Earlier this month, a reporter asked the question that usually comes up when the US gets involved in a sustained military campaign. Just how many enemy troops — in this case, Islamic State foot soldiers — have US forces killed in more than five months of aerial attacks?
The military’s answer was basically the same given to all similar questions going back more than a decade. Counting the dead is “not the goal”, said Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby, a Navy admiral.
Since the Vietnam War, with its gruesome and inflated US tallies of enemy dead, the Pentagon has denied keeping body counts. But, in fact, the military does add up the number of enemy fighters it believes it has killed — and proudly boasts of the totals in official documents that it never intends for public circulation.
The disconnect over wartime body counts reflects a yawning gap between the military’s public face and its private culture.
As early as the 19th century, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz warned that counting enemy dead was a misleading measure of an army’s effectiveness, to say nothing of a war’s soundness.
“Casualty reports,” Clausewitz wrote, “are never accurate.”
A body count is “no accurate measure of the loss of morale”, the celebrated military theorist emphasised. “The abandonment of the fight remains the only authentic proof of victory.”
In other words, nobody really knows how many of your enemy you need to kill to compel the remaining forces to surrender.
Still, body counts were all the rage during the long US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was, to a large degree, because of US defence secretary Robert McNamara’s analytical personality and his conviction that all things, even bloody protracted warfare, could be measured, understood, predicted.
The US defence department initially claimed to have killed 951,000 enemy soldiers in Vietnam — a number that Pentagon officials later admitted was inflated by one third.
But the heavy loss of life did not prevent North Vietnamese forces from fighting the Americans to a standstill and later seizing control of South Vietnam after US troops withdrew.
After the Vietnam War, the Pentagon publicly rejected body counts as a useful metric of military effectiveness and good strategy. During the 1991 Gulf War, General H Norman Schwarzkopf, top commander of US and allied forces and a combat veteran of two tours of the Vietnam War, repeatedly denied tallying enemy dead.
“Body count means nothing,” Schwartzkopf told reporters. “Absolutely nothing.”
US Army General Tommy Franks repeated Schwarzkopf’s sentiment in 2002, when Franks commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan. “You know, we don’t do body counts,” Franks said when a reporter asked about rumours that US and allied troops had killed as many as 1,000 Taliban fighters in the first year of fighting.
“Ultimately, the numbers are not knowable,” chimed in Navy Captain Frank Thorp, then a spokesman for US Central Command, which oversees wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.
“And besides, that number may not be an indication of anything,” Thorp added, echoing Clausewitz.
But despite assertions by top officers that the US doesn’t count the dead, body counts began creeping into official statements from lower-ranking commanders and military spokespeople around the time of the US Marines’ assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, in November 2004. Officers told reporters the Marines killed as many as 1,600 insurgents in Fallujah.
The use of body counts returned roughly around the same time the administration of US president George W Bush was doubling down on its claim that the US was winning the war in Iraq. In May 2005, vice-president Dick Cheney famously said the insurgency in Iraq was “in the last throes”, even though the insurgency rages on a decade later.
Despite efforts by Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of US troops remain in these two countries today. The US-led air campaign continues to target Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria.
Eleven years after Fallujah, the Pentagon has again suppressed any officer’s impulse to publicly mention an official body count. Hence Kirby’s insistence that adding up the dead is “not the goal”.
In reality, the body counts have merely gone underground, so to speak. Spokespeople deny tallying the dead. But the official annual histories of various military commands continue to trumpet high body counts.
The armed forces usually classify these histories as “for official use only”. The documents, however, are accessible via the Freedom of Information Act, though partially redacted.
The Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency, which overseas drones, spy planes and intelligence analysts, claims in its official history for 2012 that just one unit — the 361st Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Group based in Florida — helped Special Operations Forces kill at least 1,210 enemy combatants that year.
From June to December 2010, US commandos killed 2,000 “rank-and-file” insurgents in Afghanistan, according to that year’s annual history for Air Force Special Operations Command. The command’s AC-130 gunship planes with their side-firing cannons alone killed 1,200 enemy soldiers in 2010, according to the history.
These are just three examples of official body counts that the military never intended for public consumption.
There are undoubtedly many more. Once the war on Islamic State is old enough to reflect in units’ official histories, it’s possible that the public will finally have access to the military’s count of dead Islamic State fighters.
Not that those numbers should mean anything.
With few exceptions since Vietnam, the Pentagon has shied away from boasting about enemy dead, lest the kill totals imply that the US is winning its wars — making a promise the military can’t keep.
In constantly telling themselves, in confidence, just how many of their opponents they believe they’ve slain, the armed forces seem to be reassuring themselves that the violence they inflict — and the violence the enemy inflicts in return — is definitely worth it.