The Parade of the Body Bags

The body count used to be an integral part of warfare–that meant counting the bodies of the enemy. RAF fighter pilots would adorn their airplanes with kill signs, Israeli soldiers put notches on their guns for each Palestinian killed, and the American military reveled in body count statistics in Vietnam. Now body counts are out; they are considered ill advised when dealing with a passive but anxious home population. Perhaps populations eating TV-dinners in air-conditioned environments don’t have the stomach for the truculent warrior-speak of yesteryear. Certainly, the propagandists serving the Pentagon must have determined that body counts should be phased out; it is better not to cause anxiety among the American public.

But guess what, this author does body counts, “coalition” body counts. I will dispense with the ritual provisos that one doesn’t mean the soldiers any harm, etc. The fact is that the number of US-uk soldiers killed is a good indicator of how the occupation is progressing in Iraq. It will indicate whether this war is a bloody quagmire, or if the dust is settling on the rubble.
The history of their body count

The rituals of war and its glorification have certainly changed. Ancient warriors collected the scalps of their victims, and so on. We will skip the long list of gory practices. One must just remember that several medals in the recent past were bestowed primarily based on a body count–the German Iron Cross during WWI had this implication. (The British and Americans, obviously more civilized, handed out medals for valor.) During the Vietnam War, General Westmoreland elevated the body count to a statistic meant to measure the performance of his army. The daily bulletins included body counts to show that the war was being won. Ultimately this backfired, and as Gabriel Kolko put it: ” [body counts] simply horrified ever-larger sectors of American and world opinion [1].” Consequently, the body count was phased out. Today questions about enemy body counts are something that annoys generals–they are acutely aware of the image they must portray to sell their wars. During the next war, the media will have learned this lesson, and it will be considered impolite to pose such questions. General Tommy Franks won’t have to state the obvious, that the US military no longer issues enemy body counts for public consumption.

Our body counts

On May 1, 2003 when Bush Junior landed on the aircraft carrier, he officially announced the end of the war. Like Moses before the parting of the Red Sea, he commanded the war to end. But no Iraqis were present who could indeed enforce an armistice; no Iraqi is obligated to stop fighting, and the hostilities will continue for the foreseeable future. It is evident that there is a full-fledged guerilla war, and that things may be getting worse.

The media tends to focus on the last casualty, and doesn’t put it into perspective. For a public so accustomed to seeing stock charts with trend lines it would be informative to see the body bag chart to determine how the war is progressing. This is the purpose of graph below [2]. The columns in red indicate US-uk soldiers killed by hostile action, and the blue sections are “other” causes. Note that the trend line indicates an increasing death toll. Projecting the trend line out through the 200th day of occupation would imply 2.2 daily US-uk deaths (current average = 1.3). In other words, the situation is worsening and the death toll is going to be significant.

Changing the color of the bodies

During the early 1970s, the American death toll became a major reason for the increasing opposition to the Vietnam War. One of the ploys Nixon used to extend the war was to shift the responsibility for the conduct of the war onto the South Vietnamese. This became known as the Vietnamization of the war, a.k.a., “changing the color of the bodies.” It is already evident that the US wants to implement the same policy in Iraq. From the Indian press it is clear that Washington wants to obtain a large contingent of Indian troops, and pressure has been exerted on India to prove its “you are with us” credentials. It would be natural to utilize Indian or Pakistani troops because some of them already have substantial experience in the area. In some Gulf countries, the police force includes many Indian nationals. Saudi Arabia finances at least one Pakistani division that would likely be used either for external defense or internal repression. The US would like to use these mercenary forces to reduce its own exposure. Another solution in the offing is the creation of Iraqi units loyal to the Americans–reportedly 12,000 strong. Wholesale killing would remain an American specialty, but the retail side would be spun off to pliant mercenaries.

The US is also busy horse-trading to get more foreign troops on the ground. It must have offered something to the Japanese because Japan has offered a contingent to be stationed in a “non-war zone” in Iraq. When Prime Minister Koizumi was asked where this would be, he answered that he did not know! [3] Japan won’t contribute US$15bn as it did after the 1991 Gulf War, and this time some of its soldiers may be the expendable currency–Japan is in a recession after all. Other countries joining this pathetic effort are: Spain, Poland, Hungary, The Netherlands and a wee island in the Pacific may send an entertainment corps (maybe some hoola hoola girls for the troops).

