Undercounting deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan

September 10, 2009

Bernd Debusmann– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

By most counts, the death toll of U.S. soldiers in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at 5,157 in the second week of September. Add at least 1,360 private contractors working for the U.S. and the number tops 6,500.

Contractor deaths and injuries (around 30,000 so far) are rarely reported but they highlight America’s steadily growing dependence on private enterprise. It’s a dependence some say has slid into incurable addiction. Contractor ranks in Iraq and Afghanistan have swollen to just under a quarter million. They outnumber American troops in Afghanistan and they almost match uniformed soldiers in Iraq.

The present ratio of about one contractor for every uniformed member of the U.S. armed forces is more than double that of every other major conflict in American history, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That means the world’s only superpower cannot fight its war nor protect its civilian officials, diplomats and embassies without support from contractors.

“As the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have progressed, the military services, defense agencies and other stakeholder agencies…continue to increase their reliance on contractors. Contractors are now literally in the center of the battlefield in unprecedented numbers,” according to a report to Congress by the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In previous wars, the military police protected bases and the battle space as other military service members engaged and pursued the enemy,” said the report. In listing the 1,360-plus contractor casualties, it noted that criticism of the present system and suggestions for reforming it “in no way diminish their sacrifices.”

So why are they not routinely added to military casualty counts? And why should they? A full accounting for total casualties is important because both Congress and the public tend to gauge a war’s success or failure by the size of the force deployed and the number of killed and wounded, according to George Washington university scholar Steven Schooner.

In other words: the higher the casualty number, the more difficult it is for political and military leaders to convince a sceptical public that a war is worth fighting, particularly a war that promises to be long, such as the conflict in Afghanistan. Polls show that a majority of Americans already think the Afghan war is not worth fighting.

Figures on deaths and injuries among the vast ranks of civilians in war zones are tracked by the U.S. Department of Labor on the basis of claims under an insurance policy, the Defense Base Act, which all U.S. contracting companies and subcontractors must take out for the civilians they employ outside the United States.


The Labor Department compiles the statistics on a quarterly basis but only releases them in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. This can take weeks. The Department gives no details of the nationalities of the contractors, saying that doing so would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” under the U.S. Privacy Act.

Writing in last autumn’s Parameters, the quarterly journal of the U.S. Army War College, Schooner said that an accurate tally was critical to any discussion of the costs and benefits of the military’s efforts in the wars. What’s more, the American public needs to know that their government is delegating to the private sector “the responsibility to stand in harm’s way and, if required, die for America.”

Schooner wrote it was troubling that few Americans considered the deaths of contractors relevant or significant even though many of them performed roles carried out by uniformed military only a generation ago. “Many…concede that they perceive contractor personnel as expendable profiteers, adventure seekers, cowboys, or rogue elements not entitled to the same respect or value due to the military.”

That’s not surprising after a series of ugly incidents involving armed security contractors. They make up for a small proportion of the total (about 8 percent) but account for almost all the headlines that have deepened negative perceptions and prompted labels from mercenary and merchant of death to “the coalition of the billing.”

In the most notorious incident, two years ago, employees of the company then known as Blackwater opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square, killing 17 Iraqis. Five of the Blackwater shooters, who were working for the Department of State, have been indicted on manslaughter and weapons charges.

The Pentagon describes private contractors as a “force multiplier” because they let soldiers concentrate on military missions. Some of the actions of private security contractors could be termed a “perception multiplier.” Such as the after-hours antics of contractors from the company ArmorGroup North America guarding the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Shaking off the image of rogues became even more difficult for private security contractors after a Washington-based watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, accompanied a detailed report on misconduct and morale problems among the guard force with photographs showing nearly nude, drunken employees in a variety of obscene poses and fondling each other.

Whether contractors, even rogue elements and cowboys, should not be counted in the toll of American wars is another matter. Doing so would be part of the transparency Barack Obama promised when he ran for president.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

‘Contractors, even rogue elements and cowboys’ and mercenaries and enemies alike, they all experience: ‘The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen.

Add Wasteland, TS Elliot.

There are no winners in war, it saps cash flow, precious reserves and life dry. It also messes up the environment.

Those stars on ‘strike’ maps are not gold stars, they are black stars.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

I have a close friend, ex-Marine who just got laid off (thanks to 8 years of Bush/GOP policy, but I digress.
He is leaving in one week for Afghanistan as a contractor, out of immediate need for money for his family. And we are concerned about this very subject as we know about the casulty potential and record. The government under Bush allowed this, now it’s coming back to bite us.

Posted by Scott Johnson | Report as abusive

Hello Bernd,
I don’t see why you and many other so concerned about mercenaries. Your argument about ‘nearly nude, drunken’ employees doesn’t stand. Every Armed Force (US/IDF/Russia/Iraq etc) as well as mercenaries have rogue members. Some like US/IDF implement effective monitoring/policing that keep problem checked. That is the reason why you know about it. Most others armies including Iraq/Russia don’t police own armed forces so you don’t know and you don’t care. Given the scale of operation all these notorious US accidents just drop in sea. Iraq army and police abuse power and harass own citizen by far more often than ‘nearly nude, drunken’ mercenaries. It is wrong perception that Ill discipline unique to mercenaries. Do you know stories about Russian army in Chechnya or Georgian Army in Ossetia?

Check Africa, where national armed forces, and UN peace keepers notorious for racketeering/raping/plundering etc. At the same time mercenaries were able quickly resolved many conflicts. Mercenaries defended Bosnia. Mercenaries protect contractors while they are rebuilding Iraq/Afghanistan.

Another example Executive Outcomes offered help to PREVENT Rwanda genocide. US rejected…

France employs permanent mercenary force – French Foreign Legion. –It allow quickly deploy force with little public outcry about casualties and bring our sons home.

Check ref: http://www.sandline.com/hotlinks/dogs_of _peace.html

When I talk about mercenaries I am talking about companies formed by soldiers from Western armies.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

As if economic disparity is not undercounted in the western world also.

Posted by Render | Report as abusive

War has through history been very bloody in deed.If we think this current President with no exsperience of any kind will assist in anyway will only be misguided by the current regime in Office.America needs to return to it’s
first priority is Honoring God instead of a leadership
of Pagans and despits.

Posted by John McMackin | Report as abusive

So we are resourceful and find ways to achieve a goal without adding to government employment. Where is the problem?

Posted by Guy Thompto | Report as abusive

I was drafted into the army and went to Vietnam and was a crew chief on a Huey. Got out but returned to work in V.N. In the “Grey Army” (we wore grey uniforms)as a contract employee with L.S.I.
I worked as a civilian in Vietnam for over 3 years. I usually lived off base and learned that most individuals had no real idea of what was going on. The war was not the north against the south. It was more of a war against the corrupt Saigon government who we were supporting. The poor people in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the U.S. were the casualties.
Many of my friends who worked in Vietnam moved on to work in Iran until fell, from corruption. Now we continue to support corrupt governments…for what? to help the poor and needy of these countries?
We need to have a military dedicated to helping support the needy in the world. Not those in power. Many years ago, on TV, I saw a reporter standing in refugee camp, perhaps in northern Africa, and after showing the terrible conditions he said something like, “What we are doing here will result in individuals growing up to hate America”

Posted by Steven Henderson | Report as abusive

The same could be said for reporters, camera crews, and free lance journalists/documentary producers. They too are profiting off of war even though they are doing a job they view as important. The temptation to demonize contractors and call them profiteers but not label the media likewise is hypocrisy. Both are making a profit, both are doing a job, and both view their jobs as an important contribution. If we did away with both then there would still be wars so that argument need not be raised.

Posted by Bart | Report as abusive

Get it straight, if you go into a war zone by choice to make a buck you are a war profiteer. If you are invested in companies that produce arms or hold defense contracts, you are a war profiteer. If your name is Dick Cheney you are…..
Starting to get it folks, it’s easy. Making an industry of war has been the game for so damn long Americans have forgotten peace. Health care, deficits, New Orleans, what a bummer can’t be fixed. Look at the pie chart folks, you are being lied to and manipulated and robbed and loving it.
I have no sympathy and just want to leave this country.

Posted by Donald | Report as abusive

[…] deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan Posted on September 10, 2009 by defensebaseactcomp Undercounting deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan Posted by: Bernd […]

Posted by Undercounting deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan « Defense Base Act Compensation Blog | Report as abusive

I was spetsnaz in Afganistan, and wars are always fought for profit. We supposed to fight mujahadeen aka taliban to support moderate Afghan government against fundamentalist muslims, but really we were handling handling heroin transactions directed by KGB in exchange for weapons and rpgs to sell in Europe for hard currency. CIA did this in Vietnam and doing it now in Afganistan. Wars are profitable, even cruisades were not about religion but about cash. People pay for this with taxes. Bankers finance it. It’s a big business, and it will never end. So relax and ignore the media lies.

Posted by Ruslan | Report as abusive

What changed from middle ages? nothing. yes. expressions. but what is behind? All the same little bit more sophisticated propaganda to hide contradictions in their “truth” and justify but there is always profit. Not always immediate and visible. Who get the money – that is to blame, who holds the agenda ? Conspiracy? Heh. At some extend but people are dying because of first class civilizations wishes. Would them be clever than rest dying poor? Yeah why not , but not. Misled chorus of zombies – you got to be that. Unfortunately. You don’t know the truth or it seems too pity to you.
Democracy or freedom or religion or whatever to be used ambiguously for purpose of rulers.

Financial crisis? OK, let me ask – where is the money? The money FED issued. There is little cash on market says politicians, shortage of money. But FED did not take that back. Where those moneys did accumulate? Who holds them ? Who can make a billions dollars doing nothing but manipulate? And who can’t have them enough and takes a job he would kill a human at?

We are dying for what we are misled to believe …

Posted by Us | Report as abusive

it is amazing that you anti-war types continue to dribble the liquid excrement about soldier deaths.
They chose to fight and die for reasons you pseudo- intellects will never be capable of understanding.
The real point, the underlying motive of your anti-war rhetoric—is that you don’t like war. you don’t care that New York was attacked. You don’t care that 3,000 Americans died on US soil because of failed Clintonian policies. You don’t care about truth. Thousands die each year driving on the US road system. They did not volunteer to do so—except that they did think they could drive safely to their destination. There are also thousands who die involuntarily, but we don’t want to talk about them do we?

Posted by wag the dog | Report as abusive

This article is absolutely right to point out that contractor casualties and injuries should get more attention, both to honor their sacrafices and to hold government more accountable for its conduct of war. Same goes for injured soldiers who survive but return paralyzed, missing limbs, etc.

Also, it made me wonder, if contractor deaths aren’t included in the casualty numbers we hear, what about the money the government spends to send them over there? Has that been part of the widely publicized war appropriation bills that we’ve heard so much about over the past several years? Or is it coming from somewhere else? It’s obviously a HUGE expense, and I/we should know more about it.

Posted by Matt Leonard | Report as abusive

It’s just odd to me that war has become a private sector job. I know that some of these guys make 250k over a couple years, if they survive it. I wish I knew the companies that were up for the contracts as the war was getting started… stocks anyone? I’ve also seen some peeps (about my age, 24) sign up with the idea in their head that war would be like ‘metal gear solid’ or ‘call of duty’… I wish “Republican” and “Democrat” didn’t exist and it was just about the issues. The smartest people could be in DC and running the show and it would get completely sidelined but the Republican vs Democrats! We don’t even have the smartest in office… I can only imagine how far off course we are. 700billion to pay the banks to be solvent, so they can pay their peeps??? how about 700billion for high speed rail, fixed roads and basic infrastructure upkeep that was put to the wayside by the Bush Admin…. that way Americans can pay their loans, America invests, and banks take a smaller hit for making STUPID loans! I worked in a loan office for a few months, it was sad… very sad, loan officers buying 100k Mercedes after lying for a few months… points in the front points in the back, plus their fee (points are the percentage the loan officer and office make for selling the loan) … all while selling something they themselves didn’t understand. America is only what it is today because of the choices made before in our history. Todays mistakes will be really big problems in 50years, unless we fix them. We can we’re Americans, not American’ts.

Posted by bjorn b | Report as abusive

Hip hip hooray! Three cheers for the US and all the warmongering it does.

Posted by MK Ultra | Report as abusive

Wag the Dog,

It’s amazing we’ve come so far in 2009 that being called anti-war is such an insult. I’m anti-war, how could anyone with a moral bone in their body be pro-war? That sounds like a serial killer psycho type of mindset.

You’ve been brainwashed by the political party drivel the media and government spit at you I can tell. Obama has a “defense” and Iraq/Afghan war budget that not even your warmonger heros Bush and Cheney could ever reach. Obama should be your hero for how much death he’s spread across the middle east.

Reagan/Bush I/Clinton/Bush II all either gave Bin Laden money or military weapons, blindly blaming it all on Clinton? Come on.

Soldiers choose to fight but they don’t choose to die. I choose to drive my car everyday but if an accident happens and I die I can assure you that’s not what I chose.

I also didn’t choose to have so much of the income I earned wasted on murdering Arab women, children and babies.

I care about the 3000 who died on 9/11, hence why continuing the exact same policies of pre 9/11 is just going to result in more dead. 3000 of our Americans dead, so how do we react? By sending another 6000 to their deaths and another few hundred thousand foreigners to their deaths.

Sad that in 2009 such a large pocket of America thinks the only way you can be pro-America is by being pro-war.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Yet another hand-wringing over American death tolls in Iraq, only this time the author has the audacity to toss in the loss-of-life of soldiers of fortune and mercenaries that we, the American people, are not even allowed to know the nationality of. What is truly awful about this article, but entirely expected, is even with a title like “Undercounting Deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan” there is once again no, I repeat NO mention of the approximately ONE MILLION civilian deaths in those countries due to our invasions. Bernd, in the future try to keep any random facts out of your missives, lest you somehow be confused with a journalist. Not that anyone knows what one looks like anymore.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

It would also be good to know:

What kind of benefit those “self employed soldiers” receive after being wounded or dismembered?

Is it mandatory for private companies to provide life and medical insurance including psychological counseling to their “self employed soldiers”?

If not, what are the monthly rates for life and medical insurance of a “self employed soldiers”?

If a private company goes bankrupt, is a disabled ex “self employed soldiers” left behind?

In the end, considering all potential expenses paid by a “self employed soldiers” to have the same benefits and protections as a government solider; are they at a disadvantage?

Are “self employed soldiers” a sign that the U.S has trouble financing its wars?

If not, is capitalism going too far by privatizing wars?

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

-wag the dog

As a combat vet (Gulf war 1) I find your tone disrespectful to say the least. NO one but stupid adrenalin pumped boys and gorgy old men wanting to relive there glory days “likes” wars. (and the young learn quickly)

I am willing to bet that the great bulk of modern US men and woman who volenteered did so to fufill a personal need to give back to a nation that has given so much and / or to do there small part to defend our nation.

The “liquid excrement” you speak of are probably some of the most vital Fing numbers in the history of our nation, Ever one of those was a person (far better then any of us, especialy you) who will never have a family grow old (hell for some finishing growing up) or actualy be able to reap the benafits of ter own sacrfice. EVERY SINGLE of of them should be rembered by all of us and if the reality of it all needs to be shoved down the throats of thoughs who would rather brush there sacrafic aside in the name of nationalism or blind idtiots who just want to finish bushs war then so be it.

sry for the crappy grammer and rambling, normaly i wouldent post at 2am but this just worked me up to much

Posted by eron | Report as abusive

Dave: If you think Afghan and Iraqi deaths could persuade the government or Congress to stop the wars, you are either very young or very naive, or both. What finally led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam? Anti-war protests, again and again, across the country. Were they prompted by the deaths of Vietnamese civilians? No. That was about body bags containing Americans.

Posted by Carlos | Report as abusive

The writer of this article and many others like it is willing and able to throw in the towel and send a clear message to our enemies that the US can be beaten down if you simply persist long enough.

That course of action will result in more wars not less as bad actors like Saddam Hussein will cross borders and thumb their noses at conventions of coexistence.

This constant drumbeat against Bush and the war in Iraq will not play well throughout history, as any thinking person knows that Iraq and the world are better off after his hanging from a beam.

Now we have a President who at least is savvy enough to know that surrender invites more war, not less, but he is watching his polls slip, and the leftist cadre that surround him will try to convince him to give up the fight, and then all these men and women’s sacrifice will have been for naught.

Posted by Phil Bickel | Report as abusive

The anti war protestors argue that we should abandon the Iraqi and Afgani people to a violent minority regime. Such action would cause untold levels of suffering and misery to those people.

If we pull out, the anti-war movement would play a part in that suffering. Just as the peace movement played a direct part in the suffering of the South Vietnamise, when they abandoned them to the North.

In a sense, I am surprised that an anti-war supporter could believe themselves so morally superior.

Because they will argue against war, regardless of the result this will have on other people. They believe that peace, no matter how brutal or vicious to the innocent, is better then fighting a war.

War saved Europe. It protected the South Koreans. It ended the killing fields. It stopped the Rwanda genocide. It saved Kuwait. It saved Kosovo. When all the talking in the world does nothing, war succeeds.

A truly balanced individual would realise that war should be avoided, but not at all cost. If the cost of peace is allowing others to be enslaved or harmed by militants, then the cost is too high.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

It is impossible to win Ideological war with Military. It’s better to open 100 Western type movie theaters then bring 100,000 soldiers. The only way to win this war is to convince young people that the Western live style is better than their Islamic one. And we need to raise a few generations of these people.

Posted by Al | Report as abusive

yes they mercenaries,make more money,and meantime take spots from our military and by the way they live better than a soldier,marine,sailor or airmen and they not accountable neither enforced under UMCJ.

Posted by Victor M Negrete | Report as abusive

Who is keeping count of the civilians? Isn’t the ultimate goal of any Army or Mercenary to protect the civilian population? Somewhere in this war, the priorities got lost or extremely twisted. Would the Iraqis have wanted Democracy if they had been told in advance of the number of possible civilian casualties or that they would be without water, electricity, and sewage for years? Reporting on a simple statistic such as body count is a slight on the horrors of war that the civilian population is enduring. I would like to see reporting on and from the Iraqi and Afghan people, if that is allowed by the powers that be.

Posted by Margaret | Report as abusive

The best thing about these “Mercenaries”, my dad told me, was that Most of the “Trainers” and “Leaders” of these Men are Vietnam Vets, who HATE the CULT of communism, so i wouldn’t worry about what SIDE these Veterans are on.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

It is rather naive of “Anon” to assume that the USA is motivated primarily by virtuous intentions such as the avoidance of “untold levels of suffering and misery to those people”.
If that were the case, why has the USA refrained from invading and intervening in the countless oppressive regimes in most African countries (think of Egypt, Zimbabwe,Morocco,Somalia, Ethiopia, Ruwanda, Burundi,etc ), in many other Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc. The list of despots and tyrants, not counting those directly supported by the USA, is endless, and nothing material was done by the USA.
Apart from Kossovo (and there have to be exceptions to the rules!), all places where the USA intervened were countries that either were thought to threaten the US (remeber that the US only entered the Second World war after it got attacked by the Japs)and its credos, or Israel.

Posted by Abe | Report as abusive


America does not have the resources to defeat every repressive regime in the world. It must pick it’s battles in specific regions.

America needs to remain on the good side of the international community. This means that it must respect it’s allies (like Saudi Arabia), and avoid certain racial tinderboxes (like Africa and South America).

Just because America cannot interfere in all nations, does not mean it cannot interfer with single nations if it chooses to do so.

I never said that America was motivated primarily or solely by good intentions. Politics will also play a part.

What I said was that pulling out would cause untold suffering to the Afgani and Iraqi people, and that the peace protestors will have a part in causing that suffering.

Because of this, peace protestors delude themselves when they think they are morally superior to those who accept the necessity of war in certain situations.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

If America would learn to mind its own business instead of trying to make Americans out of everybody and forcing manifest destiny on countries that want to be left alone we wouldn’t have this problem.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

NATO should retreat unconditionally to its own borders and territorial waters. I don’t think it is worthwhile carrying on in the Middle East, it is imploding on itself in any event. Sovereign countries can then utilise their own forces to rather do environmental protection and form a ‘ring of peace’ (as opposed to a ‘ring of fire’)around themselves and help out elsewhere if they can do so. Those with large water boards, except Australia, will be better off in terms of homeland security, but will have a bigger job in terms of environmental protection.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

Motives barring, selective ‘interference’ seems to be the operative word here.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

[…] Government has spent close to $1 trillion fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Just over 5,000 US soldiers and approximately 1,300 contractors have died. Somewhere between 180,000 and 200,000 Afghan and Iraqi soldiers and civilians also have […]

Posted by Time to wave goodbye to 9/11? « Democracy and Society | Report as abusive

Undercounting means distorting, not to say falsifying baseline casualty data.

If the United States cannot be relied upon to correctly count corpses, maimed and injured parties on both sides- well, there’s yet another reason to declare this war a total wipeout, ineptly waged against poor people who never once attacked this country, their lands invaded by fools to the gross enrichment of relentless knaves and charlatans.

Can’t even properly account for the Dead? Until it ends, the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan is like a hideous malignant cancer growth, slap-bang face and center upon all American pretensions to national, never mind imperial, adequacy.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

[…] a Reuters article argues that the contractor deaths are being undercounted and that this is important as the military […]

Posted by Wikileaks: 2007 Iraq Shooting (evidence, analysis) « Marmalade | Report as abusive