MIT website puts human face on Iraq War

January 18, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, MA—As the war in Iraq approaches its fifth anniversary, a new website from MIT's Center for International Studies aims to provide an accurate account of living conditions, as well as civilian injuries and deaths due to political violence, throughout the Middle Eastern state.

The site, Iraq: the Human Cost, focuses on tracing the Iraqi death toll and on portraying political violence accurately. It offers links to a mortality study commissioned by the Center for International Studies (CIS) that set Iraqi deaths due to the war's violence at 600,000 as of July 2006 and to several updated humanitarian agency field reports of death and distress.

"It's remarkable how few sources provide information about refugees, the status of women, and the numbers of people injured and killed," said John Tirman, the center's executive director and an expert on international security and human rights. "Most journalists are in Baghdad--and even relying on morgue reports there means you don't know what, or who, you're not counting,"

But even the best numbers don't complete the portrait Tirman hopes to paint. The Human Cost is also about analyzing the causes of violence in Iraq, particularly as it has escalated since the 2003 invasion.

"We're interested in what's driving the political violence, and that's why the household survey reported in the Lancet or reports from people in the smaller urban centers are so valuable: You can get at the mechanics of violence not necessarily related to war. Revenge killings, tribal killings--these arise from deeply felt grievances, from people who believe they're defending their families and their communities. They used to say they were defending against the U.S., but ethnic and sectarian differences have grown so powerful, the waves of violence seem to feed on themselves," Tirman said.

So--why click on the Human Cost, if all is lost to a cycle of violence, but better reported?

"The site is to raise the issues and to try to answer important questions. The long-term prospects for Iraq are pretty bleak, but it won't necessarily become a failed state. Because of its oil, the role of outsiders is and will be very potent, and I argue that many Americans, given full information, would support better policies in the future than the ones that got us here," Tirman said.

As to what those policies might be, Tirman offered the perspective of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the 35-nation diplomatic pledge of mutual respect in European security, economic cooperation and human rights issues.

"The U.S. could convene a regional forum in the Middle East and follow a Helsinki-like process, putting the issues of security, trade and human rights in 'baskets' for discussion. But that's for the next administration," he said.

A former reporter for Time magazine and the author or co-author of 10 books and dozens of articles on topics related to violence, security and humanitarian consequences of war, Tirman has been at MIT since 2004.

The Human Cost web site includes an essay by Tirman on the importance of grasping the extent and the roots of violence within Iraq; links to field reports produced by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies; and an essay, in English and in Arabic, on the war's impact by Iraqi journalist Huda Ahmed.

The site also features Anja Niedringhaus's photographs of Iraq. MIT HyperStudio designed the web site for CIS.

For more information, please visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 30, 2008 (download PDF).

The Center for International Studies (CIS) supports interna­tional research and education at MIT. It is the home of MIT’s Security Studies Program; the MIT International Science & Technology Initiative, its pioneering global education program; the Program on Emerging Technologies; and seminars and research on migration, South Asia politics, the Middle East, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, and East Asia. The Center has traditionally been aligned with the social sciences while also working with MIT’s premier science and engineering scholars. CIS produces research that creatively addresses global issues while helping to educate the next generation of global citizens.