Although some noises have been made about the introduction of United Nations troops, this will be resisted by the US. The problem with the UN is that it would want some say in political and economic matters, and thus UN troops will be a last resort. It is only when the resistance to the American rule becomes excessively bloody that the intervention may be spun off to the UN.

There are a fair number of foreign nationals in the US army. Among the casualties since May 1st there are four foreigners (Polish, Guyanese, Mexicans). One of these received the US nationality posthumously. What an honor! Why didn’t CNN or Fox film the spectacle of a coffin where the US flag is bestowed on the remains of the foreign mercenary?

For the color of the bodies in the US-uk casualty list, see the following table:


Delight over bodies

American casualties in Iraq receive ample coverage in the Arab media, and this is received with relish in some quarters [4]. Reports from the Middle East suggest that folks may be cheering the casualty reports.

On July 23rd Robert Fisk wrote from Iraq: “To the shopkeepers and the drinks stall workers, it was just an explosion []. They thought that a second, wounded soldier must die, and they said that with enthusiasm. [5]” In other words, if the Iraqis are cheering the killing of American soldiers, then the occupation forces will loath admitting their losses on a daily basis. This may explain why the US army is harassing Al Jazeera journalists, and will likely shut down their offices in Iraq.

Body counts going, going

Here is a prediction: within the next few months the body count for US-uk troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will be phased out. First, the daily reminder that American troops are being killed is something propagandists must dislike intensely. Long before the US election campaign starts in earnest, we will find that the body count in Iraq will be something that will disappear. Second, the delight the body count causes in some quarters must also be of some concern for the propagandists. Whereas body counts of yesteryear referred to the enemy, the current US-uk body count is having undesirable effects.

The first evidence that the home-team body count is being whitewashed has to do with the “cause of death”. There are increasing reports that soldiers killed due to hostile action are listed by the Pentagon as killed in accidents [6]. A clear example is the killing of Sgt. Christopher Coffin–listed as “died [] after his vehicle ran into a ditch on July 1st.” However, other reports state: “his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device.” There are far too many fatalities with the Humvee (the military SUV)–its record certainly suggests the need for the promotion of safety belt usage. There have been 19 traffic-related fatalities, most of them Humvee rollovers. However, this author suspects that its associated fatalities are likely to be from hostile action. Other causes like: “responding to a civilian call when his vehicle rolled over,” are suspicious — the US military responding to a “civilian call”? Hmmm Soldiers stepped on a landmine near the airport, but the landmine was supposedly planted before May 1st; presto, this was classed as an accident [7].

One doesn’t have to go further than the CentCom and DefenseLink reports to determine that whitewashing of the casualty figures is taking place. CentCom usually issues a press release with a cursory explanation of the circumstance, but without a name, when there is a US fatality. After notifying the next of kin, DefenseLink issues a press release with the names of the victims and a broader explanation of the cause of death. The bright lights hired by the Pentagon don’t realize that in some instances the cause of death is reported as hostile by CentCom, but then as an accident in the DefenseLink release. For example, on May 26th the CentCom lists a cause of death as a “landmine or unexploded ordnance”; a few days later this is listed as hitting unexploded ordnance, thus accidental. There is a disparity in about a dozen of the CentCom and DefenseLink announcements [8]. Furthermore, by the time the incidents are reported by DefenseLink, the cases of wounded soldiers have been expunged. The title of one communiqué: “Third Armored Cavalry Regiment Convoy Ambushed” (May 26), but one must read the body of the press release to find that one soldier was killed. Whereas usually the press release title indicated casualties, now one must now read all communiqués to find references to casualties.

Robert Fisk reports: “they have failed to report a mass of attacks and assaults against patrols and bases in and around Baghdad. [9]” Although attacks where Americans were killed are reported by the Pentagon, other incidents aren’t. The situation surrounding the British contingent is much the same–scant reporting from the field on hostile actions.

Here is an emerging trend: Tracking the number of dead in Reuters, AP, or BBC already yields a higher number of casualties than those reported by the Pentagon–admittedly there is a small discrepancy at present [10]. July 28th is an interesting example; early in the day, the BBC reported two combat fatalities, but later on, the BBC Online altered its reports to show one fatality and one accidental death. Furthermore, the delay between the date of the death and the date of a confirmation has also increased–reporting may soon be offered on a weekly basis [11]. And finally, there is no accounting for the wounded soldiers and what has happened to them. All told, expect the war in Iraq to become like the wars in Orwell’s 1984; these were only used to stoke jingoism and rile the crowd, and would occasionally yield a glimpse of a captured enemy in a cage on display. Every other facet of those wars was not reported on. In Iraq, reporting on the daily carnage will be a thing of the past–wars will also soon be something occurring far away, and the plight of the mercenaries fighting them will not be something the home crowd will have to know anything about.

The BBC is also reducing the reported death toll. On July 16th a BBC Online article stated: “Thirty US troops have been killed as a result of hostile action since US President George W Bush declared major combat over on 1 May.” After complaining to the BBC that the number was exactly 92 US-uk casualties (42% of which had been killed due to hostile action [12]), the BBC helpfully changed this to: “More than 30” The disingenuous excuse was that they were only reporting the hostile action casualties, but even this was wrong. Similarly, the July 20th article stating: ” deaths bring to 151 the number of American soldiers killed in action since the start of the war”, is wrong too because it excludes “other” deaths. NB: these fatalities wouldn’t have occurred if these folks weren’t in Iraq. The soldiers killed clearing mines are classed as accidental and are not included in the BBC’s death tally! How does the BBC explain that it is excluding British soldiers from its tally? What we witness here is a crass whitewash operation; this is dishonest and it serves to downplay the severity of the situation.

Support the bodies

One factor that was instrumental in ending the Vietnam War was the home crowd hostility and questioning of their military. Nothing tarnished morale more than the hostile reception soldiers received during their home leave. Soldiers found that it was best not to wear their uniforms to avoid being spit at. During the US-Iraq war one of the most hideous and effective propaganda ploys has been to push the message: “support our troops”, and to downplay the alternative slogan “support the war.” The longer the occupation drags on and the larger the number of body bags the more this distinction will be emphasized. The military is an arm of government used to implement policy –it is odd to state that one is called to support one, but not the other.

As Michael Moore said, if you support the troops then this must mean bringing them home–alive. If one supports the troops–and most are decent well-meaning folks–then the best thing one can do is to clamor for a substitution of US troops by UN troops with a wide mandate. This is the only measure in the short term that will stop the misery of the Iraqi people. All the other options under consideration by the Americans are bloody dead ends enforced by mercenaries.

During the Vietnam War, the US army was made up primarily of conscripts, and many soldiers went to war without much choice. The slogan “support our troops” made sense then. Today the US army is a professional army, and the reasons for serving are varied. When troops are quoted as saying: “this is just a job, and now I want overtime pay” or (July 19th) “I signed up for fighting and killing” then one should reevaluate one’s support. When American soldiers, erstwhile liberators, state (July 21st): “God, how I hate these people [Iraqis]” or “I hope this war doesn’t end before I get my first kill” then decency dictates a revaluation of this war. Michael Guerrin paints a similarly depressing image of the US military as mixture of trophy hunters and mercenaries [13]. It is incongruous to “support our troops” now in a democratic society opposed to wars of aggression.

It is your body on the line too

Ask yourself this: has the war against Iraq improved your security? The security staff at the major London airports is working under the assumption that there is an increased threat, and this is as good an indicator as any. There is a distinct trend of Israelization of our societies–the creeping introduction of fences, spy cameras, walls, and distrust. Deep injustices perpetrated in far corners of the world have a tendency to engender violence no matter how high the “security fences” are built. For very selfish reasons–one’s own safety–there are grounds to reevaluate the American occupation of Iraq, and its policy in the region.

Americans will certainly understand this argument: the safety of their pocketbook (shriek!) is at stake too. Take 145,000 American troops, 12,000 UK troops, a 12,000 strong Iraqi gendarme, and multiply these by the requisite wages [14]. Multiply this figure by three to reflect the backup personnel needed to support front line troops. Estimate the number of casualties and multiply by the number of your choice for each body bag. Add this up, and under a favorable scenario, this will cost US$15bn for this year alone. This is just the “labor” cost; it doesn’t include other things like the air conditioning system for Proconsul Paul Bremer’s palace. Now start adding the equipment and transport costs. Congress estimates the occupation cost is in the US$ 4bn/month orbit. Iraqi oil revenues will be partly absorbed to cover these costs, but eventually it may come out of Americans’ pockets too. If the scenario isn’t so rosy, then it will be time to sell the SUV.

