The Return of the Body Count

The reality of Iraq bears next to no relation to the spin coming out of Washington or Baghdad.

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On March 19th, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discussed the “metrics” of measuring success in Iraq with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” Here is part of that interview:

“NPR: I want to start, Mr. Secretary, with something you said recently. You were at a meeting with troops, taking questions from troops. You talked about measuring progress in Iraq. Metrics as you called them, that were important to you. And you said what you measure improves. How are some ways that you are measuring progress in defeating insurgents in Iraq?

“RUMSFELD: Well, we’ve got literally dozens of ways we do it. We have a room here, 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. And what we’re seeing, for example, and one metric is presented graphically and it shows that we had spiked up during the sovereignty pass to the Iraqi people and spiked up again during the election, and are now back down to the pre-sovereignty levels which are considerably lower? [W]e 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, Ba’athists? And we try to keep track of what those numbers are in terms of detainees and people that are processed in that way?. No one number is determinative, and the answer is no. We probably look at 50, 60, 70 different types of metrics, and come away with them with an impression. It’s impressionistic more than determinative.”

The Generals Predict, Wax Optimistic, Declare Victory in Sight, Grow Anxious, Gripe, Mutter, Complain about Iraqis, Speculate, Worry, Grouse, and Refuse to Be Identified

On May 9, New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt wrote a (way) inside-the-paper Iraq update, Rebels Said to Have Pool of Bomb-Rigged Cars, filled with quotes from a dozen unnamed “senior” American military officers as well as unnamed intelligence officials. A relatively short piece, it was long on speculation and generally upbeat prediction, and so typical of that moment, only two-weeks old and now, seemingly, long gone. The car bombings in Baghdad were just then spiking, causing carnage, and yet “these officers” suggested that this was “possibly a last-ditch effort,” that such attacks were aimed at “bolstering insurgent moral that flagged after the Jan. 30 elections.” Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III, the senior military intelligence officer in Iraq (and a rare named source in the piece), commented, “When he cranks up the propaganda campaign it means we’ve probably hurt him.”

“One senior officer” called the violence “a predictable ‘attempt by the enemy to show that they are still a factor, still relevant and still capable,'” and complained that the bombings “grabbed the headlines [and] drowned out the good news.” Another officer, “a general with extensive command experience in Iraq,” wondered whether the attacks were “an indicator of insurgent desperation”? The article noted that, despite the recent car bomb assaults, attacks “against allied forces” stood at only half those before the January 30 elections and, after registering some caveats about the situation, ended with this anodyne but somewhat upbeat prediction, “Top commanders said they expected spikes and lulls in the violence through at least early next year.”

The Times was hardly alone in this. On April 26, for instance, Bloomberg news service quoted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers claiming that, despite an upsurge in attacks, we were “winning” the war and that the “quality and impact of those attacks is uneven, indicating an overall weakening of insurgents as Iraqi security forces improve.” He also said, “There is no shadow of doubt in my mind, that by the end of the year, we would have achieved a lot, and probably the back of the insurgency has already been broken.” That improvement, he predicted, would “speed the timetable for reducing U.S. Army soldiers and Marines in Iraq.”

Such articles and predictions were perhaps the last gasp not of the insurgency but of a drumbeat of positive spin put on the Iraqi situation by top military men (who certainly knew better) and Bush administration officials — all of it aimed at bolstering support on the home front. This spike in positive speculation followed a series of March and April reports in which named and unnamed military officers spoke optimistically of the possibility of reducing American forces in Iraq significantly in 2006. For instance, Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, on returning from an inspection tour of Iraq claimed somewhat vaguely that troop levels would “probably decline in early 2006,” and under a cloak of anonymity “senior military officials” rushed to add that “American troop levels could drop to around 105,000 by early next year from 150,000 now.”

In this the Bush administration was backed up by allies. In mid-April, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw chimed in, predicting steady withdrawals starting in 2006, and on May 1, Iraq’s national security advisor predicted a large-scale pull-out by the middle of next year.

Admittedly, such relatively modest predictions — Straw, after all, was suggesting a five-year scheme of withdrawal — always arrived with qualifiers just in case the spike in violence then beginning should prove to be less than a last gasp. Still, it’s hard to believe that only a few weeks have passed. Admittedly, in official Washington, some familiar notes are still being sounded. For instance, according to our Baghdad embassy’s website, “The increased lethality of insurgent attacks in Iraq is a reaction to progress in the political sphere in that country, Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President Bush, said May 15? The transition to the new Iraqi government has not slowed the effort of the Iraqi security forces, Hadley said, as the training and equipping program moves forward and the security forces are conducting field operations.” Similarly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “asserted that Iraqi forces are ?making progress’? citing the protection of election sites last January 30 without coalition assistance. She added that they now engage in joint operations with U.S. forces as well as ?operations on their own.'”

But the Secretary of State’s recent rushed and anxious trip to Iraq spoke volumes -? and they weren’t upbeat. More important, a mere ten days after Schmitt’s New York Times piece appeared, U.S. commanders — “five high-ranking officers speaking separately at the Pentagon and in Baghdad, and through an e-mail exchange from Baghdad” — were painting quite a different picture (anonymously, of course) for Schmitt in Washington and his colleague in Baghdad John Burns (Generals Offer a Sober Outlook on Iraqi War). They were suddenly presenting “a sobering new assessment” in a “mood of anxiety.” They were now intent on “inject[ing]? their own note of realism into public debate.” For many Iraqis, they pointed out, public services were worse this year than last; the 21 car bombings in Baghdad in the first months of 2005 almost matched the 25 in all of 2004; there had been “disappointing progress” in the creation of “cohesive” police units; the build-up of Iraqi forces “has been more disappointing than previously acknowledged”; there had been no Iraqi troops to support a recent much-ballyhooed Marine operation near the Syrian border around which there was now an “air of disappointment” (see below for more); a major “drawdown” of American troops in Iraq might not just be over the horizon but “years” away; and the American effort in Iraq could actually “fail,” as could Iraq itself, which might then “go back into civil war and chaos.”

In all of this, with the modest exception of some comments on an American capability to “disrupt” a “resilient” insurgency, there was not a leavening note of “good news.” A remarkable litany of woe and potential disaster, the piece bore next to no relation to public statements in Washington or Baghdad over the early months of 2005; it did, however, represent a more reasonable assessment of the Bush administration’s Iraqi disaster, which active duty military officers had, until then, largely kept to themselves and their associates. (As Martin Sieff of UPI commented, U.S. generals have recently “openly acknowledged [to Congress] what Pentagon planners have quietly known for at least a year: The United States will have to maintain current troop levels, or close to them, in Iraq for years to come.”)

The Times piece included a curious explanation for why such an assessment should be offered only anonymously:

“By insisting that they not be identified, the three officers based in Baghdad were following a Pentagon policy requiring American commanders in Baghdad to put ?an Iraqi face’ on the war, meaning that Iraqi commanders should be the ones talking to reporters, not Americans. That policy has been questioned recently by senior Americans in Iraq, who say Iraqi commanders have failed to step forward, leaving a news vacuum that has allowed the insurgents’ successful attacks, not their failures, to dominate news coverage.”

In this single paragraph lie many of the unsettling conundrums of America’s Iraqi adventure. Through much of last year, that strange phrase, “putting an Iraqi face” on the war, policy, sovereignty, or anything else, was popular among American officials in Baghdad and Washington and could often be found in press reports. This was a rare reappearance for it and, folded into a complaint about Iraqi unwillingness to provide such a face, caught something of the crisis of the moment. After all, as an image, to put a “face” on anything means to put a mask of a face over something already present, which was (and largely remains) American power in Iraq.

When George Galloway, the antiwar British parliamentarian, recently arrived in Washington to defend himself before Congress and called the new Iraqi regime in Baghdad a “puppet government,” it undoubtedly seemed an outrageous and distasteful label to many Americans and all of official Washington; but when our officials and military men speak of putting an “Iraqi face” on things, it strikes us as good and sensible policy and we wonder why the Iraqis continually let us down on this.

The stunning thing is that tin-eared officials using the phrase can’t hear what this must sound like to Iraqis. Do we really believe them to be that stupid? Insensate? Unable to imagine whose actual face (and rather imposing body) is to remain behind that Iraqi face being plastered on? About a year ago, in a somewhat more hopeful period, Washington officials were using a different, but no less insulting image. Donald Rumsfeld was not alone, for instance, in claiming in a speech to American troops that “the end was almost in sight. Getting Iraq straightened out, he said, was like teaching a kid to ride a bike: ?They’re learning, and you’re running down the street holding on to the back of the seat. You know that if you take your hand off they could fall, so you take a finger off and then two fingers, and pretty soon you’re just barely touching it. You can’t know when you’re running down the street how many steps you’re going to have to take. We can’t know that, but we’re off to a good start.'” Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz similarly spoke of taking the “training wheels” off the bike, while ensuring that the Iraqi kid didn’t fall off on the first pedal around the block; as, in May 2004, did the President who claimed, while rallying congressional Republicans around his Iraq policy, that Iraqis were now ready to “take the training wheels off” by assuming some political power.

As with the Iraqi “face,” so that infantilizing image of a parent teaching a child to bike caught something of the American dilemma in Iraq and the American attitude toward it: Of course, American officials want the child not to fall and the Iraqi mask to stay in place. Our military men naturally want their Iraqi counterparts to “step forward,” right out front where they can be seen, and engage the press rather than having American commanders do it for them. It’s such a better “message” to send to the world. But we also want the Iraqis to ride that bike as we instruct them to and Iraqi military men to say more or less what we have in mind. We want a nice infantilized government in Baghdad, but what we don’t want is to give up basic decision-making, at a military, intelligence, or economic level. We want them to take over? but on our terms. (Any colonial administrator of an earlier era would recognize both the imagery and the problems that come with it.)

When the Iraqis “fail” to do so, our commanders grow frustrated and begin to complain bitterly; while frustrated Washington officials, as Paul Richter and Ashraf Khalil make clear in a recent Los Angeles Times piece (U.S. Moves to Reassert Itself in Iraq Affairs), can’t resist stepping in to pressure the Iraqis, while also emphasizing what they should not do. (“Although Iraqis are making the choices, the officials said, Washington has ?red lines’ that its partners must not cross.”) And, of course, none of this encourages Iraqis to put that “face” on an American occupation.

It’s a dance of frustration which can be felt in a very specific way in the Schmitt and Burns article. As it happens, the Iraqi defense minister had just announced a new government policy banning military raids on mosques — and he had clearly acted without consulting American military commanders who were caught off guard and disturbed by the new policy. As the Times reporters write:

“Another problem cited by the senior officer in Baghdad was the new government’s ban on raids on mosques, announced on Monday, which the American officer said he expected to be revised after high-level discussions on Wednesday between American commanders and Iraqi officials. The officer said the ban appeared to have been announced by the new defense minister, Sadoun al-Dulaimi, without wider government approval, and would be replaced by a ?more moderate’ policy? [That more “moderate” policy,] the American officer implied, would allow Iraqi forces, backed by Americans, to raid mosques when they are used as insurgent strongholds.”

With the above in mind, here’s my nominee for quote of the week from Iraq (with a small bow to the military paper, Stars and Stripes):

“The reconstituted Iraqi army took another step Sunday toward leading stabilization efforts in its own country, opening its first national headquarters since the U.S.-led invasion. The Iraqi Ground Forces Headquarters was inaugurated by a ‘small group of Iraqi and Coalition dignitaries’ at an undisclosed location in Baghdad, according to Multi-National Force-Iraq officials Monday?

“‘We are celebrating today a historical event and the rebuilding of the Iraqi army. Having the headquarters of our ground forces here is an indication of the Iraqi army controlling its own destiny,’ Iraqi Ground Forces commander Gen. Abdul Qadir Jassim said, according to the statement.”

The problem, of course, is with that “here.” Try to imagine the announcement-shoe on the other foot. Consider a sentence like: “The American Military Headquarters was inaugurated at an undisclosed location in Washington, according to officials Monday.” This is headquarters, folks. These are the people whom the Bush administration has slated to take over from us so we can “go home.” Call it the Iraqi Pentagon, but the ceremony at an undisclosed “here” might as well have taken place on the moon. A small group? No wonder. Imagine what it says about the country that the address of Iraqi military headquarters remains a secret.

Body Counts and Other Metrics of a War of Frustration

Numbers, “metrics,” ways of measuring success are now multiplying in Iraq. This in itself is a measure of frustration. Victory seldom needs metrics. Okay, maybe once upon a time, quantifiable loot and slaves mattered; more recently, the metric of victory was territory conquered — and when American troops reached Baghdad and the Bush administration thought its war a raging success, no metrics were necessary.

Our iconic metric of war, which also proved a measure of a losing war, was, of course, the body count which we associate with Vietnam. The body count was, however, an invention of the later years of the Korean War, a way of measuring “success” once the two sides had settled into the bloodiest of stalemates and the taking of significant territory — in fact, the wild movements of armies up and down the Korean peninsula — had become a thing of the past. In a sense, the body count, aka “the meat-grinder,” was from its inception both a measure of nothing and a measure of frustration.

It reappeared quite early in the Vietnam War for reasons allied to those that called it up in Korea. We were involved in a struggle with guerrillas for whom the holding of territory was not the crucial matter, while our North Vietnamese enemy was bomb-able but not open to invasion (given the larger Cold War context). The body count became a shorthand way of measuring success in a war in which the taking of territory was almost meaningless, the countryside a hostile place, the enemy hard to tell from the general population, and our own in-country allies weak and largely unable to strengthen themselves. The body count was, as in Korea, also part of a secondary struggle — for international “credibility” and for support at home. Those dead bodies, announced daily by the military to increasingly dubious reporters in Saigon, were the most public face of American “success” in those years. When the dead bodies and success began ever more visibly to part ways and, in the terminology of the times, a “credibility gap” opened gapingly between the metrics and reality, the body count became a symbol not just of a war of frustration, but of defeat itself. It came, post-My Lai, to look both false and barbaric. Whose bodies were those anyway?

In our new world of conflict, where our leaders had imbibed all the “lessons” of Vietnam, Centcom’s Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of our Afghan War (now on the board of Outback Steakhouse, which donated shrimp and steak dinners to our troops in Afghanistan), declared that “we don’t do body counts.” He was not talking about Iraq, but the principle was later extended to that country where we were obdurate in our unwillingness to count enemy dead (or keep any public tally whatsoever of the Iraqi civilian dead).

The message was clear: We had learned our lessons. We had kicked the Vietnam habit. We were now into victory. Similarly, there would be no more body bags — the other side of the Vietnam “body count” — coming home in full view for the TV cameras to photograph. This would be the ultimate, the final anti-Vietnam experience.

All of us should have been warned, of course. When you create an anti-anything, you are almost invariably preparing the ground — should the slightest obstacle arise — to summon its opposite. And the preparations for the kind of war we were to fight in Iraq, or rather the kind of war we were going to present to the American public and the world, were essentially anti-Vietnam rites of an elaborate sort created by people who just couldn’t get that ancient defeat out of their brains.

Not surprisingly then, when the war being fought rather quickly deviated from expectations (and public pronouncements) of success, when our leaders, civilian and military, found themselves mired in (as it was quickly dubbed in Vietnam shorthand) the Q-word, and frustration rose and polling figures on the home front started to erode, the “metrics” began to return. It was inevitable. Administration officials began counting furiously, initially for themselves and in private as they tried to sort out an insurgency that they never expected. Later, of course, they couldn’t resist citing the figures — the useful ones anyway. It turned out that they were counting like mad despite themselves and before they knew it, it was déjà vu all over again for all of us.

Probably the first public “metrics” of frustration to return were estimates of how many Iraqi troops and police we had trained and were supposedly fielding. Impressive figures were often batted about. In the presidential debates, for instance, George Bush claimed: “We’ve got 100,000 [Iraqi troops and police] trained now, 125,000 by the end of this year, 200,000 by the end of next year.” Soon, the much-repeated figure became 140,000 troops and police. By March 2005, Donald Rumsfeld was using a total of 142,000.

