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
– Shi'ite, 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 Nouri 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 Web site, "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, D.C., 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
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 10, 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, Gen. David Petraeus, who, for some time, has been
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 Brig. Gen. 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 10 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 percent 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 Pvt. 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,
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. Lt. Gen. 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
"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 was also
assiduously counting corpses. We know that because last week they released figures
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 percent 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 percent
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." Gen. 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
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
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
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 Gen. 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
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
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
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 percent 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
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 Web site, 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
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 Gen.
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
The lesson of these last metrics-filled surge months is already clear enough:
We count, they don't.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt