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Are We Doing Body Counts, Now?


After ignoring most of the news this past holiday weekend, I finally succumbed to my need for information Sunday evening. All of the major networks were broadcasting a story about US troops killing between 46 and 54 Iraqis in what the Pentagon claimed was a series of foiled ambushes. Besides the ludicrous disclaimer that this was the largest Iraqi death toll since the war was over–ludicrous because the war quite obviously isn’t over–I found these reports interesting for another reason. That is, the reports seem to indicate that the US military is beginning to keep a body count.

For those of you who don’t remember the war on Vietnam, body counts are exactly what they sound likeand more. They are a count of supposed enemy deaths at the hand of the American military. Of course, the “enemy” often turns out to be civilians and the count is often quite inaccurate. Indeed, a common (and morbid) joke about Vietnamese body counts was that they were so inflated that if all of the body counts conducted in Vietnam were added together, the Vietnamese population would have been killed twice over.

While the jury remains out as to whether or not this scale of death inflation has occurred yet in Iraq, the other aforementioned aspect of US body counts has apparently already happened: several Iraqis who witnessed the US action told media representatives that most of the Iraqis killed were civilians, not soldiers.

The Pentagon will do its best to deny these reports and, if it decides to continue the use of body counts, will insist to the public that its soldiers do not kill civilians. Meanwhile, the GIs doing the killing will tell the story differently. “You can’t tell who’s an enemy and who’s not,” will be their claim, and they’ll be telling the truth. After all, when you’re fighting a good portion of an entire population, like the US did in Vietnam and seems to be doing in Iraq as well, you tend to assume everyone who doesn’t look like an American is the enemy. So you shoot. Then, you cut off their ears or take their gun or something for your trophy room.

Besides the fact that body counts encourage wanton killing of anyone who might pass as the “enemy,” they also present a false picture of a war to the public on the home front. At the same time, it is this public for whom these counts are published. Indeed, they are part of what the military calls PsyOps-psychological warfare operations-only their target is the US public, not the “enemy.” The thinking is that if the US home front population can be convinced that their country’s military is winning the war, then that public will support it. So, the Pentagon designs methods that it thinks will do the convincing, with body counts being but one of the more popular. The philosophy behind this statistical approach assumes that if more people are killed on the other side than on the US side than that means the US is winning. Of course, the outcome of America’s war in Vietnam proves the fallacy of this philosophy, but it obviously doesn’t mean that the Pentagon learned that lesson.

In a war run by corporate managers like Donald Rumsfeld, numbers take on a meaning well beyond their actual value. That is what body counts are-numbers that are given a value well beyond their actual meaning. After all, the only real body count that would ensure a US victory in its war on the Iraqi people would be a body count that encompassed the entire 25 million or so Iraqis currently alive. Then, and only then, could Rumsfeld and his minions be certain that they have eliminated all of their potential foes.

One hopes that the warmakers’ minds are not so twisted as to have considered creating this body count.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu