Enemy Body Counts Revived by Military Spokesmen

The controversial Vietnam-era practice of reporting enemy body counts as a way of guaging progress has quietly been revived by military leaders.

Enemy Body Counts Revived (WaPo, A1)

Eager to demonstrate success in Iraq, the U.S. military has abandoned its previous refusal to publicize enemy body counts and now cites such numbers periodically to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations.

The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon’s leadership. Military spokesmen in Washington and Baghdad said they knew of no written directive detailing the circumstances under which such figures should be released or the steps that should be taken to ensure accuracy. Instead, they described an ad hoc process that has emerged over the past year, with authority to issue death tolls pushed out to the field and down to the level of division staffs.

So far, the releases have tended to be associated either with major attacks that netted significant numbers of enemy fighters or with lengthy operations that have spanned days or weeks. On Saturday, for instance, the U.S. military reported 20 insurgents killed and one captured in raids on five houses suspected of sheltering foreign fighters in a town near the Syrian border. Six days earlier, the 2nd Marine Division issued a statement saying an estimated 70 suspected insurgents had died in the Ramadi area as a result of three separate airstrikes by fighter jets and helicopters. That Oct. 16 statement reflected some of the pitfalls associated with releasing such statistics. The number was immediately challenged by witnesses, who said many of those killed were not insurgents but civilians, including women and children.

Privately, several uniformed military and civilian defense officials expressed concern that the pendulum may have swung too far, with body counts now creeping into too many news releases from Iraq and Afghanistan. They also questioned the effectiveness of citing such figures in conflicts where the enemy has shown itself capable of rapidly replacing dead fighters and where commanders acknowledge great uncertainty about the total size of the enemy force.

The use of the “body count” is problematic on a number of levels. First and foremost, as noted in the piece, its association with Vietnam has forever tainted it. This is doubly true in a counter-insurgency operation that has many critics citing inaccurate comparisons with that conflict. Moreover, it takes the focus away from the real mission at hand: providing security, establishing a self-sustaining government, and building trust. Killing insurgents may be a necessary means to all of those things but it is not an end to itself.

That said, it’s hard to blame the military for using these numbers when talking to reporters. People like statistics because they have an air of scientific precision. Given that the papers are full of figures of how many people are killed in each and every terrorist/insurgent attack, the desire to provide countervailing evidence is understandable.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Uncategorized, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    There’s another factor, here, too.

    The numbers being presented, always assuming accuracy, of course, likely mean a number of non-combatants loves saved, given that the people we’re fighting have shown a willingness to target civilians.

    I don’t recall this dynamic being quite so prevelant in ‘nam.

  2. Anderson says:

    But are we STILL not even interested in counting how many Iraqi civilians we gun down in traffic, etc.?

    That’s one of the more damning aspects of the occupation.

    Imagine, if you will, a Union general in 1866 being interviewed by a reporter:

    REPORTER: How many Southern civilians have been killed by Union troops since the occupation began, sir?

    GENERAL: Oh, we can’t be bothered to count how many Rebs we shoot, sir.

    REPORTER: But what about the women and children?

    GENERAL: A Reb is a Reb is a Reb, my good fellow.

    That seems to be our attitude.

  3. Well, the Washington Post regularly counts American dead in a feature that frequently accompanies its Iraq coverage. Guess that’s another rule in this war–we’re only supposed to record our own losses, not our enemy’s.

  4. LJD says:

    “But are we STILL not even interested in counting how many Iraqi civilians we gun down in traffic, etc.? A Reb is a Reb is a Reb, my good fellow.
    That seems to be our attitude.”

    You have to truly be a dyed in the wool liberal to even think like that. Perhaps Anderson can elaborate on his inside information about the U.S. counting “collateral damage” in the enemy body count. Unless, he just made it up, for some sensational, anti-war, B.S. reason.

    Nevermind the overwhelming number of civilians killed by terrorists.

    Nevermind the U.S. casualties, who were not even engaged in force on force combat, rather than serving in security roles- Protecting the Iraqi people who want their own government.

  5. martin says:

    Again history repeates itself. When the miltary heiarchey can not come up with a definative ansawer,(have we won a battle today). No, but we havw a body count) it falls back on a stick your head in the sand, that way we will not hurt feeling and be political correct.

    It was tryed in 1965 and did not work, now in 2005 are leaders are trying a failed phylofey

  6. Sherwin Chow says:

    During the Vietnam War as I recall, General Westmoreland was accused of inflating the enemy and allies casualties. There was even a trial later on concerning the above. To counter the anti-war movement and the low ratings of the Bush’s Iraqi War Group of neo-cons, they are desperate to show that the US and the Coalition of the Willing is succeeding. But the opposite is true. Making Body counts of the enemy will be inaccurate and greatly exaggerated to sooth the War mongers who got us in this war to begin with without no justifications. What should happen is putting these neo-cons on trial for their lust in invading a sovereign country that posed no threat to the US or it’s neighbors.

  7. Eric says:

    It is about time we start listing the number of these lowlife we finally have put and end too. The more we get rid of these so called enemy combatants the better the world will be. Enough of what other countries think about us, who cares anyway, and start doing what we should have done along time ago and not appease these lowlifes.

  8. Interesting blog, even more so as my first time to contribute to one.

    My Son, Army Spec. Anthony D. Kinslow, was KIA June 13, 2005 in the Ramadi area while on point keeping a road open for his brigade. While on top of a bridge, 4 grenades were lobbed from under the bridge into his ‘V’ and killed Anthony and his Seargent. Ok.. enough of tryin to get your sympathy.

    One of my questions to the members of his Platoon during a Fallen Soldiers Memorial Ceremony at Ft. Carson in Colorado late September was,…. “Do you guys keep count?” I mean… Fighter pilots have kill marks on their jets. Football players, at least Ohio State, have numerous Buckeye stickers on their helmets. Don’t get me wrong.. I’m not asking for elementary gold / silver stickers for ‘kills’ in combat. The answer to me was a protected ‘No.’

    In my mind, we have done well over there. As spoiled as we were with the success rate from our first invasion of Desert Storm, we are still looking at less than ONE PERCENT casualty rate based on the number of military there. Personally, I would like to see the count come back. I know my Son’s ‘number’ of the nearly 2000 thus far. I would like to see our estimated count of the ‘other’ side. Maybe for justification. Maybe for the insurgents to realize their eventual extinction.

    This isn’t meant to start a flaming discussion, but my own personal view, as I have my next oldest boy being deployed in December. PFC. Owen Kinslow is the driver of the latest A2 and in a safer ‘can’ than Anthony was as Gunner atop his Hum-Vee. Assuming he keeps his butt in there.

    my 2 cents

  9. kdcfd4 says:

    Body counts?? Damn how stupid! Did this country not learn anything form the Vietnam war?? Body counts were so inflated and the enemy should have all been killed yrs before the war was officially over! But we know that ddint happen. Now here is this narrow minded non- history knowing country doing the exact same thing again! But than again being “over there” is the exact same thing this country didnt learn from!

  10. Rich Rybka says:

    I say that we do whatever it is that we must do to put an end to this war. If counting enemy KIAs will achieve that end, then let’s do it.

    The enemy in Iraq is difficult to determine because they all look like civilians. When they’re shooting at you, who will differentiate between the “good” and the “bad”? Certainly not the press and certainly not the relatives of those insurgents.

    You heard the old saying, “Shoot ’em all and let God sort ’em out”. Sounds brutal? Well, that’s how war is and always has been.

  11. Terry says:

    To Mr. Kinslow. We all owe you and your family a debt of gratitude we can never repay. And to all others who have given the ultimate price for service to our incredible country and for the benefit of those who have now been freed from tyranny and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    We must have some measurable way to show our efforts are having positive effects. Let’s show more than body counts. Let’s show hospitals, medical clinics, advanced medicines and equipment made available, schools, lives saved, clean water systems, roads, bridges etc. And let’s show how many foreign terrorists are killed while they try to kill and maim our troops, kill and maim innocent Iraqi women and children, and kill and maim newly freed Iraqi men who are trying to learn how to police and govern themselves.

    It may be just me, but I believe the majority of terrorists and “insurgents” are shipped in to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill and destroy. Let’s make that known, “count’em, stuff’em and mount’em”
    (just kidding, but think of the horror they bring to the lives of the women and children who have lost arms and legs and eyes to the bombs!).

    So yes, count them and all other statistics, and let us also compare these events to battles so dearly won in Europe in WWI and WWII, and the identical terrorist tactics used by the German “werewolves” after the end of WWII in Germany, France, Austria and eastern block countries, and the thousands of dead involved in those years of rebuilding Europe.

    Let us realize the major differences between the USA and other types of governments when we are victorious in battle and war. When socialist and communist regimes conquered any country the result was a continuing slaughter, with thousands and even millions dead caused by the “victors”. As opposed to socialist dictators like Stalin and his like-minded types who took over the Eastern Block countries and Poland and half of Germany, we have brought a new opportunity for Freedom, a new Constitution, a Representative Government and Freedom for a tortured people. Forget WMD’s, this has been a most Noble and Worthy undertaking.

    Ask the socialists: Adolph Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Tse Tung, Dung Shao Ping, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and other enemies of freedom, “how limitations of freedoms and gun control worked for them”. We would all be amazed at parallels of how they succeeded, and what the liberals of today want for America. These same liberals/socialists/DNC Democrats do not want successes in Iraq to result in a free people who govern themselves or for them to have freedoms like we enjoy here.

    And by the way, many don’t even know the Nazi idealists were socialists. Here is a quote for you: “As socialists we are opponents of the Jews because we see in the Hebrews the incarnation of capitalism, of the misuse of the nation’s goods.” – Joseph Goebbels- Hitler’s Henchman.

    Think about it. No socialist is really a friendly socialist, especially after they have power over your freedoms, to limit or remove ANY of your freedoms. See also how the terrorists have similarities to the liberals/socialists.

    If your wife, son, daughter, mother or father were killed or maimed by these “insurgents,” would it be you saying: “let’s count’em, stuff’em and mount’em?” Maybe not, but you would understand the feeling, and the thought.

  12. John says:

    I believe that body counts should be used because: We need to know how many terrorists we killed (I really hate using the word “insurgents..makes ’em sound nicer)…They deserve to die. I proudly am a citizen of the USA, and I salute all of our Armed forces. As for those left-wing-crack-head-hippies, I doubt that they lost any loved one in Iraq, Afghanistan, or on Sept. 11 and think that we should be nice to them for doing it. Bodies counts of terrorists will also demoralize the foriegn suicidal bombers from coming.

  13. D. Rose says:


  14. D. Urie says:

    I can’t really imagine why anyone would care if “body counts” are posted. It would simply be more useless information coming from that area of the world. It does, however, grant some vindication to the American soldiers and civilian contractors being murdered on a daily basis. Much of the debate seems to be centered on the distinction between civilian and combatant. In Iraq, the Iraqi Army was defeated. They are all civilians until they pick up a weapon to use it against American Military and Civilians or aid those that do. Villagers watched a group of insurgents plant a bomb in an Iraqi road that murdered 19 American Soldiers. They watched for hours and did nothing for fear of their own lives. Their inaction, in my opinion, makes them targets for the American Military. Harsh, maybe. A stronger message needs to be delivered and if announcing total body counts helps deliver that message, so be it.