Don’t believe the U.S. military when it says it doesn’t keep body counts

January 22, 2015
Residents inspect damaged buildings in what activists say was a U.S. strike, in Kfredrian

Residents inspect damaged buildings in what activists say was a U.S. strike, in Kfredrian, Idlib province September 23, 2014. REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof

Earlier this month, a reporter asked the question that usually comes up when the United States gets involved in a sustained military campaign. Just how many enemy troops — in this case, Islamic State foot soldiers — have U.S. forces killed in more than five months of aerial attacks?

The military’s answer was basically the same given to all similar questions going back more than a decade. Counting the dead is “not the goal,” said Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby, a Navy admiral.

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks beside dead bodies of Islamic State fighters after they regained control of Al-Qassaib village, activists said, in Qamishli countryside

A Kurdish People’s Protection Units fighter walks beside dead bodies of Islamic State fighters after they regained control of Al-Qassaib village, activists said, in Qamishli countryside December 25, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Since the Vietnam War, with its gruesome and inflated U.S. tallies of enemy dead, the Pentagon has denied keeping body counts. But, in fact, the military does add up the number of enemy fighters it believes it has killed — and proudly boasts of the totals in official documents that it never intends for public circulation.

The disconnect over wartime body counts reflects a yawning gap between the military’s public face and its private culture.

As early as the 19th century, Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz warned that counting enemy dead was a misleading measure of an army’s effectiveness, to say nothing of a war’s soundness. “Casualty reports,” Clausewitz wrote,“… are never accurate.”

A body count is “no accurate measure of the loss of morale,” the celebrated military theorist emphasized. “The abandonment of the fight remains the only authentic proof of victory.”

In other words, no one really knows how many of your enemy you need to kill to compel the remaining forces to surrender.


Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 9, 1968. Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/Yoichi Okamoto

Still, body counts were all the rage during the United States’ long war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was, to a large degree, because of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s analytical personality and his conviction that all things, even bloody protracted warfare, could be measured, understood, predicted.

The Defense Department initially claimed to have killed 951,000 enemy soldiers in Vietnam — a number that Pentagon officials later admitted was inflated by one-third. But the heavy loss of life did not prevent North Vietnamese forces from fighting the Americans to a standstill and later seizing control of South Vietnam after U.S. troops withdrew.

After the Vietnam War, the Pentagon publicly rejected body counts as a useful metric of military effectiveness and good strategy. During the 1991 Gulf War, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, top commander of U.S. and allied forces and a veteran of the Vietnam War, repeatedly denied tallying enemy dead.


General Norman Schwarzkopf (R) talks with General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a press conference during the Gulf War, 1991. Wikimedia Commons

Body count means nothing,” Schwartzkopf told reporters, “absolutely nothing.”

Army General Tommy Franks repeated Schwarzkopf’s sentiment in 2002, when Franks commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan. “You know, we don’t do body counts,” Franks said when a reporter asked about rumors that U.S. and allied troops had killed as many as 1,000 Taliban fighters in the first year of fighting.

”Ultimately, the numbers are not knowable,” chimed in Navy Captain Frank Thorp, then a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. ”And besides, that number may not be an indication of anything,” Thorp added, echoing Clausewitz.

But despite assertions by top officers that the United States doesn’t count the dead, body counts began creeping into official statements from lower-ranking commanders and military spokespeople around the time of the U.S. Marines’ assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, in November 2004. Officers told reporters the Marines killed as many as 1,600 insurgents in Fallujah.

The use of body counts returned roughly around the same time the administration of President George W. Bush was doubling down on its claim that the United States was winning the war in Iraq. In May 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney famously said the insurgency in Iraq was “in the last throes,” though the insurgency rages on a decade later.

Despite efforts by Bush and his successor, President Barack Obama, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. troops remain in these two countries today. The U.S.-led air campaign continues to target Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria.


Iraqis carry the coffin of one Muslim cleric killed in an overnight blast that damaged a mosque in the town of Falluja, July 1, 2003. REUTERS/Faleh Kheiber

Eleven years after Fallujah, the Pentagon has again suppressed any officer’s impulse to publicly mention an official body count. Hence Kirby’s insistence on Jan. 6 that adding up the dead is “not the goal.”

In reality, the body counts have merely gone underground, so to speak. Spokespersons deny tallying the dead. But the official annual histories of various military commands continue to trumpet high body counts.

The armed forces usually classify these histories as “for official use only.” The documents, however, are accessible via the Freedom of Information Act, though partially redacted.

The Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, which overseas drones, spy planes and intelligence analysts, claims in its official history for 2012 that just one unit — the 361st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group based in Florida — helped Special Operations Forces kill at least 1,210 enemy combatants that year.

From June to December 2010, U.S. commandos killed 2,000 “rank-and-file” insurgents in Afghanistan, according to that year’s annual history for Air Force Special Operations Command. The command’s AC-130 gunship planes with their side-firing cannons alone killed 1,200 enemy soldiers in 2010, according to the history.

U.S. soldier points his rifle after coming under fire in Zharay district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan

U.S. soldier Nicholas Dickhut from 5-20 infantry Regiment attached to 82nd Airborne points his rifle after coming under fire by the Taliban on patrol in Zharay district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

These are just three examples of official body counts that the military never intended for public consumption. There are undoubtedly many more. Once the war on Islamic State is old enough to reflect in units’ official histories, it’s possible the public will finally have access to the military’s count of dead Islamic State fighters.

Not that those numbers should mean anything. With few exceptions since Vietnam, the Pentagon has shied away from boasting about enemy dead, lest the kill totals imply that the United States is winning its wars — making a promise the military can’t keep.

In constantly tell themselves, in confidence, just how many of their opponents they believe they’ve slain, the armed forces seem to be reassuring themselves that the violence they inflict — and the violence the enemy inflicts in return — is definitely worth it.


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US has lost every war since WWII? The public doesn’t know how many people we’ve killed?

Posted by TigerFalls | Report as abusive

Every business keeps track of their inventory; Industrialized Republican killers don’t have to?
Isn’t there a law against that?

To tell you the Truth.

The Republican Will kill over 7 billion; And Gods Creation if The World allows them to continue on the war and rapid accelerated climate change denial path that they are currently on.

They are criminals with absolutely no conscience; Stop them now.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Counting bodies as a measure of victory has been around since man has been inflicting violence on one another. It’s a metric of confidence, efficiency and boasting. Grim horrible things indeed. As a metric of efficiency its still coldly efficient.

As a measure of victory? No but people cling to numbers because they have nothing else to measure. If there are X bad guys then all we have to do is kill Y and once Y equals X then we’ve won.

However X is a moving target, it grows and shrinks over time and you’ll never know how big X is at any time. Even Y isn’t accurate either. Maybe some of that Y number is inflating X over time.

The only way this system would work is to become the Mongol horde and kill everyone you see until there is simply nobody left.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

All this killing by the USA is fine under Obama, the media says almost nothing, but it was A BIG DEAL and screamed from the rafters daily by all media libtards when Bush was president.

Who has been president for the last six years? the way these idiots comments are, you’d think it was Bush- Oh, that’s right, Obama saw the light and just continued Bush’s ways, actually increased the drone killing of civilians. Too Bad Bill Clinton was such a coward and chose not to kill UBL when he had the chance.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

David Axe has no credentials to write or speak about telling lies. His opinions are based on nothing, so they are based on lies. The totally ignorant claim that the military “boasts” about killing civilians is as disgusting as his anarchist journalistic opinions. As the Spanish say, “There is no head and no feet.”

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

The Republicans broke Congressional law today and bypassed the President, inviting BiBi to speak to congress in March.

They broke Congressional Law.

They have no respect for anything or anyone (this means you).
This is very evident.

Stop them now before they kill us All.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

I was a bit amused by a female Kurdish peshmerga fighting for Kobani saying that IS jihadi believe that being killed in battle by a man is a ticket to Paradise for martyrdom, but not if killed by a woman.
So perhaps the military could damage Islamic State morale by more front line females and a statistical break by sex.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Do they also keep track of kills from drones? ARA

Posted by Useakme45 | Report as abusive

The same republicans who got us into this boondoggle two trillion dollar war, and got 4,000 young Americans killed for nothing…. now have some opinions on what Obama should be doing overseas.

Personally, I am glad we did not enter Syria with troops. I am glad we have withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq. The GOP is out to lunch.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I was going along with this article until I got to the comment that the North Vietnamese “fought the Americans to a standstill.” This is not an inaccuracy, it is a complete falsehood. The fact is that after the so-called Cambodian “incursion” in the spring of 1970 the North Vietnamese withdrew into the Cambodian interior and deep into Laos and didn’t return to South Vietnam in numbers until two years later after all but a handful of US combat troops had been withdrawn and US troops were no longer actively engaged in combat. South Vietnamese forces, with US air support, defeated the communist insurgency and the US withdrew all of its remaining forces in March 1973. North Vietnamese troops finally managed to prevail THREE YEARS LATER (three years from their defeat and two years after the final US withdrawal) in the spring of 1975. At no point did North Vietnamese troops EVER fight Americans to a stand-still and they only managed to defeat the South Vietnamese after the US had withdrawn from the war and support for the South Vietnamse government had dwindled to nothing.

Posted by SamC130B | Report as abusive

SamC130B explains: “At no point did North Vietnamese troops EVER fight Americans to a stand-still and they only managed to defeat the South Vietnamese after the US had withdrawn from the war…”

You know that President Nixon officially negotiated something called a “standstill ceasefire” with North Vietnam, right? It was actually referred to by Nixon’s State Department as a “standstill ceasefire.” At which time, the NVA expanded into Laos and Cambodia officially, as a reinforcement and a way to hold a gun to our head. There was no NVA retreat. Only growth. There was a U.S. retreat because we should have never been in that war to begin with.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive