Created on Friday, 05 October 2007 08:22
Written by Tom Engelhardt
We Count, They Don't
by Tom Engelhardt
veryone remembers when the Vietnam-era body count was banished from the "global war on terror." Tommy Franks, the general who led American forces into Afghanistan (and later Iraq), bluntly stated: "We don't do body counts."
And then, jumping ahead a few years, there was the President plaintively blurting out his pain to a coffee klatch of empathetic conservative journalists in October 2006: "We don't get to say that -- a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was.
It's happening. You just don't know it.... We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team."
The Bush Administration once professed there were no body counts
in its war on terror. But in the metrics-driven post-surge accounting
in Iraq, it turns out they have been counting everything.
[Repuboished at PFP with author permission]
Prepare not to be surprised: In Iraq, it turns out that the
military counted corpses from the beginning -- counted, in fact,
everything. They just weren't releasing the figures back in the days
when the Bush Administration was less desperate about Iraq and far more
desperate not to appear to be back in the Vietnam era of endless "body
counts" and no victory. But the military metrics under way were always
something of an open secret. In March 2005, for instance, Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told an NPR reporter:
We have a
room here [in the Pentagon], the Iraq Room, where we track a whole
series of metrics. Some of them are inputs and some of them are
outputs, results, and obviously the inputs are easier to do and less
important, and the outputs are vastly more important and more difficult
We track, for example, the numbers of attacks by
area. We track the types of attacks by area.... We track a number of
reports of intimidation, attempts at intimidation or assassination of
government officials, for example. We track the extent to which people
are supplying intelligence to our people so that they can go in and
actually track down and capture or kill insurgents. We try to
desegregate the people we've captured and look at what they are. Are
they foreign fighters, jihadist types? Are they criminals who were paid
money to go do something like that? Are they former regime elements,
Baathists? And we try to keep track of what those numbers are in terms
of detainees and people that are processed in that way.... We probably
look at fifty, sixty, seventy different types of metrics, and come away
with them with an impression.
And as it happens,
though he didn't mention it that day, the military was also assiduously
counting corpses. We know that because last week it released figures to
USA Today on how many insurgents US forces have supposedly killed since
the invasion of Iraq ended: 18,832 since June 2003; 4,882 "militants"
so far in 2007 alone. That represents a leap of 25 percent in
corpse-counting from the previous year. These previously derided body
counts, according to American officials quoted in Stars and Stripes,
now give the necessary "scale" and "context" to the fight in Iraq.
the USA Today report points out, last year Centcom Commander John
Abizaid had suggested that the forces of the Sunni insurgency numbered
in the 10,000-20,000 range. If the released figures are accurate,
anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of that number must have been
killed this year. (Who knows how many were wounded.) Add in suspected
Sunni insurgents and terrorists incarcerated in American prisons in
Iraq only in the "surge" months of 2007 -- another 8,000 or so -- and
it suddenly looks as if something close to the full insurgency has
essentially been turned into a ghost resistance between January and
September of this year.
(Vietnam had its statistical
equivalents. After the nationwide Tet Offensive in February 1968, for
instance, the US military requested more troops from the Johnson
Administration. It also claimed that the Vietnamese had lost 45,000
dead. As historian Marilyn Young wrote in The Vietnam Wars, "UN
Ambassador Arthur Goldberg wanted to know what was enemy troop strength
at the start of Tet. The answer: between 160,000 and 175,000. And the
ratio of killed to wounded? Estimated at three and a half to one,
answered the officer. 'Well, if that's true,' Goldberg calculated
quickly, 'then they have no effective forces left in the field.' This
certainly made additional American forces seem redundant.")
now, it seems as if everyone on the American side is suddenly counting
in public. In August President Bush for the first time felt free to
become the leader of a "body-count team" and proudly announced, in a
televised speech to the American people, just how many insurgents US
forces were supposedly killing in each surge month (though the figures
don't gibe with the ones released by the military last week): "Our
troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 Al Qaeda
terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this
year." Gen. David Petraeus, of course, arrived in Washington to deliver
his "progress report" to Congress with his own Vietnam-style
multicolored charts and graphs to display; and the military, having
sworn not to do body counts, is now releasing figures daily -- often
large ones -- on kills in Afghanistan and Iraq that regularly make the
headlines. And every day, it seems, new Pentagon databases and squads
of number-crunchers are revealed. By now, it's a genuine carnage party.
week, the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung reported in far greater depth
than we've seen before on the metrics squads run out of the Pentagon
and the US command in Baghdad. In the process, she found some
interesting discrepancies between the findings of the Pentagon's data
analysts and those working for Petraeus -- "Civilian casualty numbers
in the Pentagon's latest quarterly report on Iraq last week, for
example, differ significantly from those presented by the top commander
in Iraq." This became the subject of much online analysis at sites like
ThinkProgress.org and TalkingPointsMemo.com. But perhaps more
interesting than these discrepancies was the size of the overall
military counting operation.
DeYoung, for instance,
interviewed Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Macomber, the "senior
all-source intelligence analyst" in charge of a six-person team whose
only task is "to compile [data] and track trends and analysis for
General Petraeus" personally. And that team, in turn, is but a small
part of a larger crew "far from the battlefield" that, DeYoung reports,
includes "platoons of soldiers in Iraq and at the Pentagon... assigned
to crunch numbers -- sectarian killings, roadside bombs, Iraqi forces
trained, weapons caches discovered and others -- in a constant effort
to gauge how the war is going."
Think of that for a moment.
"Platoons" of military counters trying to count their way so high on a
pile of Iraqi corpses and captured weapons that, someday, "progress"
and even perhaps a glimmer of "success" might appear at the end of that
dark, dark tunnel. That would be when, assumedly, the "stability"
American officials always claim that the United States represents would
finally make its appearance. What Iraq would be by then is another
In the meantime, the lesson of these last metrics-filled surge months is already clear enough: We count, they don't.
Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com, is the
co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books). His
book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press),
has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals
with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
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