Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since 1950

Gideon Polya

Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since 1950 (Melbourne, Australia:, 2007).

In Body Count, Gideon Polya documents global avoidable mortality between 1950 and 2005 using data for the United Nations Population Division. He estimates that the excess mortality for the fifty-year period is 1.3 billion for the world, with 1.2 billion deaths taking place outside of the European world (which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel and the United States) and 900 million deaths occurring in infants under the age of 5. He points out that 600 million of the deaths took place in the Muslim world, which he calls a Muslim Holocaust and points out that it is 100 times greater than the Jewish Holocaust (6 million), or the lesser known Bengal Famine (4 million). Clearly inspired by the total devastation wrought by the Iraqi war, Body Count shows the deadly effects of war, occupation, and global inequality on the survival of the populations of Third World countries.

The first two chapters introduce the concept of excess mortality, which Polya defines as, “the difference between the ACTUAL mortality and deaths EXPECTED for a decently run, peaceful country with the same demographics” (7). The middle section of the book profiles the avoidable mortality by region, followed by country specific mortality profiles coupled with brief histories of foreign occupations to which Polya attributes the excess deaths. The last chapter puts the Iraqi war and other avoidable death since 1950 in perspective with a review of the global history of genocide, famine, disease, war and occupation and economic constraints.

Polya provides the reader with a data-rich profile of the global mortality situation, coupled with impassioned condemnation of the lack of responsibility demonstrated by occupying nations, while repeatedly pointing out that the “rulers are responsible for the ruled” (152). The alternation between such denunciations and cold figures is understandable given that the data describe the unnecessary deaths of over a billion human beings just since 1950. Polya wants to humanize the issue with the use of accurate data. The conventional notion of statistics is that they are dehumanizing, reducing individuals to mere numbers. Polya, however, believes that we cannot understand the extent of the horror of these avoidable deaths without facing the actual numbers of lives lost.

In a brief yet comprehensive history of genocide in the final chapter of Body Count, Polya points out that in the history of invasion and occupation, there are “blurred boundaries” between explicit genocide and the mass mortality resulting from more passive forms of aggression. For example, although famine is generally believed to result from a lack of food, much of the famine since the onset of colonialism has resulted from the victims’ inability to pay for food (158). Polya also implicates the US and British tobacco trade’s role in promoting smoking for 2 billion people, leading to 5 million smoking-related deaths in the world each year. He also points out that the US Coalition invasion and occupation in Afghanistan has allowed for the resurgence of opium production contributing to half a million opiate drug related deaths in the world since 2001 (165).

Based on the experiences of countries like Cuba and Costa Rica, Polya estimates that in a peaceful, well run country, it would only take $1000 per capita to improve health and longevity for the population (169). He suggests that the cost of bringing poor countries up to this basic level could come from redirecting funds away from military expenditures and the production and marketing of dangerous goods, such as cigarettes.

Mortality gaps within countries are not the focus of Body Count, other than an occasional mention of racial differences in health, but class differences in health do contribute substantially to excess mortality in wealthy countries and should, therefore, be acknowledged. Researchers of the impact of inequality on health, Richard Wilkinson and Michael Marmot, have investigated the extent of life lost due to the inequalities within developed countries. Marmot has found that health follows a “social gradient,” in that among people who have attained a comfortable level of material well-being, a “status syndrome” occurs in which feelings of low status lead to poorer health and earlier mortality at all socio-economic levels.1 Wilkinson points out that within developed countries average life expectancy can be 5 to 15 years shorter for people living in the poorest areas compared to those in the richest.2 However, Wilkinson’s research has also found that in less equal societies where income differences between rich and poor are larger (as in the United States and Britain), health outcomes are more negative and mortality is higher for all income groups due to poorer social relations and increased stress. Although estimating the extent of this excess mortality would be difficult, it still bears acknowledgment.

How has this level of unnecessary death and violence been allowed to continue? Why haven’t decent people organized to end these ongoing holocausts? Polya points out that lies have historically been used to justify the violence perpetrated by the dominant powers of the world, and the mainstream media have been more than willing to perpetuate the lies. Polya highlights the way the current US War on Terror and the Iraq War have been sold to the American people using lies and hyped threats from Islamic fundamentalists. He calculates that the threat to a Western civilian from an Islamic terrorist attack is minuscule compared to the risk to the citizens of Middle Eastern countries from US/Western violence. The “percentage annual mortality” statistic for a Western civilian at the hand of Muslim-origin non-state terrorists is .00002%. He compares this to a .001% of mortality at the hands of family or acquaintances, or to .01% mortality from smoking-related causes (175). At the same time, the percentage annual mortality of children under 5 in Iraq is 2.7% and in Afghanistan is 5.7%.

The solution presented by Polya is to implement a rational, risk-minimization approach to addressing global avoidable mass mortality (146). This would require honest, quantitative reporting of excess mortality, scientific assessment of the causes and systemic changes to prevent recurrence. His scientific analysis leads him to make the following suggestions for “how to save the world” (183): equality, human rights, universal literacy, true global democracy, information/intolerance of lying, elimination of war and occupation, population control and more even resource allocation, biological sustainability, and preservation of nature.

Polya’s Body Count has an important and urgent message to convey. The author is clearly passionate about solving the problem of excess mortality and his moral outrage is palpable. The work suffers, however, from the lack of an overarching framework from which to understand this vital issue. The writing is sometimes repetitive and poorly organized, which may be a reflection of the lack of a coherent perspective. The middle chapters are a tough read due to the density of the statistics and historical references. These chapters would be more useful either as a condensed appendix, or as a fleshed out narrative. The inclusion of established demographic theories of mortality and morbidity, along with a political-economic analysis, would have made the work more readable, understandable and useful. While it is hard to argue with Polya’s “Rational Risk Assessment” approach to solving the crisis of excess mortality, and his suggestions for change are noble, the crucial message of Body Count might be better conveyed by a more focused approach that incorporated a theoretical framework. Despite these weaknesses, I share Gideon Polya’s urgent desire to push this information to the forefront of human consciousness and I applaud his efforts to do so.

Reviewed by Jacqueline Carrigan
Department of Sociology
California State University, Sacramento


1. Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004).

2. Richard Wilkinson, The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier (New York: The New Press, 2005).

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