Study body counts to learn about our wars: how we fight, why we lose

Summary: Our wars simple to those who see only bad guys to be killed, but appear as a mystery to many Americans. Unnecessarily, since our journalists tell us all we need to know. Unfortunately these few key facts are buried amidst a flood of trivia. This post gives a small but telling example by examining what experts tell us about body counts, showing how they reveal the key insights about US tactics and progress, both now and in a historical context. Learning is the first step to governing ourselves. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

River of Blood

At an early meeting {1962} about psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.  But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.
— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

Body counts as a measure of success

“When Harkins firs arrived in Saigon {Jan 1962} to head the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) he told reporters that he was an optimist and that he was going to have optimists on his staff. The reports he sent to Washington were titled “The Headway Report”… {Halberstam}.

Our military uses body counts as a measure of success today for the same reason they used them in Vietnam: we plan to win by attrition through firepower, yet lack intelligence about targets and results. Body counts can be estimated (aka guessed at), and provide the public with metrics showing progress — a high-priority necessity in the America way of war. Whether pointing to our assassination programs (al Qaeda’s #3 killed for the 7th time!) or our bombing, it shows that we’re winning — always.

For example, see this good news from our Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, in an in an interview on Al Arabiya News Channel on 21 January….

“{Airstrikes have} taken more than half {of ISIS’s leadership}. We estimate that the airstrikes have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq … {and} destroyed more than a thousand of ISIS vehicle inside Iraq. {These numbers were} not so important in themselves … they do show the degradation of ISIS.”

A laundry list of wins in a speech by Hawk Carlisle (General, USAF; commander of Air Combat Command) on 1 June 2015 {Air Force Magazine), similar to the others we’ve heard during the past 14 years….

“We’re taking a serious toll on their morale and capability. {Since last fall there have been} “about 4,200 strikes … 14,000 weapons have been dropped. We’ve taken about 13,000 enemy fighters off the battlefield … and despite what has been [said], we have regained territory, about 25% {of what ISIS had held in Iraq} … {The air campaign was} “simply the most precise {with the} lowest civilian casualties in history. … We’ve also taken out their cash cows {including} about 90% {of their} oil-collection and -refining capacity. … We’ve done some significant work {destroying their ability} to finance what they’re trying to do. …{The Iraqi-Syrian battlefield is the} most complicated, most complex {ever} … an extreme {challenge to determine} who’s fighting who, who’s a good guy, and who’s a bad guy.”

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken describes the light at the end of the tunnel to listeners of France Inter radio on 3 June (per Reuters).

“We have seen a lot of losses within Daesh since the start of this campaign, more than 10,000. … It will end up having an impact. … At the start of this campaign {we} said it would take time. We have conceived a three-year plan and we’re nine months into it.”

This tension between reality and public relations clearly shows in the news, if you look for it. For some clear analysis see “Why Body Counts Are a Bad Metric for Judging Islamic State Fight” by Terry Atlas at Bloomberg — Excerpt…

U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and independent analysts questioned the accuracy and value of the number. It’s at best a rough estimate relying on limited intelligence capabilities and a poor measure of how the war is going because the militant group appears to be able to replace its losses with new recruits, they said.

The U.S.-led air campaign “hasn’t slowed them down,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview.

… Two U.S. intelligence officials said the 10,000 figure is a rough guess that could be off by 30% or more, probably on the high side.

The absence of reliable human intelligence makes it almost impossible to measure the effect of the air campaign, the intelligence officials said. Information from aerial and satellite reconnaissance, intercepted communications and moderate Syrian rebels is limited and unreliable, they said.

… Warren at the Pentagon said that instead of assessing progress based on estimates of fighters killed in action, Defense Department planners focus on capabilities, such as Islamic State’s funding and resupply. No matter how many have been killed, the current rough estimate for active Islamic State militants remains in the range of 20,000 to 30,000, Warren told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Estimates of Islamic State’s membership have been “all over the place,” said Max Abrahms, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston who specializes in Islamic militant groups.

For more about the DoD’s history with body counts from Vietnam to today, see “Body Counts Are Back” by Joshua Keating at Slate. But the endless flow of “news” serves to obscure of vision of the important things, as they are lost in a tide of trivia — journalists’ search for clickbait headlines.

Unfortunately journalists seldom probe the deep questions, such as why we result to a metric they and we know to be so misleading. The obvious answer is that we have no other. Just as in Vietnam we rely on the trinity of firepower, search and destroy missions, and popular front militia (in Syria and Iraq we have only 2 of these). It’s a form of warfare that inherently provides little intel. For more about this see The key to understanding our wars: the trinity of COIN and The solution to jihad: kill and contain our foes. Give war another chance!


