Hiding the bodies

U.S. casualties have spiked in Iraq over the last three months, but security expert John Pike says the Bush administration -- with the help of the media -- is succeeding in keeping the carnage out of view.

Published September 8, 2004 4:45PM (EDT)

During August, Iraqi insurgents proved themselves more capable of inflicting casualties on American troops than ever before. Sixty-six American soldiers were killed and more than 1,100 were wounded, according to information released by the Department of Defense. But even with extensive coverage of the intense conflict in Najaf last month, the U.S. media was relatively quiet about the cost of battle to U.S. soldiers.

That cost has been steadily rising for months, says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank in Washington specializing in military and international security issues. "The amount of combat that U.S. soldiers are seeing is going up, but the amount of combat the American public is seeing is going down," he says. "Iraq has almost turned into the forgotten war -- it's just faded into the background."

The news on Tuesday of crossing the 1,000 marker for U.S. fatalities in Iraq has brought the conflict back into the headlines, at least temporarily. But since the transfer of power to Ayad Allawi's interim Iraqi government in June, deaths and casualties have risen every month: August was the bloodiest month in the conflict so far. A week into September, the situation looks no calmer; at least 14 soldiers have died in the last three days.

The steady rise in U.S. casualties can't be helpful to Bush's reelection campaign -- which continues to stick to its message that the overall situation in Iraq is improving -- and could have an impact on the homestretch of the election. To that end, Pike believes that Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense is being "economical with the truth" in order to downplay the increasing casualties. "The numbers they release are the smallest possible numbers that cover the most restricted possible definition," he says. "And they are being released as late as possible."

Salon reached Pike by phone on Tuesday at his office in Washington.

What is Global Security's assessment of the rate of U.S. casualties in Iraq during August?

By our calculation, it was the bloodiest month of the war. And as for why, well, the short answer is that we just don't know. CENTCOM presumably has a much better idea, but Secretary Rumsfeld only addressed it in very general terms on Tuesday. It appears that a significant chunk of the casualties were from the siege in Najaf, where the enemy were firing mortar rounds at our troops, who were out in the open. The theory is that the shrapnel from those mortar rounds would produce a lot of wounds, but relatively fewer fatalities.

I think that this substantial increase in the number of battle injuries is really indicative of how intense the siege of Najaf was.

The media was largely focused on Najaf, but wasn't the fighting more widespread?

Well, things have since cooled down in Najaf, but yes, they've been heating up pretty good in other locations. Now Sadr City is looking bad. And the Marines in Fallujah are really hurting again. They had a bad day [Tuesday] in Fallujah with another suicide car bomb.

What do you think the impact will be of the news that more than 1,000 American soldiers have now died in Iraq?

I think it will refocus public attention on the costs of the war, and I hope it will refocus public attention on what can be done over the longer run to reduce this cost to Americans. Because the war has really receded in the mass media. The amount of coverage of the war has gone way down in the last several months.

The amount of combat that the soldiers are seeing is going up, but the amount of combat the American public is seeing is going down. Iraq has almost turned into the forgotten war -- it's just faded into the background.

Your new report predicts an even worse month for casualties in September.

Yes, there's been an upward trend in American deaths in Iraq for each of the last three months; each one's been worse that the previous one. And it looks like September's going to be worse that August. The battle injuries were really bad last month, and it may get worse before it gets better.

We're projecting what the number of fatalities for the month of September will be based on what we've seen to date. And as of today, the 7th, we've already had 23 deaths this month. If the rest of the month looks like the first week, then it looks like we'll have as many as 100 dead this month, making it the second worst month of the war.

What's your view of how the Bush administration is currently handling the situation in Iraq?

Well, of course the administration is going to try to highlight the good news that is coming out of Iraq. The good news is that they are starting to spend reconstruction money, that they are equipping Iraqi forces, and that those Iraqi forces are standing up. More and more Iraqi troops are fighting for their own country so that we don't have to do it for them.

But are they being forthright about the rate of U.S. casualties?

I think if you look at the information being released, you can see all types of information not being covered. The Army gives out casualty evacuation numbers; the Marine Corps does not. And there's very little information being given out on combat stress casualties. The Army gives out information on how many psychiatric evaluations they've had from the war theater, but some significant multiple of that number must be in the combat stress care system in the theater. But they'd only evacuate somebody due to combat stress if all else failed. So we're getting an extremely incomplete portrait of what the human cost to American soldiers has been.

Why has it been so difficult to get good numbers?

Because they're not releasing [clear numbers]. They can choose what information they release and what information they withhold. And I think it would be in their interest to minimize the amount of information they are releasing, because otherwise it would be bad for troop morale, it would be bad for morale with the troops' families -- and it would be bad for the morale of the American people.

It might also be bad, of course, for the president's reelection efforts. I've gotten some e-mail from people who support the president's reelection who accused me of drawing attention to this number in order to hurt the president's chances. They felt I came up with the wrong answer.

But I think that the Department of Defense is being economical with the truth. The numbers they release are the smallest possible numbers that cover the most restricted possible definition, and they are being released as late as possible. So I think they're telling us the truth, but I think they are very far from telling us the whole truth.

While a high number of U.S. casualties occurred in Najaf in August, the Pentagon news releases suggest that there were significant casualties in other regions as well. What does that tell us?

It's hard to assess. The problem that you've got with al Anbar [the region including the notorious Sunni Triangle] is that it's Marine territory, and the Marines aren't going to tell you squat. The Army is a fountain of data compared to the Marines. And if you look at an Army death announcement, they'll tell you what unit the deceased was associated with, where it happened, when it happened, and how it happened. The Marine death announcement is that a Marine attached to "First Mar. Div" was killed as a result of enemy action in al Anbar province. Period. That's all they're going to tell you. That one of their Marines got killed. And that's it. And if you look at the evacuation numbers, the evacuation numbers are just for Army. The Marines won't release anything like that.

What else do you see that's wrong with the U.S. military's system of accounting for casualties?

No one's really bothered to ask whether U.S. soldiers have died after they are evacuated. No one's ever asked that question, or at least, no one's ever gotten a straight answer for that question.

I talked to another reporter who covers the Marines earlier today, and he said that the Marines just won't talk about it. They just will not answer the question. "No comment" is all they'll say. When asked why they're not releasing medical evacuation numbers, they say "because we're not."

How did you come up with your report?

Basically, we compile the information that the Defense Department releases. Their news releases announce the name of somebody who has been killed or died in Iraq. Central Command or the Marines will put out a news release when someone has died, but before they have been named. The Washington headquarters service at the Pentagon puts out monthly summary statistics. We compile those. The Army surgeon general puts out statistics on medical evacuees, and we compile those.

We are simply attempting to compile in one place all of the numbers and information that the military is putting out. We can see all of the different places where their numbers don't quite fit together. We can see all of the different places where one agency is giving out one set of numbers, and another agency is giving out a different set of numbers with a different definition. The picture they present is incomplete, and at times, difficult to reconcile.

There are a dozen deaths from April that still need to be cleared up.

The presidential election is two months away. How much is partisanship a factor here?

What, are you suggesting that there's politics in Washington?

War is an inherently political undertaking, and politicians are the ones responsible for managing that undertaking. And they have to take into account what the American people will think of their stewardship of that responsibility. And I think the fact that we're coming up on one of the most hotly contested presidential elections in living memory has certainly sharpened everyone's focus on this.

By Jeff Horwitz

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Iraq War