See? Just like Vietnam!

U.S. Claims Success in Iraq Despite Onslaught
Body Counts Now Cited as Benchmarks

The Washington Post:

After generally rejecting body counts as standards of success in the Iraq war, the U.S. military last week embraced them — just as it did during the Vietnam War. As the carnage grew in Baghdad, U.S. officials produced charts showing the number of suspects killed or detained in offensives in the west.

Now, if we were to simply use body counts as a scorecard that told the whole story, this would be trouble.

Here are a few little snippets from the same story:

August was the third-deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops.


Lynch spoke at the close of a two-day onslaught of bombings and shootings that killed nearly 190 people, the bloodiest days in Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Over 17 days this month, guerrillas across Iraq killed at least 116 Iraqi forces and 346 Iraqi civilians in drive-by shootings, bombings and other violence, according to Iraqi officials.

So I guess I’m confused. Are body counts worthwhile or not?

The basic story seems to be this: “The US military has begun using numbers of killed and captured insurgents as some sort of measuring stick by which we apparently are supposed to be able to judge the situation in Iraq. Meanwhile four more American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb, pushing the toll of American forces killed in Iraq past 1,900.

UPDATE: Incidentally, according to these numbers, the US has suffered 22 KIAs in the first 20 days of this month. Compare that to the 80 lost last September, and US forces have been involved in some fairly intense offensives along the Syrian border. Generally, offensive operations increase the likelihood of casualties.

Let’s say this rate holds. Think we’re likely to see “US deaths down nearly 60% since last year” headlines?


  1. Regardless of media hypocrisy, I find body count a very scary way of gauging how we are doing in Iraq. I don’t believe most of the parallels people find between Iraq and Vietnam. In some ways Iraq is much worse (for example, Saigon was relatively safe for American citizens, nowhere in Iraq is), in some ways Vietnam was much worse (for example, we were fighting an enemy with access to state-of-the-art weapons). But when I see that the military is giving out body counts, its sends a shiver of recognition up my spine.

  2. MO, I think a more helpful indicator of American success is to compare the numbers of our people we’ve lost compared to the number we sent downrange in the first place. I don’t have reliable numbers of US wounded, nor could hope for splitting that out into those who went back to the line vs those who were discharged. But nevertheless, we put something like 170,000 servicemembers into the heart of Islam in 2003. By the 2nd anniversary we lost well under 2,000 KIA, across the entire operation from initial assault to sustained combat since. Plus, perhaps 1 million troops have rotated in and out of there in all that time. Iraq is a dangerous place, no doubt. But consider that in the last 2 year period of (relative) peacetime, 1999-2001, we lost something like 1,800 personnel from accidents, homicide, or suicide. If those trends followed beyond 2001, assuming there was no war, we were going to lose nearly 2,000 upstanding young people just due to the stresses and dangers that come from the martial life, even in ‘peacetime’. But I don’t recall a media outlet ever crying out for an end to rigorous training, or comparing the National Training Center to Hue City.

  3. Chuck – I don’t like the idea of using body counts either, if they were used as the sole measuring stick of progress in Iraq. They are not. Unfortunately, measuring sticks like new schools opened or additional megawatts of electrical production or the number of newspapers are simply ignored and have been for two years. Measuring progress in Iraq by the number of people voting in elections certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, either, but it’s a number worth watching. Just like enemy dead.

  4. It’s a new high score!

     -- TOP BODY COUNTS -- STLN 20 000 000
    HTLR 15 000 000
    MAOT 12 000 000
    KYSR 10 000 000
    HIRO 6 000 000
    SUNG 5 000 000
    KHMR 4 000 000
    SADM 2 000 000
    AYOT 1 000 000
    GWB 9 536 ANOTHER GAME ?

