By ALEX SLACK
Way back in 1970, a history professor now teaching at Brandeis University named David H. Fischer wrote a book called Historians’ Fallacies. Though written by a historian, the book doesn’t cover any history (except by way of critique). Instead, Fischer categorizes the fallacious arguments historians make everyday into a few pages of easy-to-avoid mistakes. I don’t claim to hold even the weakest candle to Professor Fischer, but I’ve found that two of his fallacies rear their ugly heads everyday as Americans—conservatives, liberals, alike—attempt to clarify their views on the war in Iraq. Perhaps it’d be useful to point them out:
If you ask anyone in liberated Fallujah what they think of Americans, they will tell you life is so much better than it was under Saddam. There are two things wrong with this assertion. First off, a spokesperson for the United Nations (UN) recently said that the 80- to 90- percent of Fallujah’s 300,000 citizens who evacuated the city during the American-led assault in November would not return until after the elections. So asking anyone anything in liberated Fallujah would be an empty effort, unless you were after a small, biased sample group.
More generally, though, this fallacy of quoting anonymous authorities is an oft-repeated conservative refrain to justify the war in Iraq. Many surveys have been taken of Iraqis as a whole, including a Dec. 23 poll by the International Republican Institute which had 54 percent of Iraqis saying their country is headed in the right direction. But upon closer inspection, people in the cities of Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah—centers of the insurgency—weren’t surveyed. While it seems to be true that your average Iraqi appreciates the goals of the American occupation, your average Fallujan is sitting in a tent right now, waiting to return to his house in a country soon to be dominated by a competing ethnic group. Is life that much better?
100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq—many by American forces. Researchers from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health recently advanced this thesis in the British medical journal The Lancet. The number doesn’t come close to squaring with the maximum 17,582 deaths currently displayed on iraqbodycount.net, which tallies officially reported civilian casualties. The study had pollsters asking 988 Iraqi households how many people from that household had died in the 15 months before the invasion and the 18 months after. Strangely, the “before” numbers also don’t correlate with those of other sources. A 2002 study conducted by UNICEF, for instance, put infant mortality in Iraq at 108 deaths per 1000. The Hopkins survey reported only 29. With such depressed “before” death rates, it’s no wonder the survey showed 100,000 civilians had died. Moreover, the researchers used an easily-to-manipulate dataset of 7,868 people to represent a country of over 25 million. I smell another fallacy: hasty generalization.
The fog of war always drifts beyond the battlefield. With America’s most recent conflict in Iraq, the situation is no different. Credible facts and figures fall by the wayside as partisan agendas and the sheer inaccuracies of reporting during wartime take hold. It’s no longer enough to compare Fox’s and CNN’s coverage of events to get the real story when neither is covering anything that even resembles the truth. And, in the end, ordinary Americans are left just as foggy-headed about the real state of Iraq as the people disseminating those facts and figures. That’s why real historians wait long enough for the fog to dissipate before beginning their studies; as people’s passions stop boiling, the truth is usually less obscured. Until then, I suggest we distrust everyone.
Finally, just to square things as far as fallacies are concerned, the spokesperson for the UN that I quoted in the second paragraph was Marie-Helene Verney, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Too often these sorts of essays end with the author impaling himself on his own pen.
Alex Slack ’06, an associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Leverett House.
Copyright © 2005, The Harvard Crimson Inc.