Facile bravado

A few weeks ago, Bush Junior issued a challenge to the Iraqi resistance: “Bring them on”. Consider this: the president misrepresented the war to everyone including the soldiers, the war was one of aggression, and now he’s challenging the Iraqi guerrillas for a shoot-out at the OK corral. Bush’s posteriors are not on the line, and his family will reap rich oily rewards. Never mind the ensuing flag-draped coffins; these provide a useful backdrop for Bush’s patriotic posturing.

While governor of Texas, Bush approved a record number of death penalty executions, and he is quoted as saying that he didn’t lose sleep over it. The grotesque part of his current stance is that he’s so blasé about expending the lives American soldiers, and chances are he isn’t losing sleep over them either. To catch his attention, our Liberian friends have devised a pointed form of protest; they are piling the dead bodies around the American embassy in Monrovia. This would be a fitting protest in Washington too. Perhaps a long pile of body bags around the White House will catch the warmongering president’s attention.

PAUL de ROOIJ can be contacted at: (attachments automatically deleted).

© 2003 PAUL de ROOIJ


[1] Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of War, Pantheon Books 1985, page 196. Robert Fisk relates a curious parallel: during the Iraq-Iran war Iraqi papers published many photos of dead Iranians, but soon it became clear that Iraqis felt sympathy for the dead soldiers. Consequently, the Iranian body count and statistics were phased out of the Iraqi media. It is easier to hate your enemy if you don’t see the consequences of the war.

[2] The data for this graph was obtained from Lunaville, CentCom, DefenseLink, MOD and CNN (the first one is the best). If soldiers died of their wounds after an attack, the event date is the date when the soldier died because the attack dates are not always available. The “hostile” category is derived from the DOD and MOD reports of the fatalities. Race was determined from the photograph of the victim; this is imperfect, but it is an attempt to record this important statistic. There are civilians working for the military are also counted as victims of this war. There has been one British civilian casualty thus far. Military personnel based in the Gulf were also included here if they were support staff for the war effort.

[3] There are disturbing implications about this practice to obtain troops. The whole basis of international relations is being undermined. Instead of obtaining consensus via the UN, the US now favors individual deals. Thus, Japan will get preferential trade in return for 1,000 troops.

[4] Greg LaMotte, Arab Media Prominently Feature Attacks on US Soldiers in Iraq, VOA News, July 14, 2003.

[5] Robert Fisk, No film rights. No heroic tales. Just a bloody death in the afternoon, The Independent, July 23, 2003.

[6] Democracy Now, July 18, 2003 addressed this issue. An important account is Matthew Riemer, U.S. media misleading public on Iraq casualties,, July 23, 2003.

[7] For a long list of odd causes of death see: Greg Mitchell’s, Soldiers Dead Since May Is 3 Times Official Count, CommonDreams, July 17, 2003

[8] One can’t obtain an accurate number because there is no clear match between the CentCom and DefenseLink communiqués. There are some CentCom reports that don’t have a clear DefenseLink follow-up, and there are DefenseLink listed fatalities without a CentCom pairing. The 15 clear discrepancies are obtained from a one-to-one comparison and where the victim is the same.

[9]Robert Fisk, Americans fail to disclose all attacks on troops in Iraq, The Independent, July 21, 2003.

[10] As an example, on July 15th a landmine killed at least one soldier. The DOD reports usually list the circumstances of death, but here is no report matching the casualty found in the Independent.

[11] This is very easy to verify. PowNet lists the date of the announcement and the date of the fatality. Suffice it to say that the divergence between the two is increasing.

[12] Out of 92 deaths 41 were combat related (seven British soldiers). There were exactly 34 US soldiers killed in combat up to this date. Sure, this is “more than 30”. NB: the folks killed in mine clearing are not part of the 41 combat deaths.

[13] Michel Guerrin, Embedded Photographer: “I Saw Marines Kill Civilians“, CounterPunch, April 16, 2003.

[14] To find out how much US soldiers earn see: US soldiers’ conditions in Iraq. British soldiers earn less. The payments made to the families of killed soldiers are pitiful.



PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)