During the Vietnam war, the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Saigon hosted daily press conferences aptly known as the "Five O'Clock Follies." Every afternoon, an officer would step up to the microphone and announce that up was down north was south, and charcoal-gray skies were perfectly blue. The highlight of these tragicomedies tended to be the recitation of "body counts"—daily tabulations of the numbers of enemy killed. For instance, on March 16, 1968, a release announced, "In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City." So did we first hear a description of the My Lai massacre.
The body count was but one of the many innovations popularized by Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara, the former CEO of Ford Motors who had a well-known fetish for computation. McNamara would later explain in his memoir that the counts were conducted and publicized as part of a strategy to reach "a so-called crossover point, at which Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain." But, because the body count ranked as the most-valued measure of success, all those involved in their production—among them, half a million American troops—came under pressure to offer up favorable statistics. "We never took [the metric] seriously," recalls military analyst and Vietnam veteran Dallas Owens. "We might count the same guy five times." Rufus Phillips, an early and influential American adviser in Southeast Asia and author of Why Vietnam Matters, says, "The numbers were always several steps removed from what was happening on the ground. Nothing that went wrong got into the briefings."
The effect on the U.S. Army was deep and corrosive. The relentless charting of dead bodies meant a relentless drive to generate dead bodies—and not always those of the enemy. Falsifying the counts offered one path to promotion. So did dangling one’s own soldiers as bait for the enemy, or the liberal and often indiscriminate use of firepower. But, even when recorded accurately, body counts were useless: The war managers in Washington had chosen the wrong metric. As Ho Chi Minh put it to the French, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but, even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” Which is exactly what happened.
For years after the last American troops left Saigon, the term “body count” was banished from the lexicon of U.S. military affairs, a symbol of the selfdeception that had propelled the war. Banished, that is, until recently. Quietly, fitfully, but unmistakably, the U.S. military has resurrected the use of body counts. Their return offers the clearest illustration yet of the new official thinking about our enterprise in Afghanistan.
When the United States sent troops first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld loudly proclaimed that the ghosts of Vietnam would not haunt his wars. “If you’ll recall the Vietnam war, they had body counts that went on day after day after day,” he said, adding that the figure “is not the metric that’s appropriate for an insurgency.” In Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks put the point bluntly: “We don’t do body counts.” In fact, instead of boasting about how many insurgents they had killed, the U.S. military kept the Iraq tally classified until forced by a Freedom of Information Act request to release it in 2007.
In Afghanistan, the military began publishing the numbers of enemy dead from particular, large-scale operations. As Wall Street Journal correspondent Michael Phillips has reported, Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the especially aggressive 101st Airborne Division publicized their kill ratios, even while other U.S. forces in the NATO chain of command did not. Still, the practice remained controversial. In 2009, the senior spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, officially directed the military not to publish body counts. “Indicating the number of insurgents killed,” he told CNN, “has little relevance to impacting the lives of Afghans.”
But, when General David Petraeus, the one-time counterinsurgency czar, arrived at General Stanley McChrystal’s emptied headquarters last year, he brought with him a new set of metrics. Soon, he was reporting that 235 insurgent leaders had been killed or captured over the previous three months, along with 1,066 “rank-and-file” insurgents. By the end of that month, NATO was reporting that it had killed an additional 114 insurgents. In November, it increased the tally, relaying news of nearly 1,000 insurgents killed in night raids since August. On virtually every day since, the International Security Advisory Force (ISAF) has released a body count to the U.S. media, the kill ratios duly relayed to a restless public back home.
Last month’s reporting was as meticulous as any other. On February 9, ISAF reported that an attack on an enemy position “indicates more than ten insurgents were killed in the fighting with no ISAF injuries.” The next day, on February 10, an ISAF press release revealed that “more than fifteen insurgents were killed” in another engagement. A few days and a telling modifier later: “Afghan and International Security Assistance Forces killed more than thirty-five suspected insurgents.” (Emphasis mine.) And so it goes, week in and week out, with the U.S. command trumpeting what until recently wasn’t so much as whispered.
What is going on here? This much at least is evident: The counterinsurgency strategy that epitomized U.S. operations in Afghanistan has been abandoned. “When we started [in Afghanistan],” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright said at a news conference two months ago, “we probably were more aligned with counterinsurgency.” Now, he said, the U.S. orientation was tilting to a “counterterrorism” strategy. Where a counterinsurgency campaign aims to win over heart and minds, a counterterrorism strategy tends to eliminate hearts and minds—via air-strikes, night-time raids, the precise and not-so-precise application of firepower, and the targeting of insurgent leaders by SOF teams, whose ranks have tripled over the past year (a large number of them coming from Iraq, along with a lethal fleet of aerial drones).
Asked to account for the overhaul of U.S. strategy, a senior officer in Afghanistan offered a one-word explanation: “time.” In this telling, the quantification of the war has escalated in direct proportion to President Barack Obama’s (and particularly Vice President Joe Biden’s) demands that the U.S. enterprise narrow to a close. Those demands, which initially called for U.S. forces to pursue a tightly constricted strategy of targeted raids and to begin withdrawing nearly as soon as they were underway, have eased somewhat. Still, even under the looser timeline, there’s hardly room to achieve anything like the military’s aim of genuine population security. When it comes to the White House strategy in Afghanistan, the proliferation of body counts points to a concrete ordering of priorities: define success in the narrowest conceivable terms, declare our objectives achieved as soon as possible, and disengage before Afghanistan goes completely sour. The officer summarizes the miniaturization of U.S. strategy this way: “Kill enough Taliban, create enough space for the [Afghan National Army] to pick up the slack, and leave.”
There are, to be sure, legitimate uses for body counts in Afghanistan. One is to keep track of civilian casualties. By the U.S. command’s own account, it began counting bodies in part due to outside investigations of an August 2008 airstrike that killed 33 Afghan civilians. Yet, as Peter Andreas and Kelly M. Greenhill show in their edited volume, Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, numbers like these have not always been distinguished by a concern for rigor. For example, the 2006 Lancet study funded by George Soros recklessly inflated death counts in Iraq, obliging the military to respond with its own, more precise tally.
Finally, in a war that, unlike World War II or even Operation Desert Storm, moves along no front line or, at best, a blurred line, body counts do offer one statistic by which to measure advances and setbacks. Keeping score, in turn, can degrade enemy morale and bolster one’s own. Or, as an officer I knew in Iraq put it at the end of a day during which he lost several soldiers and then let loose a series of airstrikes that killed the perpetrators: “Watching [the enemy] die felt good.”
And yet, its few merits notwithstanding, the use of body counts in Afghanistan, or anywhere else, suffers from numerous and irreparable defects. For one thing, it barely provides a morally persuasive basis for taking life. Even in conflicts viewed as broadly legitimate, questions of who may be killed and how many killed in the pursuit of a particular aim have become increasingly controversial. Once the counting of bodies comes to define the exercise, principles such as proportionality and discrimination lose their meaning. The essence of body counts is to yield numbers in lieu of purpose. The more, the better.
Further, the claim that body counts bolster either credibility or morale is both exaggerated and highly problematic. Body counts do nothing to further the cause of U.S. legitimacy, particularly when they create civilian casualties. As to American morale, body counts may boost it at the small-unit level in the field or even writ large back home, but, if so, not in a particularly American way-unless, that is, one thinks the mission of the American soldier ought to be reduced to the counting and creating of dead bodies. Body counts corrode. They distort and manipulate, encouraging the big lie as a means to advancement.
“Not everything that counts can be counted,” goes Albert Einstein’s widely cited maxim. “Not everything that can be counted counts.” The quantification of success may be possible when one knows exactly, or even vaguely, how many enemy fighters stalk the mountains of Afghanistan. But, as long as those mountains run through Pakistan, body counts will mean nothing. The enemy, after all, has an endless supply of potential fighters living in sanctuary across the border. As in Vietnam, a disconnect between claims and reality is fast becoming a theme of the war in Afghanistan.
The defects of body counting—its lack of strategic underpinnings, its tenuous moral legitimacy—were hallmarks of the policies devised during the biggest military fiasco in U.S. history. Above all else, body counts mean this: We’re losing the war in Afghanistan. And this, too: In the White House, the anger of their youth having dissipated, the idealism born of the Vietnam era now supplanted by cynicism, the passionate children of the 1960s and 1970s have grown up to be not unlike their fathers.
Lawrence Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, edition of the magazine.