Body Count Redux
February 18, 2004
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military released body counts of enemy and friendly dead to the media, which reported
them voraciously. Invariably, the military’s data—showing more enemy than friendly dead—was designed to give the
illusion that the United States was winning the war. What the data didn’t show was more important: that a tenacious
enemy fighting for its homeland would be willing to incur high casualties and outwait an opponent with a short attention
span. Similarly, in Iraq, the U.S. military gleefully reports that attacks against U.S. soldiers have dropped by more
than half since their peak in November of last year and that firefights between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi guerrillas in
Iraqi towns have also diminished. But like the body counts in Vietnam, the American public should be wary of such rosy
The major reason that fighting between the U.S. military and the insurgents has declined is that the American forces
have vacated the field of battle. However unfortunate, with a competitive election coming up this year, the White House
knows that the only thing in Iraq that matters to the American public is how many U.S. soldiers are killed and wounded
there. Thus, “force protection” has become the number one unstated goal in Iraq. American forces have been pulled out of
Iraqi cities and towns and most security functions have been turned over to the amateurish, ill-trained and poorly
equipped Iraqi security forces. This same phenomenon occurred in Bosnia in the mid-to late-nineties, when American
public support for U.S. involvement in peacekeeping there was lukewarm. American soldiers were ridiculed by the
peacekeeping forces of other nations for rarely coming out of their fortified bastions.
What is the result of a policy designed more to avoid a catastrophe before the election than to pacify Iraq? Answer: One
of the worst weeks of violence since America’s occupation began. Last week, 125 people were killed in suicide bombings
of a police station and an Iraqi Army recruiting station and a violent raid on an Iraqi police station to free
prisoners. In addition, guerillas, seemingly tipped off that a VIP would be visiting, attacked the motorcade of John
Abizaid, the American general in-charge of all U.S. forces in the Middle East. Most of those attacked or killed in this
recent spate of attacks—save the U.S. general—were Iraqi police or military people perceived as collaborating with the
Although U.S. officials claim that security in Iraq is improving, a confidential and little noticed report by the
American occupation authority itself belies those statements and confirms the intuitive impression that attacks by
insurgents are getting worse. The occupation authority’s findings, as reported by London’s Financial Times, state that
“January has been the highest rate of violence since September 2003. The violence continues despite the expansion of the
Iraqi security services and increased arrests by coalition forces in December and January.” The report concludes that in
recent months, attacks against international and nongovernmental organizations, strikes using mortars and explosives
(including roadside bombs), strikes in Baghdad and attacks that were non-life threatening have all increased
substantially. Also, attacks on military targets rose faster than strikes on their civilian counterparts.
Yet the only recent public indication of underlying security problems was made by Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of
Iraq, who was forced by last week’s mayhem to admit that the indigenous security services would not be ready to
guarantee public safety in time for the ostensible mid-year turn over of Iraq to the Iraqis, “I think it’s quite clear
the Iraqi security forces, brave as they are, and beaten and attacked as they are, are not going to be ready by July 1.”
Ideally suited for his job, Mr. Bremer has a gift for understatement.
So if the Iraqi security forces are in shambles and insurgent attacks are rising, the casual observe might ask why are
the Americans pulling back to fortified garrisons outside Iraqi cities? Answer: That policy saves the lives of American
soldiers while leaving the Iraqi citizenry to the wolves. Strangely, the U.S. military admits this increased risk to
Iraqis. So much for the Bush administration’s high-flying rhetoric about making Iraq a better place for its citizens. If
a civil war eventually breaks out—as a U.N. representative recently warned and as the occupation authority worried
euphemistically in its report—Saddam Hussein’s regime could seem like the good ole’ days for Iraqis.
So although the Bush administration’s policy may be achieving its primary goal—avoiding a sharp escalation in the U.S.
body count before November—the voting public should not mistakenly conclude that the United States is winning this war.
A reckless Bush administration—like the Johnson and Nixon administrations during the Vietnam War—has stumbled into a war
that it can neither win nor escape from gracefully.
*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty
at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World
. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism