Return of the body counts

With Americans souring on the war in Iraq, the U.S. military has started talking up the number of insurgents killed. Are we headed down the same corrupting road we did in Vietnam?

Topics: Iraq war,

The body counts are back. For the first time since Vietnam, the U.S. military has begun regularly reporting the number of enemy killed in the war zone — in contradiction, apparently, to prior statements by its own top brass.

“Marines Kill 100 Fighters in Sanctuary Near Syria” was a front page headline in the Washington Post last month. The body count, coming from a Marine spokesman, was carried in other major papers that day. What was striking about the factoid, besides the elegantly even number, was that it showed how the U.S. military has increasingly released body counts in reports depicting successful operations in Iraq — despite decrees from the highest levels of the Pentagon, throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that “we don’t do body counts.”

As the bloody insurgency continues in Iraq, the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign is yielding frustratingly few tangible ways to show progress to the American people. If anything, the insurgency seems firmly entrenched, from reports of its air-conditioned underground bunkers to its own Ho Chi Minh trail. Counting enemy bodies at least offers a number to grab on to, some sense of incremental victory.

“It may be that they regard it as being part of the good news story: that we are winning the war,” John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, said about the military’s stepped-up use of body counts in Iraq.

An extensive review of combat accounts from military commanders reveals that regular reporting of body counts appears to have begun with the battle for Fallujah in November 2004. U.S. Marines’ assault on the insurgent stronghold, launched immediately after the U.S. presidential election, was considered critical to showing progress in the war. The Pentagon estimated 1,200 to 1,600 enemy fighters killed — though at the time the media noted a large and “mysterious” discrepancy in the body count reported following the battle.

If history offers any clue, counting dead insurgents is a misleading endeavor that can destroy trust in the Pentagon and ultimately lead to atrocities on the battlefield. During the Vietnam War, historians say, inflated body counts that sometimes included civilians shattered the Pentagon’s credibility with the American people and undercut support for that war. Former soldiers from that era say that relying too much on body counts can drive soldiers in the field to commit atrocities in order to achieve a high number of kills — though there is no indication that is happening in Iraq.



The Pentagon maintains that it is sticking with a policy of no body counts but that commanders in the field are allowed to release the information if it helps the public’s understanding of operations. Body counts, the Pentagon says, are released by field commanders only when they know the facts. “There have been several pronouncements over the years to the effect that the Department doesn’t ‘do body counts,’ and we continue to adhere to that concept,” Army Lt. Col. Barry E. Venable, a Defense Department spokesman, wrote in a statement to Salon. “The Department appropriately delegates release authority for unit activities to the units in the field,” he wrote, adding that body counts have been released “in isolated instances where smaller scale engagements and timely and accurate means of battle damage assessment allowed for such counts,” and when their inclusion “significantly contributed to the timely and accurate flow of information in regard to a specific unit or event.”

Commanders on the ground characterized the battles of Operation Matador near the Syrian border last month as a success and later said 125 insurgents were killed, according to a military statement. The military does not report civilian casualties. The Washington Post quoted a doctor in Qaim, one town that saw fighting during Operation Matador, who claimed 21 civilians had been killed, including five hospital workers killed by U.S. aircraft, and dozens more wounded.

“I’m quite certain that there are civilian numbers in there,” said an Army officer who served in Iraq, regarding the military’s current use of body counts. The officer asked that his name not be used because he fears retribution for criticizing Pentagon policy. The officer said he believes body counts are a bad idea — and are particularly meaningless in Iraq, where the U.S. military knows little about the total size of the enemy force or the speed with which it can replace its dead fighters. (U.S. commanders’ current estimate of insurgent forces ranges from 12,000 to 20,000; a number of reports from Iraq, as well as from Afghanistan, indicate the enemy has been able to replace its dead fighters relatively quickly, in at least some key areas.)

Last November, U.S. commanders said Marines killed as many as 1,600 insurgents in the battle for Fallujah. But the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins, who covered the battle, reported that Marines found “few bodies” on their patrols after the fighting — even where the rebels chose to make a last stand. Filkins wrote that the absence of bodies remained “a mystery.” Two months later, in January, the United Kingdom’s Guardian reported that a nearby “martyr’s cemetery” contained only 76 graves. Meanwhile, in February, an unnamed senior military official told CNN that the U.S. military believes it killed between 10,000 and 15,000 guerrillas in combat last year — perhaps as many as 3,000 of them during the November push to retake Fallujah. Yet because others were joining the insurgency to replace those killed, the same CNN report noted, Pentagon analysts were “having difficulty matching the current number against previous assessments.”

But body counts show success — or that’s the message, at least, that the military is continuing to give reporters on the ground. The Los Angeles Times’ Solomon Moore, who filed some crackerjack reports from Operation Matador, told CNN last month that commanders in the field measured success by a high body count. “Basically, they’re defining [success] as killing a number of insurgents, especially on the first day of fighting,” Moore told CNN on May 15. “They say at the time they killed dozens and maybe as many as 75 to 100 insurgents.”

In the earlier stages of the Iraq war, the Defense Department seemed as though it would heed the lessons of Vietnam, at least when it came to counting the number of enemy killed. In November 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared on “Fox News Sunday” to discuss the war in Iraq. Host Tony Snow expressed frustration about how hard it was to measure progress in the war at that time. “Within Iraq, what is the situation in terms of terrorists? Are we taking out or imprisoning more of them than they are killing of our people?” Snow asked. “People say we hear about our death counts; we never hear about theirs. Why?” Rumsfeld’s response echoed the famous remark in March 2002 by Gen. Tommy Franks, who ran the war in Afghanistan and later led the charge into Iraq. “We don’t do body counts on other people,” Rumsfeld told Snow. Other Defense Department officials have consistently said the same.

