Undercounting deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan

By Bernd Debusmann
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.


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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.

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.


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

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