The problem was that on the ground our Iraqis were proving unimpressive. Most of them either wouldn’t or couldn’t fight. Whole police departments fled. Iraqi soldiers (with the exception of some Kurdish forces) were considered unreliable by our troops. New Iraqi recruits deserted in quantity. A number of them turned out to be ghost recruits (on whom Iraqi commanders drew salaries). Some, it became clear, had infiltrated from the other side. Soon enough those enormous figures began to look absurd, first and foremost to the men in the field.

Think of this, then, as a Tomdispatch rule of war (American-style): In place of genuine victory or actual success, metrics multiply. So the next time you see the word “metrics” or a new set of figures being publicly kicked around to prove our “success” in Iraq, just assume that further problems (and yet more frustration) have arisen.

In the case of those “trained” Iraqi military men, as things went from bad to worse, the metrics meant to measure training success did indeed multiply. As a Washington Post piece (A Report Card on Iraqi Troops) indicated just recently, now that ten-men “transition” teams of American advisors have been assigned to Iraqi troops in the field (à la Vietnam), a whole new system of measurement has come into existence, the Transition Readiness Assessment. Just now being tested out in the field, it’s meant to determine the quality, not just quantity, of “our” Iraqis on the ground. As in Vietnam, the TRA has a plenitude of categories of “readiness” (or the lack thereof) — six in all — and has already been transformed into a set of nifty, color-coded visuals with, as it turns out, lots of “red squares.”

According to reporter Bradley Graham, the initial TRA found the following:

“Of 81 Iraqi army battalions assessed, only three were rated green, able to conduct operations independently. Of 26 larger brigade headquarters formed so far, only one earned such a rating, according to officers familiar with the confidential assessment.”

As happened with similar systems of measurement in Vietnam, the new ratings system is already being scammed by Iraqi commanders eager to rate their forces even lower than may be justified in order to get ever more U.S. military aid flowing in to their units.

Behind such measures lies a frustration that would have been deeply familiar to American military men in Vietnam: How come it’s going to take us years, if ever, to get our forces up and fighting effectively, when the other side, without those ten-man advisory teams or special American training or much of anything else (except vast stores of munitions and weaponry left over from Saddam Hussein’s day) are already fighting and dying with determination? Even when it comes to foreign jihadis, why are theirs ready to die for nothing, while ours — the thousands of hired guns, known as “security contractors,” we’ve imported into the country from all over the globe — cost a bloody fortune?

Another early metric that began to be cited by the administration should be labeled the “attack count.” There’s now clearly a modest-sized industry employed in sorting out their attacks — on American troops, on Iraqi forces, on the police (including assassinations and the like, as Donald Rumsfeld indicated in the interview that began this piece). There are, it seems, cumulative totals, comparative totals over time, and totals by province. Whenever the cumulative attack totals sink, as after the January 30 election, the administration trundles out its figures and begins to crow. When they rise, you get those “last gasp” explanations. Over time, while meant to broadcast success, or at least offer a modicum of “good news,” such figures only lead those broadcasting them deeper into the mire because they promise a pay-off that never seems to come (or come for long anyway). The rise in numbers of trained soldiers, the dips in attack numbers never lead to lasting success — that is, to the waning of the largely Sunni insurgency.

And now, that dreaded no-no of the Vietnam era, the body count, has returned as well. Actually, it’s been on the road back for quite a while. Over the last year, there have been increasingly frequent reports in the media in which the U.S. military offered specific figures for dead enemy. These may have begun more systematically with announcements of specific numbers of “terrorists” killed in air strikes on sites supposedly being used by the followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the months leading up to the November assault on Falluja.

Since then, reports from Iraq offering specific numbers of insurgent or terrorist dead bodies as signs of success have been on the rise. This somewhat haphazard trend burst into something like full bloom with the recent U.S. Marine operation in Western Iraq.

The Body Count and Operation Matador

Early in May, about the time all those military statements about last gasps were emerging and just as Baghdad seemed to be turning into a sea of car-bomb explosions, the U.S. military in Iraq launched Operation Matador, a highly publicized sweep — 1,000 Marines backed by significant air power ? of areas near the Syrian border previously considered “sanctuaries” for foreign fighters entering the country. Soon after the operation began (not particularly well for the Marines who were bloodied by unexpectedly well-armed jihadists on their way to the sweep’s launch point), the first body count emerged and was promptly headlined in the American press and highlighted on the television news. As the New York Times put it in a Vietnam-era-style headline: “100 Rebels Killed in U.S. Offensive in Western Iraq”; or, as Hannah Allam of Knight Ridder wrote, “At least 100 suspected insurgents have been killed.”

The number itself should have been a signal to the American press. It was such a suspiciously round number, while American casualties were being detailed far more specifically. As Christopher Dickey of Newsweek on-line commented in a rare piece on the return of the Vietnam-era body count: “But of course that’s just a guesstimate, while the toll on the Americans and their Iraqi allies is all too concrete.” In fact, nothing in Operation Matador seemed to go as expected. Ellen Knickmeyer of the Washington Post was embedded with the troops and she reported that they quickly discovered their enemy had “had plenty of warning that the Marines were coming.” Generally, they were missing from the “ghost villages” the Marines entered. As Knickmeyer put it (again in a sentence that could have come directly out of the Vietnam War), “Primed for battle, the Marines found only booby traps. Sometimes they found them too late.”

Solomon Moore of the Los Angeles Times, also along on Matador, offered similar Vietnam-style quotes in a piece aptly titled, An Unseen Enemy:

“‘We took constant mortar fire from over here. Anybody who comes over that bridge gets lit up,’ said 3rd Platoon commander Lt. Joseph Clemmey, 26, of Worcester, Mass. ?This was supposed to be the mission from God, and so far we’ve been out here and we haven’t seen nothing. This was the climactic moment we were all waiting for, and no one is here?’ ?We’re fighting an invisible enemy,’ said Sgt. Jeffrey Swartzentruber of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. ?They’re like the ? CIA.'”

According to Knickmeyer, the Marine operation had all the ear-marks of a disastrous anti-“hearts and minds” campaign. House-to-house searches resulted in the “bust[ing] up wooden furniture belonging to poor farm families and [the throwing of] their polyester blankets and clothes in a jumble on the floor”; they “beat up suspicious-looking men if that was what it took to get information that could save lives” (despite a lack of interpreters, one of whom in Knickmeyer’s unit quit part-way through the operation); they ousted families from their homes at night to bivouac in them themselves. They were, in short, “the recruiting sergeants of the resistance” in the phrase of British journalist Patrick Cockburn.

And where they did meet opposition, as in the town of Qaim, the results were no less expectable or disastrous. The U.S. military is badly overstretched in Iraq and the modest 1,000 man Marine force was hardly large enough for its task — unless you assumed, as the military surely did, that significant parts of its job would be done by helicopters and planes once resistance of any sort was met. As it happened, while the offensive was already in its planning stages, local tribal leaders who couldn’t deal with the armed foreign fighters in their villages actually called on the Americans for help. This could have proved an extraordinary development.

However, according to Hannah Allam and Mohammed al Dulaimy of Knight Ridder (Marine-Led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say), not only was there “no effort by the U.S. military to incorporate local tribes in its assault plans,” but despite limited Marine numbers, no Iraqi troops were along on the operation either. Not surprisingly then, when the Marines hit resistant villages or towns, air and fire power was loosed and the results were indiscriminate.

Here, for instance, is an AP report on one area:

“Flattened homes, bullet-pocked walls and two charred personnel carriers at the entrance to the Sunni Arab village stood as testimony to the violent upheaval. One of the walls of the local mosque had collapsed, and dozens of buildings were damaged by shells and machine-gun fire. A gaping crater in the bridge linking Rommana and Husaybah reduced traffic to a crawl across the Euphrates River.”

The Knight Ridder report offered this striking quote:

“‘The Americans were bombing whole villages and saying they were only after the foreigners,’ said Fasal al Goud, a former governor of Anbar province who said he asked U.S. forces for help on behalf of the tribes. ?An AK-47 can’t distinguish between a terrorist and a tribesman, so how could a missile or tank?'”

