Tom Engelhardt: The Return of Bodycounting

Roundup: Historians' Take

Tom Engelhardt, at (5-23-05):

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."...

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....

This article first appeared on, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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