Belaboring the Obvious

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Different Sort of Body Count....

Thanks to the Vietnam war, we now have the rather inglorious term, "body count," in the lexicon of human suffering.

For those few unfamiliar with the concept, the body count was the almost daily summation by the military in that war of the number of enemy killed, which was intended by our military to provide some hard numerical indication of progress in a war that defied all traditional means of assessing progress.

Some have blamed the practice on Robert McNamara's obsession with measurable, quantifiable numbers to predict outcomes and manage that war. This might be true to a degree--McNamara's obsessions with what Donald Rumsfeld would lightheartedly call "the metrics" was well-known in government, so it would seem at least plausible that his attitudes and methods would spread virally through the Pentagon.

Of greater likelihood is that the military commanders in that war were simply floundering around for something, anything, with which to convince themselves that they were winning. After all, brute force had won in WWII, why wasn't it working in Vietnam? So, numbers were like a salve them. One didn't have to focus on the fact that they just kept coming at you, no matter how many of them you killed, if you could report--with a straight face--that you'd killed more of them yesterday than the day before. And, if you killed more of them than they killed of yours, that somehow made the growing number of your own dead somehow more tolerable. It sounded like progress, even if it really wasn't.

From WWII onward, mass civilian casualties and deaths became SOP, and it's since been commonly accepted that in many large-scale attacks on the enemy, the ratio of civilian to military deaths would approach or exceed 9:1 or 10:1. In Vietnam, civilians were often lumped in with the insurgents and regular NVA to inflate the body count (with the corollary effect of depressing counts of civilian deaths). No one was really fooled by such accounting gyrations--turning large sectors of the countryside into free-fire zones and making saturation bombing from the air a general policy inevitably meant killing many more civilians.

"Smart" weapons were supposed to change that, and were advertised as such. Their "precision" would greatly diminish civilian deaths, would make warfare "cleaner" and "more efficient." The first Gulf war introduced the American public to their use, and the military hyped them relentlessly, even when they didn't work, or they hit something that had no military value because of faulty intelligence, or their after-effects continued to kill or injure civilians long after the attack had ceased.

What happened because of that hype? The public, understandably, believed the military. They actually expected civilians to be spared the direct and indirect suffering which war inevitably brings. The "video-game" presentation of that war also removed the public an additional step from the reality that civilians are disproportionately affected by war. Seeing a fuzzy infrared image recorded on videotape of a target being obliterated from a distance invites unquestioning belief when the soldier/narrator affirms that the target (i.e., the enemy) has been destroyed.

In our current wars, however, distinguishing civilian from armed enemy is as difficult as it was in Vietnam, and the intelligence necessary to define the right target is just as ephemeral and lacking in precision as it was in Vietnam. So, civilians are getting killed in larger numbers than the military would like to admit. Quite predictably, this has given rise to a new wrinkle on the military body count--the artificially-adjusted civilian body count.

When a wedding party behaves as many do in the rural Mideast and Central Asia, and consummate the ceremony by parading outside with automatic weapons, firing into the sky, often enough to be embarrassing, the nearby U.S. military senses threat and orders a few bombs to be dropped on the threat. Result? Dead civilians. When reporters on the ground count up the bodies and body parts, take pictures, visit the morgues, interview the relatives, the numbers generally agree. Different press reports often concur about the damage done.

However, whose estimates are consistently lower? The U.S. military's. This past week's bombing attack on the Afghan villages of Gerani, Gangabad and Koujaha, in Farah province, is a case in point. The UK Independent reports 147 civilians dead in a prolonged bombing attack, an action which prompted riots in the provincial capital. The U.S. military's response? That "those numbers are extremely over-exaggerated." Even Robert Gates implies the same. U.S. military investigators are also implying that the Taliban is actually responsible for the damage through the use of grenades, even though there are clearly large bomb craters in the villages.

When is the military going to realize that prevarications about civilian deaths doesn't win hearts and minds? The people on the ground, on the receiving end, may be scared, may exaggerate somewhat for emphasis to the press, but, bomb craters and smashed houses and broken bodies simply don't appear from nowhere. When the U.S. military claims only fifty dead, it means they don't have a friggin' clue: there are still--at least--fifty civilians dead for no good reason. Lying about the numbers and then, effectively, calling the victims liars, is a sure fire way not to win hearts and minds....

But, hey, it sure helps the metrics....


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