Everyone 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.”
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 to do.
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.
As 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.