“How many Iraqi civilians will die in Gulf War II?” asks journalist Fred Kaplan in a recent story for Slate. He calls it “one of the most disturbing questions going into this battle.” Even ignoring Kaplan’s dead certainty that we’re headed for a sequel of 1991, however, the question itself is a rotten red herring.

Civilian deaths fascinate and horrify us all; they’ve become a shorthand way to judge a war’s brutality. Many people, for example, appear comfortable that the civilian body count in the first Gulf War represented a reasonable effort to avoid “collateral damage.” (The best estimates, including that of the independent International Study Team, peg the number of civilian dead at about 3,500. The same reports say that some 110,000 people died from the war’s after-effects. These deaths, though, are more complicated than the charred corpses left behind by allied bombing. As is the case with deaths from sanctions on Iraq, culpability is shared to widely varying degrees with the Iraqi dictatorship.)

Now the world is trying to guess how many will die if America goes marching off to war once again. Both a leaked United Nations study and a report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War agree that close to 100,000 could die before a second war with Iraq came to its end. Those estimates are based on the vulnerability of the Iraqis — a much poorer and less healthy people than in 1991 — if vital food, power, transportation, medicine, water and sanitation systems are destroyed.

The war hawks, of course, say the number of civilian dead will be much lower — despite the “shock and awe” war plan that would see ten times as many bombs dropped as in the 1991 air campaign. The faith here is that the U.S. is serious about setting up a bright new post-Saddam utopia in Iraq and, therefore, will not target the nation’s infrastructure to the same degree as in Gulf War I.

I’m not convinced, but let’s imagine for a moment that the hawks have it right. Let’s imagine, too, that the Americans are correct when they say that their “smart bombs” — frequently inaccurate in 1991 — really will be much smarter this time around. Let’s go even farther and accept that there’s no real way to predict how many civilians will die in the chaos of war. In fact, let’s imagine it could be as few as in Gulf War I (that number again: 3,500 dead). Would that be any solace?

No. Because regardless of how successful the “coalition of the willing” is in preventing civilian deaths, it is absolutely certain to kill tens of thousands of the people that the war is meant to “liberate.” Where will these innocents die? On the battlefield.

It is a conveniently overlooked reality that Iraq practices universal conscription — the draft. The nation’s constitution refers to “defense of the homeland” as “a sacred duty and honour” (which happens to be “compulsory and regulated by law.) During war, the draft can apply to men and women from all walks of life and at least as young as fifteen. According to GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-based research group on defence issues, the Iraqi high command could first and foremost call up two million men — “fully seventy-five percent of all Iraqi men between eighteen and thirty-four.”

These soldiers, many if not most of them unwilling warriors, are the people who are caught in this potential war’s Catch-22. The pro-war crowd says they want to set these Iraqis free. In the “war of liberation,” however, these same Iraqis will be enemy targets. To be set free, they must survive a rain of hellfire from their would-be liberators. In fact, we’re already killing these people. U.S. and U.K. bombers are routinely striking military targets in Iraq’s no-fly zones.

I’m collecting other reminders of whose lives are in the balance when we talk about the Iraqi army. One is an Associated Press photo of women in white headscarves holding AK-47 assault rifles; they’re a militia. Another memento is a growing folder of reports, including one from the U.S. State Department, that Iraq has trained kids as young as twelve in small arms use and military preparedness. There’s even a franchise of “Saddam’s Cubs” groups, which now enlist an estimated 8,000 children. Scout’s honour.

All of which brings us back to one more stat from Gulf War I: the number of Iraqi soldiers who died in the must-see-TV carpet-bombing campaign. Estimates range from 20,000 to 200,000, but most settle in at about 100,000. And since September 11 has become the marker by which all other worldly horrors are measured, let’s make the point: 100,000 is more than thirty times the number of people that died in the big whammy on New York and Washington.

Civilians? Combatants? In a country where people have been executed for evading the draft, how can we declare a difference? Iraq’s army in 2003 is a much more desperate and oppressed force than it was in 1991; we can only expect that it is made up of proportionately more desperate and oppressed people. (In January, one U.S. Congressman — a Texas Republican, no less — compared conscription to slavery.) For many of these Iraqis, the only decent liberation they can hope for is enough good luck to die a sudden, painless death.