Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Rhetoric of "Body Counts" 
Across the top of the homepage of Iraqi Body Count, in bold, black letters, is a quote--"We don't do body counts," attributed to former CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks.

I guess the idea was to suggest that the quotation demonstrates that the General is cavalier about the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

The truth is counterintuitive. The general's rejection of the rhetoric of "body counts" is, in the long run, the most responsible course. In due course, the rejection of the body count as a key metric of mission accomplishment is not indicative of a casual attitude toward Iraqi civilian casualties. Rather, will help to preserve them.

Here's why:

During the Viet Nam war, the United States Army adopted the body count as one of the defining indicators of success. From Corps commanders in air conditioned trailers right on down to exhausted and blistered platoon leaders, officers were under tremendous pressure to add to their commander's body count.

Almost inevitably, the system became corrupted. Commanders began to pad body count numbers. They 'rounded upwards.' They awarded themselves the benefit of every doubt. And they sometimes counted bodies toward their total without accompanying weapons or any other evidence that the dead were involved with the communist insurgency.

With leaders at all levels clamoring for fresh corpses on the battlefield, and nevermind the facts, the stage was set for corruption, cavalierness towards Vietnamese life, and eventually, the near collapse of the credibility of the officer corps in the eyes of the public.

General Franks would remember it well: he served in Viet Nam himself as young artillery officer.

It's important that Iraq Body Count does the work it's doing. But it's also important that the Army transcend the obsession with the body count. And the press should understand that the body count is simply not an appropriate measure for success in a counterinsurgency campaign.

Over a decade before the second Iraq war, retired officer-turned-journalist Col. David Hackworth proposed an excellent solution for journalists in his excellent book "About Face:" If you're obsessed with a metric, then focus on the number and type of weapons captured--not the number of bodies.

Weapons counts cannot be faked. They cannot be padded. They can be inventoried by serial number and easily verified by commanders or media. There is no perverse incentive to take credit for the deaths of the innocent along with the enemy. The commander still has an incentive to exercise restraint until he is in decisive contact with the enemy.

Finally, and most crucially in Iraq, a focus on weapons counts and the rejection of the logic of body counts aligns the interests of commanders and good Iraqis.

Iraq Body Count should continue to compile the awful human toll of war on the Iraqi people. But they should collect their data independently. And journalists of all stripes should remember that even though they don't like it when the Army can't spoon-feed them their facts, there's an important reason "we don't do body counts."


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