It’s been clear since the Afghan War began in 2001 that no one had the Vietnam analogy more programmatically on their brains than the Bush team in the White House and the Pentagon. It was visibly clear that they went into Iraq in 2003 playing an opposites game with the “mistakes” of Vietnam (as they saw them)–while excoriating any critics who cared to make comparisons to the Vietnam experience. Part of administration planning was clearly aimed at avoiding all enemy “body counts,” since (as the Vietnam War dragged on) the body count of kills, announced in Saigon each day, came to discredit the whole effort. All blood, no results. So, starting in Afghanistan, this administration was clearly going to produce only results and no enemy body counts.
Tommy Franks, the US commander of that operation, famously said so. “We don’t do body counts” was his statement. But–until this week–we had no other insider confirmation that, right down to the body count, Vietnam remained the anti-template for the war in Iraq.
Tuesday, however, was Radio Day, a gathering of rabid, right-wing radio shock jocks in a heated tent on the North Lawn of the White House, where the top honchos of this administration right up to Karl Rove and Dick Cheney sat for interviews with Sean Hannity & Co. to rally the faithful two weeks before a shaky midterm election. It was an event, as Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post found out, closed to “the press” (except for ten minutes of “pool” coverage). On Wednesday, the President himself made amends, opening up the inner sanctum, the Oval Office, to the press — well, 8 “conservative journalists” anyway.
Byron York of the National Review was there and wrote a revealing piece Wednesday about the President’s growing frustration over Iraq. It seems that the man who, in December 2005, finally offered a cumulative (unbelievably low-ball) body count of 30,000 for all Iraqi deaths by violence since 2003 and then “stood by” that same number almost 11 bloody months later, was most frustrated that he couldn’t offer the American people a real, notch-on-the-gun, continuous measure of “progress” in Iraq — just how many enemies we were knocking off there regularly. “We don’t get to say,” said Bush, in what was evidently an outburst of irritation, “that — a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It’s happening. You just don’t know it.”
And why exactly can’t the President reveal that proud — and obviously high — figure to us when, as he said, comparing Iraq to World War II (where progress was so much easier to measure), there are so few other indices of success? He was willing to reveal just why for the first time in this passage from the York piece:
“‘We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team,’ Bush said, in a clear reference to the tabulations of enemy killed that became a hallmark of the Vietnam War. And that, in turn, “gives you the impression that [U.S. troops] are just there — kind of moving around, directing traffic, and somebody takes a shot at them and they’re down.”
So now we know. This can officially be declared the anti-Vietnam, anti-body count war. The President has told us so. And it’s darn frustrating for a man who, according to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, once kept in his Oval Office desk drawer “his own personal scorecard for the war” in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world’s most dangerous terrorists–each ready to be crossed out by the President as his forces took them down. And a man who is truly frustrated, well, he just has to vent sometime, doesn’t he? Perhaps, since so much else from the Vietnam era has returned to haunt us, it’s time for the official return of the body count or, as Donald Rumsfeld likes to call all the measuring the administration does behind the scenes, the “metrics” of “success.”