The Rebirth of Body Counts

October 24, 2005

During the war in Vietnam, one of the signs that the government wasn’t leveling with the public was the exaggerated body count produced daily by the military high command in Saigon. When, after years of inflated enemy death tolls, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong caught U.S. forces off-guard in 1968 with the ambitious and sweeping Tet offensive, it became clear that this enemy was hardly on his last legs. In the end, the insurgent forces were actually repulsed, but their surprising show of strength was instrumental in turning American public opinion against what was beginning to seem like a war without end.

Lessons were learned, it seems, and until now the government has tried to avoid the same problem in Iraq by not providing estimates of the number of insurgents killed. When asked by Fox in November 2003 about enemy deaths, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded, “We don’t do body counts on other people.”

Well, it looks like that policy has changed. A Washington Post article today reveals that, “eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.”

The change in policy, according to the article, has apparently come “without formal guidance from the Pentagon’s leadership.” The authority to disclose the numbers has, in fact, been “pushed out to the field and down to the level of division staffs.”

It’s early on, but the instances of the new policy this past week do not bode well for the accuracy and straightforwardness of the military. Just the other day, we took note of the reports coming out of Ramadi from the military that 70 insurgents had been killed in a series of bombs dropped on the city. The New York Times repeated this number without challenging it. Both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times also reported it but then countered the military’s claims with gruesome accounts from the ground that many of those killed (as many as 39) were not insurgents, but actually civilians, including about 18 children. As of now, the government continues to stand by its numbers, denying that any civilians were killed.

The Post piece reports that, privately, several uniformed and civilian defense officials are worried about the new trend, and “expressed concern that the pendulum may have swung too far, with body counts now creeping into too many news releases from Iraq and Afghanistan. They also questioned the point of citing such figures in a conflict where the enemy has repeatedly shown itself capable of rapidly replenishing its ranks, and where commanders acknowledge that the size of the enemy force is a fluid number.”

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But we see an even more ominous problem for the media. With the situation on the ground so dangerous in most of Iraq, journalists can seldom verify even the rough numbers they are being provided with. Accounts to the contrary, as the Ramadi incident shows, are scattered and anecdotal, usually from hospital officials or distraught family members.

There’s no reason to automatically doubt information offered by the military, which has in this war been infinitely more forthcoming with the press than it was during Vietnam. But there is ample reason to remind readers that a one-source story is just that — a one-source story.

–Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.