Body Counting: Painting the War by Numbers

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2002

In their approach to covering the war in Afghanistan, the media seem intent on reviving the infamous "body count" of Vietnam fame. This new emphasis on the body count manifests itself in two ways: First, the assertion that we have killed a disproportionate number of Afghan civilians during the war; and second, that we can’t prove we killed many al Qaeda or Taliban during Operation Anaconda and the recent battle around Shah-i-Kot.

The contention that the United States has been responsible for civilian deaths is a hoary staple of the antiwar Left. The late Harry Summers once recounted how after the so-called "Christmas bombing" of North Vietnam (Linebacker II), a delegation of American antiwar protesters pressed Hanoi to claim a civilian death toll of 10,000. However, it turned out that our enemies on the battlefield were more honest than the protesters. Hanoi claimed about 1,600 civilian deaths.

A similar event occurred after the Gulf War when the odious Ramsey Clark dispatched a researcher to Iraq to document American "war crimes." Again, honesty apparently trumped ideology. In an article for The Nation, Erika Munk, the researcher, acknowledged that claims of civilian deaths by the Iraqi government and U.S. antiwar protesters were highly inflated. She concluded that most of the precision weapons had performed pretty much as U.S. spokesmen had claimed. Collateral damage occurred but it was far less extensive than she had expected. There was little evidence to suggest that civilians had been attacked indiscriminately.

The same dynamic is now at work in Afghanistan. Critics of the war, both here and abroad, argue that the war cannot be legitimate if it endangers civilians. Apparently based on the assumption that if the number of Afghan civilians killed by U.S. military action exceeds the number of Americans killed on September 11, the war is unjust or illegitimate, the press had been trumpeting a study by Marc Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, claiming that as of December 2001, some 5,000 civilians had been killed by U.S. military action (he subsequently revised the figures downward to between 3,100 and 3,800).

As Michael Walzer has written in a piece in the spring issue of Dissent, such numbers are propaganda derived largely from Taliban sources. Indeed, an intensive Associated Press investigation indicates that the real number is much lower—500 to 600 through February 2002. But even if Herold’s numbers were accurate, so what? As Walzer observes,

the claim that the numbers matter in just this way, that the 3120th death [in Afghanistan] determines the injustice of the war, is in any case wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing. And the denial isn’t accidental, as if the people making it just forgot about, or didn’t know about, the everyday moral world. The denial is willful: unintended killing by Americans in Afghanistan counts as murder.

While it is clear that the United States has gone out of its way to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan, accidents happen. Friction and the fog of uncertainty in war make it unlikely that collateral damage can ever be completely eliminated.

Equally troubling is the attempt by the press to revive the old debate over enemy body counts, suggesting that, as in Vietnam, the U.S. is exaggerating the number of enemy dead. A recent report by Reuters—"US Military on Defensive Over Afghan Body Count" (March 19, 2002)—is a case in point. The return of the body count in assessing U.S. military operations is an ironic development, especially given the criticism the United States military received during the Vietnam war for using the number of enemy dead as a measure of effectiveness.

What is the motive for reviving the debate? A cynic might suggest that it has to do with the press’s vested interest in reviving the "quagmire" charge. Once again, the U.S. is bogged down in an open-ended conflict in which the American brass exaggerates the number of dead enemy soldiers. But Afghanistan and Vietnam are two different cases.

The body-count approach in Vietnam was based on the judgment of General William Westmoreland, the American commander until after the Tet Offensive of 1968, that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would not be able to continue the struggle once the war reached the "crossover point," the point at which the U.S. was killing the enemy faster than the latter could replace his losses. Attrition of the enemy was a means of coercing the enemy to give up his objective of conquering South Vietnam.

Critics of the body-count approach in Vietnam were generally correct. A reliance on the body count was the result of an overall lack of strategy for fighting the war. It was also the logical consequence of a flawed operational approach—a war of attrition. And it certainly did create an incentive for commanders to inflate body counts. (However, the fact that Hanoi admits to suffering 1.1 million soldiers killed in the war and 300,000 missing and presumed dead indicates that perhaps U.S. claims were not so exaggerated after all. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that totalitarian North Vietnam was able to absorb 1.4 million battle deaths in a contest of attrition more easily than a democratic United States was able to absorb 58,000).

Lack of credibility all too often associated with inflated body counts in Vietnam was a major reason the U.S. refused to get drawn into discussions about the number of enemy killed during the Gulf War. But while credibility must remain a concern for the U.S. military in its dealings with the media, there is an argument to be made that killing al Qaeda and Taliban fighters has a purpose in and of itself that was not present in either Vietnam or the Gulf War.

The objective of the current war is to destroy terrorist networks. The best way to accomplish this objective is to kill as many of the al Qaeda fighters as possible. If al Qaeda fighters choose to concentrate, as they did recently at Shah-i-Kot, they make it easier for U.S. forces to fix and destroy them.

But having said this, it is important for the military to steer clear of a debate over enemy casualties. As a friend once remarked, such a debate is like wrestling a pig. Both you and the pig get dirty, but the pig loves it. The best way to avoid such an outcome is to refuse the gambit in the first place. As one allied officer remarked about the battle of Shah-i-Kot, "gauging the success of any mission is more than just the number of enemy killed."

To constitute a threat to allied forces or to the Afghan government, al Qaeda and the Taliban must concentrate as they did near Shah-i-Kot. Operation Anaconda has made it clear that such a concentration of forces can be very costly. The incentive to concentrate again has been reduced considerably. Although the war in Afghanistan is far from over, that’s not a bad outcome for the near term.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.