Body Counts

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The Washington Post reports today that an old Vietnam-era practice is making a comeback in Iraq:

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.

Now we’ve known that the military has been using body counts as a metric of success in Iraq since Newsweek‘s Christopher Dickey reported it back in May of this year. But all trends seem to suggest that this is now the formal answer to Donald Rumsfeld’s concern, in a memo he wrote in October 2003:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Just count the corpses, maybe. William Arkin recently reported that the Pentagon is planning to unveil new “metrics software” that will try to break these questions down into raw numbers and “calculate” success. Better than having no metrics at all, one would imagine, but Arkin sees shades of Vietnam: “Commanders and analysts will be pushed to produce the right numbers to show ‘progress.’ Units will be mandated to ‘report’ measurable data lest progress is not being properly shown.” Or, as Conrad Crane, director of the military history institute at the U.S. Army War College, put it somewhat more pithily, “[T]he numbers got so wrapped up with career aspirations that they were sometimes falsified.”

But that’s sort of the least of the concerns here. The evidence is also good that worshipping at the altar of body counts actually increased the number of civilian atrocities in Vietnam, as suggested in the Toledo Blade‘s 2003 investigation of the elite “Tiger Force” platoon, which ended up going insane and killing everything that moved:

After arriving, the battalion – including Tiger Force – moved to the Song Ve Valley, a remote, fertile basin in the center of the province. The goal of the military was to stop the 5,000 inhabitants from growing rice – food that could feed the enemy. But with deep ties to the land, many villagers refused to leave. That’s when Tiger Force members joined other battalion soldiers in what became a grisly routine: Shooting villagers who stayed in their hamlets.

Mr. Stout said commanders were counting the executed civilians as enemy soldiers to help boost “body count.” In Vietnam, the measure of success was the number of enemy soldiers killed – not the taking of land, say military historians. Mr. Stout said in July he spotted a sign posted in a command center in the valley with a tally of the dead enemy soldiers: 600. But the numbers of weapons seized totaled only 11. “Most of the dead people were civilians.”

There’s no reason to think that soldiers in Iraq are currently shooting up civilians to foster the illusion of success, but frankly, this isn’t the sort of possibility you really want to flirt with. The Pentagon from all appearances still doesn’t keep track of Iraqi civilian casualties in the country, and it isn’t exactly meticulous in sorting out who was actually killed in this or that latest bombing raid.

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