But since Fallujah, headlines from the Department of Defense’s American Forces Information Service have touted body counts in articles about apparently successful operations. “IED Kills U.S. Soldier; Nine Terrorists Die in Firefight” read one headline in May from the Pentagon’s information service. “Ten Insurgents Are Killed in New Round of Battles in Iraqi City” announced a headline in the New York Times last month, citing information from the U.S. military. In addition, the Defense Department is increasingly highlighting the number of alleged insurgents detained in raids — though from the information released, there is no way to judge the intelligence value or guilt of the detainees labeled insurgents.

Top military officials in Washington have also begun citing body counts to support comments by Bush administration officials about the military’s progress in Iraq. In an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on May 30, Vice President Dick Cheney said the insurgency in Iraq is “in the last throes.” The day before, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” where he said, “I think a lot of aspects in Iraq are getting better … I think the trend lines are up.” Myers pointed out that the U.S. military had killed 250 of terrorist ringleader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “closest lieutenants.”

Even some Republicans have begun raising eyebrows over the success-by-the-numbers message. Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot told the Washington Post in early June, “I think it’s impossible to know how close we are to the insurgency being overcome.”

Historians point out that the military has strong reason to avoid body counts: Vietnam. Traditionally, the Army’s job is to take ground and hold it, a clear way to mark victory or defeat. Bogged down in atypical warfare with no tangible measure of progress, U.S. commanders in Vietnam used the body count to show the alleged destruction of enemy forces. “To make the obvious comparison, you land in Normandy in June 1944 and you can liberate Paris in August and show that you are making progress,” says historian and journalist Stanley Karnow. “You can make a measure of progress in a conventional war by showing you are pushing your front lines against the enemy. But in Vietnam, there were no front lines.”

Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the man in charge of U.S. operations in Vietnam, used an increasing body count to suggest that victory might be close at hand in 1967 and 1968. But the 1968 Tet offensive proved him wrong. “Really what turned the war was when Westmoreland came back and said, ‘We have killed all the enemy,’” says Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. “That is what set the stage for the ‘credibility gap’ when the Tet offensive broke out. It put the final lie to all these bogus representations.”

It started to become clear during Vietnam that commanders anxious to show progress were hopelessly inflating body counts. Some were outright lies. Others included civilians as fallen enemy troops. “The body count was extremely unreliable because any body picked up on the field was considered the enemy,” Karnow says. “It was irrelevant to win all these battles because we were up against an enemy that was willing to take unlimited losses.” In Iraq today, U.S. officials have acknowledged that steady streams of foreign jihadists have been entering the war zone from neighboring countries — fighters who are willing to blow themselves up in suicide attacks.

In at least one case in Vietnam, gauging success by body count contributed to unthinkable acts. In a series that won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize, the Toledo (Ohio) Blade exposed atrocities committed by U.S. troops in the central highlands of South Vietnam in 1967, including an Army platoon known as Tiger Force. Soldiers who fought there said some atrocities were driven by the pressure to achieve a high body count. In once instance, soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry were reportedly told to get 327 bodies to match the unit’s moniker. Soldiers told the Blade they got the body count, in part, by killing civilians.

“When we were fighting in enemy areas, about five civilians were killed for every enemy soldier we got,” Dennis Stout, a former paratrooper with the 327th, told Salon in a phone interview. “The problem is that in Iraq we are in a guerrilla war. How do you keep score? How do you prove you are wining?” asked Stout, 60, who is retired from the military and now lives in Phoenix. “There is an extreme temptation to use body counts,” he said. “Once you go to body count, anyone who is dead is an enemy. It will creep into everything and the perversions will multiply with reporting actual battlefield conditions and the actions of our troops,” he said. “Only terrible things can come from it.”

In his 1992 autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf strongly agreed with that view. When his superiors asked for a body count during the invasion of Grenada in 1983, he responded, “We need to stay away from this body count business. It caused us terrible trouble in Vietnam and it will cause us terrible trouble here.” Regarding his experience in Vietnam and the body counts used then, Schwarzkopf wrote, “I felt like I’d been a party to a bureaucratic sham.” Body counts were not used during the first Gulf War, when U.S. forces were under Schwarzkopf’s command.

Besides the mysterious lack of bodies following the battle for Fallujah, at least one other recent body count story from Iraq got the military into an awkward position regarding the numbers. U.S. news outlets in March picked up a story about a joint operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces against a suspected guerrilla training camp near Lake Tharthar in central Iraq, 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. Headlines in the United States announced that 85 insurgents had been killed. MSNBC.com called it “the single biggest one-day death toll for militants in months, and the latest in a series of blows to the insurgency.” In this case, the body count came via Iraqi officials and appeared to have originated from the Iraqis, not the Americans. According to the Washington Post, a spokesman for the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division, Maj. Richard L. Goldenberg, confirmed the target was a training camp that appeared to contain foreign fighters. He did not provide a body count when he discussed the operation with reporters, though he did say that U.S. pilots flying above the fray had estimated there were 80 to 100 insurgents on the ground during the fighting.

But an Agence France-Presse reporter visited the battle scene the next day and reported 30 to 40 insurgents still there; they said 11 insurgents had been killed in the battle the day before.

U.S. officials later said that the insurgents must have dragged away their dead. That prompted a Washington Post reporter to wonder how 80 dead insurgents could drag away their own bodies. “I would tell you that somewhere between 11 and 80 lies an accurate number,” Goldenberg told the Post. “We could spend years going back and forth on body counts,” he said. “The important thing is the effect this has on the organized insurgency.”

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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