Wednesday, May 25, 2005

body counts, before and after

from-Today in Iraq

Opinion and CommentaryThe Metrics of Losing:
Numbers, "metrics", ways of measuring success are now multiplying in Iraq. This in itself is a measure of frustration. Victory seldom needs metrics. Okay, maybe once upon a time, quantifiable loot and slaves mattered; more recently, the metric of victory was territory conquered - and when American troops reached Baghdad and the Bush administration thought its war a raging success, no metrics were necessary.

Our iconic metric of war, which also proved a measure of a losing war, was, of course, the body count, which we associate with Vietnam. The body count was, however, an invention of the later years of the Korean War, a way of measuring "success" once the two sides had settled into the bloodiest of stalemates and the taking of significant territory - in fact, the wild movements of armies up and down the Korean peninsula - had become a thing of the past. In a sense, the body count, aka "the meat-grinder", was from its inception both a measure of nothing and a measure of frustration.

It reappeared quite early in the Vietnam War for reasons allied to those that called it up in Korea. We were involved in a struggle with guerrillas for whom the holding of territory was not the crucial matter, while our North Vietnamese enemy was bomb-able but not open to invasion (given the larger Cold War context). The body count became a shorthand way of measuring success in a war in which the taking of territory was almost meaningless, the countryside a hostile place, the enemy hard to tell from the general population, and our own in-country allies weak and largely unable to strengthen themselves.

The body count was, as in Korea, also part of a secondary struggle - for international "credibility" and for support at home. Those dead bodies, announced daily by the military to increasingly dubious reporters in Saigon, were the most public face of American "success" in those years. When the dead bodies and success began ever more visibly to part ways and, in the terminology of the times, a "credibility gap" opened gapingly between the metrics and reality, the body count became a symbol not just of a war of frustration, but of defeat itself. It came, post-My Lai, to look both false and barbaric.

Whose bodies were those anyway? In our new world of conflict, where our leaders had imbibed all the "lessons" of Vietnam, Centcom's General Tommy Franks, then commander of our Afghan War (now on the board of Outback Steakhouse, which donated shrimp and steak dinners to our troops in Afghanistan), declared that "we don't do body counts". He was not talking about Iraq, but the principle was later extended to that country where we were obdurate in our unwillingness to count enemy dead (or keep any public tally whatsoever of the Iraqi civilian dead).

--which is why Marla Ruzicka was in Iraq, where she died......


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