths in Iraq still seem well covered by both the BBC & Channel 4. Indeed, possibly because of its bruising encounter with the Blair Government over Hutton, the BBC has tended to report the continuing violence more in Iraq than, say, in Libya.
    But people also “tune out” to a lot of this stuff. If they find information unwelcome, people find it very easy to ignore it. Also, the same news story – deaths of civilians in Iraq – has occurred with sufficient regularity for people to have stopped distinguishing one incident from another. And Iraq is seen as “yesterday’s news” too.
    It illustrates a more serious issue, however. The world is often unpleasant, violent & incomprehensible to many people. The media seem to have largely given up trying to explain – just a short amount of reporting, then on to the next subject….which as often as not will be some celeb news. I bet if you asked a representative sample a series of questions about celebs you’d get much more accurate answers.
    That’s how people are kept as obedient sheep.

    1. Joe Emersberger says:

      The first of two questions asked by ComRes was

      “How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003? Please just give your best estimate.”

      The median answer was 10,000.

      The second question was

      “What percentage of Iraqi deaths as a result of the war do you think were civilian ie non combatants? Please give a percentage from 1-100. Please just give your best estimate.”

      The median answer was 50%.

      Coming answers to questions 1 and 2 ComRes was able to derive a civilian death estimate for each respondent.

      The median answer was 4,000 – about one thirtieth of what Iraq Body Count tallied by counting only +reported+ civilian deaths directly caused by violence. The respondents in the ComRes poll were not required to limit their estimate to deaths caused directly from violence.

      This is a staggering level of ignorance about a very extensively covered war.

  12. Jerry Pepin says:

    I think adil makes a very valid point. Perhaps the more surprising fact is that a leading British journalist is surprised that people are misinformed. Whilst the process of making news remains stubbornly atomised and even the most responsible, reasonable and well-intentioned journalists refuse to draw out the relationships between facts the process of understanding news is not so fettered. People find it difficult to believe the figure of 100,000, even though they have heard it, because so much else tells them the British state is altruistic, benevolent, civilized, fair, benign. They cannot believe Britain would do such a thing as facilitate the murder of 100,000 civilians. If you encourage people to believe that a machine gunner is a drummer, that “loving army life” is somehow neutral or that reports of deaths should be understood through the filter of a hierarchy of importance with Britain at it’s centre then it is unsurprising that the perception of truth is often skewed.

  13. Ray Turner says:

    The UK’s involvement in the Iraqi war is the best example there is, of why we shouldn’t allow spin doctors anywhere near Downing Street…

  14. quietoaktree says:

    Having a long interest in international politics, visiting the UK (before the internet) and attempting to be ´up to date´ using British newspapers –was like ´cold turkey´ with the accompanying withdrawal symptoms.

    All newspapers had accepted the premise ´all news is local´ –and so it was. The ´International Herald Tribune´was a couple of days old and thin and the short wave radio was of more use in a boat in the middle of the Med. Sea — the BBC World Service transmitters appeared to be sending deliberately away from the UK –BBC local stations –were again local.

    Britain is just not an international news devouring nation — to the extent where using ´an Island of the uninformed´ appears justified– even with the internet.

    — Journalists as yourself should not take it personally — the UK is not the world –only the locals believe it is.

  15. Scotty_Mack says:

    Most people don’t like to admit that they supported the destruction of an entire state and the societal genocide that goes along with it.

  16. Joe Emersberger says:

    Adil,
    You wrote
    ” If you ask people how many people died as a result of the 2012 Japanese Tsunami I’m sure that the numbers would be orders of magnitude off as well ”

    You could also pick far way wars in the Congo, Colombia and Guatemala where UK involvement was quite minor, indirect and unpublicized. However, that wasn’t the case with Iraq. This was a war than went on for many years – arguably still is going on. It involved a major UK political and military commitment – so much so that (as Alex recalls) it provoked the largest protest in the history of London before it was even initiated.

    It is quite a triumph of the corporate/state media propaganda that the magnitude of the human cost of the Iraq war has been so effectively buried despite the extensive coverage.

    1. adil says:

      Hello Joe,
      I see your point (I think you are more versed in current affairs than I). I believe that the Tsunami was widely reported as well. The point I was trying to make was that the numbers are large, too large for people to comprehend. To some an unacceptably high mortality from the war could be 4000. I consider myself to be average at best. I could not tell you the correct numbers (or even in the same ball-park), but I could tell you that my impressions are the war was unjustified and has contributed to destabilizing the region.
      The survey I find (or the little I read about it in Alex good blog) is, to my mind, is misleading. I think if you asked people whether they thought the war was justified I believe that many would still say no. If you asked whether it made a positive difference to the region some may say yes perhaps a slight majority simply because they assume “no news is good news” and Iraq gets bumped from the news casts because it’s ‘old news’.

      I think an interesting study would be to understand if the public believe the region is safer now than before. I think that some would perhaps not see that to be true. If one were to point out facts such as the ruling regime in Syria is the Ba’ath party and the relationship with the old Iraqi regime it may become more apparent the impact of the involvement. It would be interesting to see the influence of other states on the current situation in Syria. Of course it’s complex and it may help to colour peoples impressions.

      1. Joe Emersberger says:

        Hi Adil,
        There are many more question that can and should be asked. For example, how many deaths do UK citizens believe Saddam Hussein was responsible for? That would be a good way to test your “numbers too high to comprehend thesis”.

        I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the corporate media to rush out and do such studies. Alex Thomson is a rare, and honorable, exception – a journalist who took a serous interest in these findings. One shouldn’t expect much interest from the organizations responsible for imposing this level of ignorance on the public.

      2. Joe Emersberger says:

        Ans one more thing, ComRes now has a direct link to the poll results

        http://www.comres.co.uk/poll/937/iraqi-death-toll-survey.htm

  17. Who can we trust? says:

    The answer Alex is that most British people are still ignorant sheep who believe what the politicians and papers tell them. They think that, by and large, the activities of British governments are honest and for the good of the people and that they don’t steal from the public or commit torture or mass murder. You may call these people gullible, but in Scotland we call them unionists.

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