In the end, as in Vietnam, the Marines held no territory, but simply termed the operation a “success,” offering a final body count of 125 dead insurgents. As a last touch from another era, according to the AP report, “U.S. forces extended a conciliatory hand Sunday, dropping leaflets from a helicopter promising a better future. ?Prosperity will prevail in Rommana and Husaybah,’ one of them read. ?We thank residents for their calls on the local number which helped us capture armed groups,’ read another.”

According to Allam and al Dulaimy:

“The U.S. military hails last week’s Operation Matador as a success that killed more than 125 insurgents. But local tribesmen said it was a disaster for their communities and has made them leery of ever again assisting American or Iraqi forces? In interviews, influential tribal leaders and many residents of the remote border towns said the 1,000 U.S. troops who swept into their territories in the weeklong campaign that ended over the weekend didn’t distinguish between the Iraqis who supported the United States and the fighters battling it.”

Measure, then, metrics against reality — that body count of 125, which represents the metrics of victory for the Americans, and the reality on the ground, as the Knight Ridder people reported it: “When the offensive ended? angry residents returned to find blocks of destruction. Men who’d stayed behind to help were found dead in shot-up houses.”

This is the essence of a war of frustration where such operations are bound to fuel further disasters. Among Americans, they are no less bound, sooner or later, to bring into question the credibility of the metrics themselves and so of an administration for which credibility or image is no small matter. They are also bound to bring to mind Vietnam — and not only among American military men in Iraq who have already indicated their private disappointment over Operation Matador.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times made the point in an eloquent column, War in Iraq: Staying What Course?: “Reports from the recent offensive near the Syrian border,” he wrote, “sound just like those from a 1960’s search-and-destroy mission, body count and all.”

Counter-counts or the Metrics of Disaster

As it happens, the administration’s “good news” metrics aren’t the only ones available and no one knows this better than our military leaders. They can count, after all. In fact, how could they help but do the math late into any night, given what they know: There are about 140,000 overstretched American troops in Iraq, maybe another 9,000 Brits, and ever-vanishing numbers of “coalition” forces. (The Poles and Japanese, among others who haven’t yet withdrawn, are talking about doing so when the UN “mandate” ends in December.) The Iraqi forces are — a small number of units excepted — essentially not in the field (though private Shiite and Kurdish militias, not under American command, exist in significant numbers). According to our generals, American troops are now likely to remain in Iraq at present force levels for years to come.

On the other hand, every possible figure for the restocking of the American military — rates of recruitment for the Army and Marines, numbers of soldiers and specialists signing up for new tours of duty, recruitment rates for the National Guard and Reserves — has been significantly on the wane. Only AWOL and desertion rates may be on the rise.

In this context, there is a factor not being counted into the public metrics of the war — one that goes a long way to explain how the present situation can continue.

As we all know, from time to time, “civilians” or “private security contractors” are reported to have died in Iraq (most horrifically when 4 employees of Blackwater Security Consulting were ambushed in their SUV, murdered, and mutilated in Fallujah in March 2004). These days, when a convoy of private-security SUVs is ambushed in Baghdad or a helicopter transporting some “civilians” is shot down, it makes the news. But unlike with the official military death count — the ever-updated number of soldiers the Pentagon reports as dead in Iraq — the deaths of private security contractors generally are neither recorded, nor tallied, though a partial list of 237 such “fatalities” can be found at the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count site. Deadly attacks on such “civilians,” as long as they are out of the spotlight and away from the cameras, evidently regularly go unreported.

In Iraq, the numbers of “private security contractors” — always referred to politely as such in the American press, never as “mercenaries” or “hired guns” — is unknown. There can be no question, however, that they make up by far the second largest contingent of “coalition” fighting forces in Iraq, well ahead of the British. Estimates of the number of foreign hired guns in Iraq usually fall in the 15,000-20,000 range, with possibly tens of thousands of Iraqi hired guns thrown in as well.

According to Agence France-Presse, 60 foreign firms, with exotic names like Blackwater and Custer Battles, as well as 40 Iraqi firms, are in the mercenary business there. But as with their casualty figures, so their force numbers exist in a murky world beyond all public math.

Almost completely unregulated — “In one of the last decrees issued by the defunct CPA, pro-consul Paul Bremer granted immunity from prosecution for private security contractors working with the Americans and US-backed Iraqi government” — they constitute the paramilitary “wild West” of American Iraq. They not only symbolize the process of privatizing the Pentagon that has proceeded apace under Donald Rumsfeld, but are a massive hidden expense for the American taxpayer as well as a competitive force when it comes to the reenlistment of battle-skilled American soldiers. (The salaries they offer are perhaps four times as high comparable ones in the military.) They are in many ways the hidden force that allows our Iraq War to continue on its present catastrophic course. Without such manpower, now increasingly unavailable to the Pentagon through direct recruitment methods, an “overstretched military” would have a different meaning.

Our jihadis are generally ignored in our media, though on occasion an article comes out about them. Their crusading desire, according to the Washington Post’s Ann Scott Tyson, is driven by money, “a lust for life on the edge,” and “a self-styled altruism.” As she describes them, “Sporting blue jeans, wraparound sunglasses and big tattoos, they look the part of gun-slinging cowboys.”

Back in the Cold War era, when you spoke of the “war in the shadows,” you were referring to the secret, armed, global intelligence struggle between the CIA and their Russian counterparts. Now, the war in the shadows — in Iraq at least — is the war of the mercenaries. They are the metric that makes it all add up and they remain below the radar screen.

What Can Be Counted On

Numbers are a tricky thing. Counts of various sorts can themselves be interpreted various ways. Numbers, even when accurate, can lead to quite different conclusions. Sometimes you need a sharp interpretive brain just to grasp the nature of the figures coming your way. Sometimes you need just such a brain to step past the numbers. Considering the recent Baghdad car bombings, Juan Cole, who may have the best interpretive brain around on the subject of Iraq, offered this succinct summary of the American position in that country at his Informed Comment website:

“Few commentators, when they mention such news [of car bombs targeting convoys in Baghdad], point out the obvious. The United States military does not control Baghdad. It doesn’t control the major roads leading out of the capital. It does not control the downtown area except possibly the heavily barricaded “green zone.” It does not control the capital. The guerrillas strike at will, even at Iraqi notables who can afford American security guards (many of them e.g. ex-Navy Seals). If the US military does not control the capital of a country it conquered, then it controls nothing of importance. Ipso facto, Iraq is a failed state.”

Based on recent comments seeping anonymously out of the military high command in Baghdad and into the press, it seems that most of our commanders don’t disagree. As Christopher Dickey of Newsweek put the matter recently:

“If there’s good news, it’s that while the Pentagon may obscure this grim reality in public presentations, it doesn’t seem to be kidding itself, as it did in Vietnam. An accidentally declassified Pentagon report about a killing on the road to Baghdad airport at the beginning of March shows quite clearly how much worse the overall situation is than the Bush administration would like us, or even its allies in the Coalition forces, to believe. ‘The U.S. considers all of Iraq a combat zone,’ says the report, which was wrapped up at the end of April, three months after the elections that were supposed to have turned the tide in this conflict.”

Here is where the Vietnam analogy ends up in the dust. In Vietnam, the United States was fighting a mobilized rural populace in a full-scale, nationwide war for national independence that was already years old by the time the first American troops arrived. It was led by a single party, back by a highly militarized half-state to its north with a well-respected and charismatic leader, in turn backed by the resources of China and Russia. In Iraq, the Bush administration and the American military are fighting a partial war in a near non-state, mainly in one part of an increasingly riven country, against an insurgency without a charismatic leader, a single party, or significant backing from other states elsewhere — and yet, so far, the stateless results do look eerily similar to those in Vietnam. The frustration over “our Iraqis” is only going to rise, as will frustration over our inability to destroy the insurgency of “their Iraqis” — and as this process intensifies, and the administration feels yet more pressure at home over its Iraqi adventure, look for the public metrics to multiply and grow ever more problematic. There’s only one word for it: Incredible.

Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), where this piece firest appeared. He is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.

Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt


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