We Count, They Don’t
By Tom Engelhardt
Counting to Three
At least Caesar was just commenting on reality when he wrote that “all Gaul is divided into three parts.” Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden attempted to create reality when an overwhelming majority of the U.S. Senate voted for his non-binding resolution to divide Iraq into three parts — Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish autonomous zones. Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post reported that the 75-23 Senate vote was “a significant milestone, carving out common ground in a debate that has grown increasingly polarized and focused on military strategy.” Murray added, “The [tripartite] structure is spelled out in Iraq’s constitution, but Biden would initiate local and regional diplomatic efforts to hasten its evolution.”
In Iraq, the plan was termed a “disaster” by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called the Senate resolution “a step toward the breakup of Iraq.” He added, according to Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website, “It is a mistake to imagine that such a plan will lead to a reduction in chaos in Iraq; rather, on the contrary, it will lead to an increase in the butchery and a deepening of the crisis of this country, and the spreading of increased chaos, even to neighboring states.” In the meantime, Sunni clerics and various political parties joined in the denunciations. Only the Kurds, eager for an independent state, evidently welcomed the plan.
Cole caught the essence of this latest stratagem perfectly: First, he pointed out, the Senate “messed up Iraq by authorizing Terrible George to blow it up, now they want to further mess it up by dividing it.”
But here’s the most curious thing in this strange exercise in counting to three — simply that it happened in the United States. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the Iraqi Parliament had voted a non-binding resolution to grant congressional representation to Washington DC or to allow California’s electoral votes to be divided up by district. Or what if the Iranian parliament had just passed a non-binding resolution to divide the United States into semi-autonomous bio-regions?
Such acts would, of course, be considered not just outrageous and insulting, but quite mad and, on our one-way planet, they are indeed little short of unimaginable. But no one I noticed in the mainstream of political Washington or the media that covers it — whether agreeing with the proposal or not — seemed to find it even faintly odd for the U.S. Senate to count to three in support of a plan that, at best, would put an American stamp of approval on the continuing ethnic cleansing of Iraq.
No matter how meaningless Biden’s resolution may turn out to be as policy, it has the benefit of taking us directly to bedrock Washington belief systems — specifically, that it is America’s global duty to solve the crises of other nations (even the ones that we set off). We are, after all, the nation-building nation par excellence and, despite all evidence to the contrary in Iraq, it is still impossible for official Washington to imagine us as anything but part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
You can find this same thinking no less readily available in another counting exercise under way in Washington
Counting to Five, to Ten, to Fifty
Right now, leading Democrats, as well as Republicans, are focused on counting to both five and ten, which turn out to be the same thing. In a recent debate among the Democratic candidates for the presidency, for instance, the top three (by media and polling agreement), Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards refused to commit to having all American troops out of Iraq by 2013, the end of a first term in office — five years from now, and 10 years from the March 2003 launching of the invasion.
Like much else of recent vintage, this 10-year count may have started with our surge commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who, for some time, has been telling just about anyone willing to listen that counter-insurgency operations in Iraq could take “up to a decade.” (“In fact,” he told Fox News in June, “typically, I think historically, counter-insurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years.”) Now, it seems, his to-the-horizon-and-beyond Iraqi timetable has largely been subsumed into an inside-the-Beltway consensus that no one — not in this administration or the next, not a new president or a new Congress — will end our involvement in Iraq in the foreseeable future; that, in fact, we must stay in Iraq and that, the worse it gets, the more that becomes true — if only to protect the Iraqis (and our interests in the Middle East) from even worse.
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks put it this way on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: “[The Democrats in Congress are] not going to cut off funding, and we’ve seen and we saw in the debate this week, there are going to be probably U.S. troops in Iraq there 10 years, regardless who’s elected. So they’re not going to win on this.” Liberal warhawk George Packer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long article, “Planning for Defeat,” laying out many of the reasons why Iraq remains a disaster area and discussing various methods of withdrawal before plunking for a policy summed up in the suggestion of an anonymous Bush administration official, “Declare defeat and stay in.” Packer concluded: “Whenever this country decides that the bloody experience in Iraq requires the departure of American troops, complete disengagement will be neither desirable nor possible. We might want to be rid of Iraq, but Iraq won’t let it happen.”
Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, representing the military punditocracy, offered the following: “I don’t see us getting out of Iraq for a decade.” In fact, increasingly few in official Washington do. (An exception is presidential candidate Bill Richardson, who launched a web video this week from a total withdrawal position that began: “George Bush says the surge is working. Gen. Petraeus says it will take more time. Republican presidential candidates say stay as long as it takes. No surprises there. But, you might be surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards would all leave tens of thousands of troops in Iraq”) Iraq is, of course, acknowledged to be the number-one issue in the upcoming presidential campaign; the ever growing unhappiness of Americans with our presence in that country is considered a fact of political life; and yet it’s becoming ever harder to imagine just what the future Iraq debate among presidential candidates will actually be about, if everyone agrees that we have at least five years to go with no end in sight.
And let’s remember that behind the five and ten counts lurks a count to 50 and beyond; the number of years, that is, that American troops have been garrisoned in South Korea since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953. Visitors to the White House have long reported that President Bush was intrigued with the “Korea model.” As David Sanger of the New York Times’ wrote recently: “Many times over the past six months, he has told visitors to the White House that he needs to get to the Korea model — a politically sustainable U.S. deployment to keep the lid on the Middle East.” (Keep in mind, however, that, when the Bush administration rumbled into Baghdad on their tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in April 2003, it was the Korea model they had in mind — though they weren’t calling it that at the time.)
This is the model that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also seems to have put his money on — a drawn-down American force garrisoned in giant, semi-permanent bases in a “stabilized” Iraq for eons to come. The Congressional Budget Office has already crunched numbers on what such a model would likely cost.
Behind all these counting exercises lies the belief that wherever we land and whatever we do, we are, in the end, the anointed bringers of something called “stability” and if we have to count to 50, 500, 50,000, or 500,000 and do it in the currency of corpses, sooner or later it will be so.
Everyone remembers when the Vietnam-era body count was banished from the Global War on Terror. Tommy Franks, the general who led American forces into Afghanistan (and later Iraq), bluntly stated: “We don’t do body counts.” And then, jumping ahead a few years, there was the President plaintively blurting out his pain to a coffee klatch of empathetic conservative journalists in October 2006: “We don’t get to say that — a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It’s happening. You just don’t know it. We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team.”
Well, tell that to the troops on the ground. There, it’s evidently been déjà vu all over again for a while.
The recent murder trial of an American sniper from an elite sniper scout platoon operating in Iskandariya, a Sunni area in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad, has been filled with revelations. Among them, that the Pentagon has a program to put “bait” out like “detonation cords, plastic explosives and ammunition” to draw unwary insurgents into sniper scopes; this, in a land with perhaps 50% unemployment, where anything salvageable will be scavenged by civilians. (“In a country that is awash in armaments and magazines and implements of war, if every time somebody picked up something that was potentially useful as a weapon, you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back,” comments Eugene Fidell of the National Institute of Military Justice.) As it turns out, the snipers seem to have misunderstood the use of these “bait” items — or to have understood all too well their real use — and instead placed them on unarmed Iraqis they had already killed in order to create instant “insurgent” bodies appropriate for the body count that wasn’t supposed to be.
As Private David C. Petta, told the court, according to the Washington Post, “he believed the classified items were for dropping on people the unit had killed, ‘to enforce if we killed somebody that we knew was a bad guy but we didn’t have the evidence to show for it.'” (The weaponizing of the dead was, by the way, a commonplace of the Vietnam War as well.) According to court testimony, the specialists from this sniper squad, “described how their teams were pushed beyond limits by battalion commanders eager to raise their kill ratio against a ruthless enemy…. During a separate hearing here in July, Sgt. Anthony G. Murphy said he and other First Battalion snipers felt ‘an underlying tone’ of disappointment from field commanders seeking higher enemy body counts. ‘It just kind of felt like, “What are you guys doing wrong out there?”‘”)
And little wonder, given what was at stake. This was, of course, standard operating procedure in Vietnam too — and for the same reasons. Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell, for instance, had his own codified kill ratios of “allied to enemy dead” for his units in Vietnam. These ranged from 1:50, which qualified as “highly skilled U.S. unit” to 1:10, “historical U.S. average.” And woe be to those who were just average. Units will be “pushed beyond limits” any time “victory” or “success” or “progress” becomes nothing but a body-counting game, as is happening again.
Once progress in a frustrating counter-guerrilla war is pegged to those endlessly toted up corpses, the counting process itself naturally becomes a crucial measure of success (in lieu of actual success), unit by unit — which means it also becomes a key measure of performance, and performance is, of course, the measure of military advancement. So, the pressure to be that “highly skilled unit” translates into pressure for more bodies to report as signs of success. Sooner or later, if you just report actual enemy killed, your stats sheet begins to look lousy — especially if others are inflating their figures, as they will do. And then the pressure only builds.
Every bit of this should ring a grim bell or two; but, as New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh commented recently in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, from Vietnam to today there’s been “no learning curve.” “You’d think,” he said, “that in this country with so many smart people, that we can’t possibly do the same dumb thing again…. [but] everything is tabula rasa.”
Prepare not to be surprised: In Iraq, the military counted bodies from the beginning — counted, in fact, everything. They just weren’t releasing the figures back in the days when the Bush administration was less desperate about Iraq and far more desperate not to appear to be back in the Vietnam era of endless stats and no victory. But the “metrics” (as they are called) were always something of an open secret. In March 2005, for instance, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told an NPR reporter:
“We have a room here [in the Pentagon], the Iraq Room where we track a whole series of metrics. Some of them are inputs and some of them are outputs, results, and obviously the inputs are easier to do and less important, and the outputs are vastly more important and more difficult to do.
“We track, for example, the numbers of attacks by area. We track the types of attacks by area. [W]e track a number of reports of intimidation, attempts at intimidation or assassination of government officials, for example. We track the extent to which people are supplying intelligence to our people so that they can go in and actually track down and capture or kill insurgents. We try to desegregate the people we’ve captured and look at what they are. Are they foreign fighters, Jihadist types? Are they criminals who were paid money to go do something like that? Are they former regime elements, Ba’athists? And we try to keep track of what those numbers are in terms of detainees and people that are processed in that way…. We probably look at 50, 60, 70 different types of metrics, and come away with them with an impression.”
And as it happens, though he didn’t mention it that day, the military were also assiduously counting corpses. We know that because last week they released figures to USA Today on how many insurgents U.S. forces have supposedly killed since the invasion of Iraq ended: 18,832 since June 2003; 4,882 “militants” so far in 2007 alone. That represents a leap of 25% in corpse-counting from the previous year. These previously derided body counts, according to American officials quoted in Stars and Stripes, now give the necessary “scale” and “context” to the fight in Iraq.
As the USA Today report points out, last year Centcom Commander John Abizaid had suggested that the forces of the Sunni insurgency numbered in the 10,000-20,000 range. If the released figures are accurate, nearly 25%-50% of that number must have been killed this year. (Who knows how many were wounded.) Add in suspected Sunni insurgents and terrorists incarcerated in American prisons in Iraq only in the “surge” months of 2007 — another 8,000 or so — and it suddenly looks as if something close to the full insurgency has essentially been turned into a ghost resistance between January and September of this year.
(Again, Vietnam had its equivalents. After the nationwide Tet Offensive in February 1968, for instance, the U.S. military requested more troops from the Johnson administration. They also claimed that the Vietnamese had lost 45,000 dead. As historian Marilyn Young wrote in her book, The Vietnam Wars, “UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg wanted to know what was enemy troop strength at the start of Tet. The answer: between 160,000 and 175,000. And the ratio of killed to wounded? Estimated at three and a half to one, answered the officer. ‘Well, if that’s true,’ Goldberg calculated quickly, ‘then they have no effective forces left in the field.’ This certainly made additional American forces seem redundant.”)
By now, it seems as if everyone on the American side is suddenly counting in public. In August, the President, for the first time, felt free to become the leader of a “body-count team” and proudly announced, in a televised speech to the American people, just how many insurgents U.S. forces were supposedly killing in each surge month (though the figures don’t gibe with the ones released by the military last week): “Our troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year.” General Petraeus, of course, arrived in Washington to deliver his “progress report” to Congress with his own Vietnam-style multicolored charts and graphs to display; and the military, having sworn not to do body counts, is now releasing figures daily — often large ones — on kills in Afghanistan and Iraq that regularly make the headlines. And every day, it seems, new Pentagon databases and squads of number-crunchers are revealed. By now, it’s a genuine carnage party.
Last week, Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reported in far greater depth than we’ve seen before on the metrics squads run out of the Pentagon and the U.S. command in Baghdad. In the process, she found some interesting discrepancies between the findings of the Pentagon’s data analysts and those working for Petraeus — “Civilian casualty numbers in the Pentagon’s latest quarterly report on Iraq last week, for example, differ significantly from those presented by the top commander in Iraq” — and this became the subject of much on-line analysis at sites like ThinkProgress.org and TalkingPointsMemo.com. But perhaps more interesting than these discrepancies was the size of the overall military counting operation.
DeYoung, for instance, interviewed Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Macomber, the “senior all-source intelligence analyst” in charge of a six-person team whose only task is “to compile [data] and track trends and analysis for General Petraeus” personally. And that team, in turn, is but a small part of a larger crew “far from the battlefield” that, DeYoung reports, includes “platoons of soldiers in Iraq and at the Pentagon assigned to crunch numbers — sectarian killings, roadside bombs, Iraqi forces trained, weapons caches discovered and others — in a constant effort to gauge how the war is going.”
