We Count, They Don’t

We Count, They Don’t

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 it’s been counting everything.


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.

(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.”)

By 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.

Last 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 matter entirely.

In the meantime, the lesson of these last metrics-filled surge months is already clear enough: we count, they don’t.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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