    … talk about utterly tasteless. See, we could ask questions like ‘is Iraq a safer place for the ordinary citizen? What’s hapenning to the quality of life? What’s the perception of the average Iraqi’ but that would require actual journalism, whereas body counts just require a piece of paper and a calculator… *sigh*

  5. But, seriously… I am optimistic for a couple of reasons. One of them is that the MSM reports of violence, deaths, failures, etc. is slacking off significantly both in the seriousness of each incident and in the numbers of incidents. As you pointed out, Murdoc, they hardly report anything on Afghanistan any more at all. So it seems the more successful things are the less MSM reports we get. And since Iraq is being reported less and less often (as far as I can tell), and local trite is replacing the coverage, that makes me think Iraq is getting better. Another thing which makes me think it’s going well is the obvious desperation of the terrorists, which you’ve mentioned repeatedly, as have other bloggers. Something which has been mentioned a lot is the concept that our existence/our presence in the region somehow forments terrorism. I was thinking about this a bit. The only way to stop this altogether would be for us to cease to exist, which obviously isn’t going to happen willingly. (Look at Israel for plenty of examples why offering compromises/giving in to demands is counterproductive). But given that there is potentially some middle ground here, is there anything we can do to stop giving these people excuses to behave so badly? I don’t think we can leave Afghanistan or Iraq before the job there is finished. Assuming we will leave when it’s the right time, and also assuming we’re not going to give in to unreasonable demands, can we do anything reasonable to assague the alienation that some people seem to be feeling? I can’t really think of anything much. Tolerance doesn’t seem to work – especially since a lot of those we’re supposed to be tolerant of are themselves intolerant of us. Any other ideas? Nicholas

  6. A comment a little more on topic (sorry to be such a nuisance): I wrote several hundred words discussing whether body counts are relevant or not in this comment and then deleted them all. Why? It’s a pointless discussion. As anyone well-versed on the subject of Small Wars will tell you, a Small War is not really about killing the enemy. You can’t. They reach a point at which they can recruit people faster than you can find and capture/kill them. You have to win over the people. Once their support is gone, the terrorists lose. So discussing how many people die is pointless, except to explain changes in the enemy’s support base. And they tell us a lot. Blowing up 200 Shi’ites may look great for the terrorists on CNN, MSN and BBC but it sure ain’t winning over any Iraqis to their side. The fact they’re resorting to that kind of thing shows that they’re very desperate and I would say, past the point of inflexion. Their support from this point is going to dwindle very fast. I don’t really see what they can do to change that. The pendulum is swinging… they may be able to hang on for a couple more years but I suspect they will be pretty impotent soon. Anyway, there’s plenty more to discuss, but I don’t think body counts are constructive at all at this point. To say otherwise is to go against hundreds of years of experience with similar wars. The US Marines Small Wars Manual is freely availble for download as a PDF if anyone cares to read it (I found it via Google). Nicholas

  7. Someone hit the nail on the head earlier – none of the other metrics are being reported and the LSM (lamestream media) has devolved Iraq into a body count game. With the focus on the spectacular fooled the media into covering our agenda events such as car bombings and assassinations, the terrorists take on an appearance of omnipotence. Providing body counts is a method of combating that view and to demonstrate that we are giving more than we are taking. The important thing is to ensure that it doesn’t lead to a skewed perspective of success among the military, and I don’t see that happening at all. You still see an emphasis on reconstruction progress, political inclusion, and community relations when you read transcripts of interviews.

  8. MO, The topic of training injuries is one of great interest to me. If you have a lead on when or where you might have recalled cries against realistic, rigorous training, I’d be grateful.

  9. GL: Well, off the top of my head I just recall a number of different times, mostly from basic training, where people thought training to be soliders was ‘too rough’. It seems that a lot of it started with concerned parents. As far as regular training, it seemed that for a while (late 80s, probably) there were a number of helicopter crashes, of course loaded with troops, on training exercises and there were a lot of the ‘why do we even use helicopters if they’re so dangerous’ questions, much like there is today whenever one goes down. And ‘maybe they’re needed in a war, but why risk using them if we’re not fighting?’ I don’t really have any links or resources, and even my memory is more about clueless people who don’t understand the first thing about the military explaining how things ought to be, not about serious discussion and solid opposition to training.