Think of that for a moment. “Platoons” of military counters trying to count their way so high on a pile of Iraqi corpses and captured weapons that, someday, “progress” and even perhaps a glimmer of “success” might appear at the end of that dark, dark tunnel. That would be when, assumedly, the “stability” we represent would finally make its appearance. What Iraq would be by then is another matter entirely.
Counting to a Million and Beyond
Why would such “platoons” of counters be needed? One answer might be that the counting runs high indeed. On Monday, there was a revealing inside-the-fold piece in the New York Times on this subject. It was, on the surface, a modest good-news piece from a distinctly bad-news land. While the central government in Baghdad is now almost paralyzed, wrote James Glanz, its corrupt ministries unable to spend even small percentages of the oil moneys allotted to them for various reconstruction activities, local spending in some provinces may be significantly more effective (or, if you read the piece to the end, it may not). Here was the key passage:
“The capital budget for the entire country, including the provinces, was $6 billion in 2006 and $10 billion in 2007. But some national ministries spent as little as 15 percent of their share last year, citing problems such as a shortage of employees trained to write contracts, the flight of scientific and engineering expertise from the country and the danger from militias and the insurgency.”
Think about that: “a shortage of employees trained to write contracts”; “the flight of scientific and engineering expertise from the country” There’s something worth counting, but you might be doing it for a long, long time. Significant parts of what was once a large Iraqi professional class have, since the occupation, become “bus people.” They have fled the country in unknown numbers — though a recent Oxfam report indicates that, in Baghdad, some hospitals and universities have lost up to 80% of their staffs. These are part of a larger exodus of staggering dimensions. It is now estimated — nobody knows the real numbers — that there are at least 2.5 million Iraqis who have fled abroad since the Bush administration’s invasion ended. Up to 2.2 million more Iraqis have been dislodged from their homes, largely by sectarian violence, and turned into internal refugees.
And then, of course, there were the Iraqis who couldn’t flee — those corpses everyone is now so hot to count, so eager to measure progress upon. As in June 2006 with the door-to-door study that became the Lancet report, which suggested that 600,000 Iraqis might have died violently since the invasion of 2003, we have another survey of the dead. Again, it offers startling figures; and, once again, those figures, though produced by a reputable British survey outfit, ORB or Opinion Research Business, which has been polling in Iraq since 2005, were largely ignored in the mainstream media. As Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. wrote in a moving essay at his libertarian website, LewRockwell.com:
“How comfy we are all in the United States, as we engage in living-room debates about the US occupation of Iraq, whether ‘we’ are bringing them freedom and whether their freedom is really worth the sacrifice of so many of our men and women. We talk about whether war aims have really been achieved, how to exit gracefully, or whether we need a hyper-surge to finish this whole business once and for all…. But when ‘we’ cause the calamity, suddenly there is silence.”
A sample of 1,499 Iraqis 18 years old and up were asked: “How many members of your household, if any, have died as a result of the conflict in Iraq since 2003 (i.e. as a result of violence rather than a natural death such as old age)? Please note that I mean those who were actually living under your roof.” Nearly one of every two Baghdad households claimed to have lost a family member and the firm estimated that, overall, approximately 1.2 million Iraqis may have died violently since the invasion, which, if true, would put even the Rwandan genocide in the shade. Other estimates of Iraqi deaths are lower, but still staggering.
And that’s just the dead. Not the wounded. Not the mentally damaged or the shell-shocked or the deranged. Not those thousands in northern Iraq who are now coming down with cholera, thanks to worsening sanitary conditions and the unavailability of potable water. There — in a country which may have lost 1.2 million people to violence in four-plus years — is where our leading presidential candidates, many pundits (liberal as well as conservative), and significant numbers of Congressional representatives agree we must remain in some form beyond at least 2013, for reasons of “stability,” lest a “genocide” occur.
If the polls are to be believed, here in this country only the American people disagree, and they obviously don’t count for much.
So while we hunker into Iraq, the numbers-crunchers will undoubtedly redouble their efforts for the next “progress report,” upcoming in March 2008, from General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They are undoubtedly already preparing their bar charts and multi-colored graphs. Out in the field, the pressure on the troops to provide the stats that will make those graphs reflect “progress,” that will allow units to achieve “success” and commanders to advance, will only increase.
The lesson of these last metrics-filled surge months is already clear enough: We count, they don’t.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt