Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lies, damn lies, and body counts 

As I pointed out a year and a half ago as the military endeavor in Iraq sours the U.S. military has turned to using body counts in a propaganda effort to show progress in the war. Finally it seems, some others have noticed this too:

Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.

The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon's leadership. Military spokesmen in Washington and Baghdad said they knew of no written directive detailing the circumstances under which such figures should be released or the steps that should be taken to ensure accuracy.


On Saturday, for instance, the U.S. military reported 20 insurgents killed and one captured in raids on five houses suspected of sheltering foreign fighters in a town near the Syrian border. Six days earlier, the 2nd Marine Division issued a statement saying an estimated 70 suspected insurgents had died in the Ramadi area as a result of three separate airstrikes by fighter jets and helicopters.

That Oct. 16 statement reflected some of the pitfalls associated with releasing such statistics. The number was immediately challenged by witnesses, who said many of those killed were not insurgents but civilians, including women and children.

Privately, several uniformed military and civilian defense officials expressed concern that the pendulum may have swung too far, with body counts now creeping into too many news releases from Iraq and Afghanistan. They also questioned the effectiveness of citing such figures in conflicts where the enemy has shown itself capable of rapidly replacing dead fighters and where commanders acknowledge great uncertainty about the total size of the enemy force.


During the Vietnam War, enemy body counts became a regular feature in military statements intended to demonstrate progress. But the statistics ended up proving poor indicators of the war's course. Pressure on U.S. units to produce high death tolls led to inflated tallies, which tore at Pentagon credibility.

"In Vietnam, we were pursuing a strategy of attrition, so body counts became the measure of performance for military units," said Conrad C. Crane, director of the military history institute at the U.S. Army War College. "But the numbers got so wrapped up with career aspirations that they were sometimes falsified."

The Vietnam experience led U.S. commanders to shun issuing enemy death tallies in later conflicts, through the initial stages of the Iraq war. "We don't do body counts on other people," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in November 2003, when asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether the number of enemy dead exceeded the U.S. toll.

That policy appeared to shift with the assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in November, an operation considered crucial at the time to denying safe havens to enemy fighters. U.S. military officials reported 1,200 to 1,600 enemy fighters killed, although reporters on the scene noted far fewer corpses were found by Marines after the fighting.

The author of this article was being kind in my view. Body counts are just completely bogus. If a building is bombed does the U.S. military have any way of knowing how many people were inside or even how many of those were insurgents? Of course not. If they get in a firefight in an insurgent stronghold like Ramadi do they hang around to meticiously count the dead? No, they scurry away to the safety of their base. And of the dead bodies they do see do they have any way of knowing how many were really insurgents and how many were innocents whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? No, unless they just make the assumption that every male Iraqi between the age of 15 and 50 is an insurgent – which is probably what they do.

Again, body counts are nothing more than a propaganda exercise to boost flagging g morale and show some sort of progress when in every other respect they are losing the war. In fact what body counts do is confirm the fact that they are losing. When they are winning wars they don’t give body counts – they didn’t in WWII or the first Gulf War. Its when they are losing that they need them. That is why they were so heavily used in Vietnam and their use has now been resumed in Iraq.

And that is why in 2003 you heard Rumsfeld say "We don't do body counts on other people". Indeed. They didn’t need them back then when they thought they were winning. Now when they are losing they just keep pumping cranking out the bogus numbers.


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