The problem with body counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
— From William Bruce Cameron’s Informal sociology,: A casual introduction to sociological thinking (1963).

People usually to do what their organization tracks and rewards. Body counts provide the kind of “hard” numbers that US managers prize, and so can divert attention and resources from more important but less easily tracked goals.

Body counts measure the cost of war

“Wars are measured in body counts. The news carries a running tally. You change the world with rivers of blood.”
— Terrorist leader Saleem Ulman, from the NCIS-LA episode “Truth or Consequences”

Body counts serve a valuable purpose. The Costs of War Project tracks the costs of our wars, including Civilians killed and wounded and Americans and their allies killed and wounded. There is also iCasualties tracking our casualties in Afghanistan, and the Iraq Body Count website.

The numbers increase inexorably rise, with no end in sight or any rational purpose. We can do better.

“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
— Lord Salisbury, discussing Great Britain’s policy on the Eastern Question (1877).

Bleeding eye
“Bleeding Eye” by C. Bayraktaroglu

Other posts in this series: why does America keep losing?

These matters are more extensively discussed in the previous posts in this series.

  1. Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?
  2. Does America have the best military in the world?
  3. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  4. Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win — a summary at Martin van Creveld’s website.
  5. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.

For More Information

For deeper analysis of the “10,00 ISIS fighters killed see this analysis by the always interesting Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal. The picture “Bleeding Eye” by C. Bayraktaroglu is posted with the artist’s generous permission.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Grand Strategy, especially these explaining why our opponents keep winning…



7 thoughts on “Study body counts to learn about our wars: how we fight, why we lose”

  1. Fabius Maximus,

    Good post. Couple thoughts:

    1) anecdotally, I noticed body count being stressed the more desperate our position in Afghanistan became. There were times that it seemed pretty irrelevant the number of bodies we estimated we killed and instead the number of aid packages delivered and ANA/ANP we trained was of greater importance.

    Other metrics the government has touted are weapons sent and money raised/ though actual costs of war are usually obscured intentionally, but only body count seems to assure war supporters of possible victory when the enemy is on the move.

    2) body counts measure intensity of a conflict but intensity but is not necessarily a good measure of the conflicts progress. If both sides escalate a conflict the body count will rise more rapidly without any sort of progress towards resolution.

    3) costs in war are relative. What is too much to pay is subjective and hard to measure without hindsight, but awareness of the costs can help us make better judgements about how effective or ineffective out leadership is at prosecuting wars. It’s for that reason that I’m guessing that the news is awash in news of body counts. Obama cannot be losing, America can not be losing, and so the metric shown is one that assures that our enemy has paid a “high” price and so we should feel more secure in our eventual victory.

    PF Khans

  2. Proxy Jihadis are succeeding however!
    Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq
    Terror trial collapses after fears of deep embarrassment to security services

    Still playing game described in this book! “With some of these radical Islamic forces, Britain has been in a permanent, strategic alliance to secure fundamental, long-term foreign policy goals; with others, it has been a temporary marriage of convenience to achieve specific short-term outcomes.”
    Secret Affairs, By Mark Curtis

    Camop Bucca also midwifed ISIS! It followed opposite policy of Abu Ghraib! But that was because Bush had decided on a “redirection” as described in Seymour Hersh article of same title.

    How a US prison camp helped create ISIS

    Judicial Watch is following all these games and getting docs through FOIA requests/law suits!.

    1. Winston,

      As I’ve said before, I suspect you’re confused because you consume info indiscriminately — not distinguishing by the source.

      The Guardian articles show something I and others have long pointed out: that we use proxies for their short-term utility, irrespective of possible long-term effects. That’s the standard policy in proxy wars (one seldom finds nice guys willing to be our proxy armies), but has had a bad record when dealing with jihadists. Further evidence is the replacement of secular regimes with Islamic regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and perhaps Syria.

      Other links conflate this with simple mistakes. Prisons in Iraq work like those in the US, exposing prisoners to contagions we seek to contain — not spread — so that people come out worse than they went in. It’s stupdity — not policy — at work.

      Judicial Watch is run by right-wing hacks (but lavishly funded, like so much on the Right). Their headlines are often unconnected to anything in the documents. The New York Post is a tabloid. If they tell you it’s sunny outside, check first.

  3. I was following this pretty closely at the time, the American invasion of Iraq and then the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad of Sunnah. I was following the blogs pretty closely and there was some extreme nasty going on here, fighting house to house and people fleeing to Damascus or other points west. Among the Arabs this was a pretty big deal, with financial support from the gulf to militias in that country to counter Shiite militias. Don’t have the smoking gun, but seems likely to me ISIS was born of all this. These guys. They were were kicked out of Baghdad and they are not happy about this. They want to come back.

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