Every individual death is a tragedy for those who knew and loved the person killed. A single violent death sends waves of grief and shock radiating outward through the circles of friends and family of the deceased. War brings death in large doses, and those waves of grief become tsunamis.

But fatality numbers in armed conflict are themselves dangerous things, as they can be used to justify more and deadlier violence.

It is vitally important, for the sake of peace, that we know how many people have died in the war between Russia and Georgia. The breakdown, too, is important; how many Georgian civilians? How many Ossetian civilians? How many soldiers on each side? How many paramilitaries and mercenaries?

Accounts like this are viscerally disturbing, as are ones like this –but numbers of dead are just being thrown out there by refugees and politicians –dozens in this town, a hundred here, several hundred here, more on this side, more on the other side– and then being reported as facts. These numbers aren’t facts, at least not yet. What we need are hard numbers provided by the parties that are normally tasked with doing the body-count work in the thick fog of war: the United Nations and the Red Cross.

In most nationalist conflicts, inflated civilian dead numbers can and do arouse tremendous anger, collective anger that is all too easily channeled by those in power to justify the continuation or escalation of military action and the incitement of paramilitary-driven revenge attacks against civilians. This then makes refugee returns near impossible when the fighting finally stops. Unfortunately, in the long term, it’s the inflated numbers that usually stick in collective memory, rendering reconciliation (citizen to citizen as well as between political factions) and the acceptance of a common historical narrative extremely difficult.

I’m not saying there hasn’t been massive civilian suffering in Georgia. Without a doubt there has been. Numbers won’t alter the basic truth that parents, lovers, friends, children, and schoolmates have been taken away from those they shared their lives with. And it may turn out that even more people have died in this war than even the highest unjustified estimates, but we just don’t know yet. That’s a serious problem, and one that needs to be addressed now.

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