They will enumerate the number of tanks destroyed, specify weapons by model number, provide the percentage of enemy radar systems that still work and even list allied casualties. But don’t ask for the “body count” of Iraqi dead or injured. To a whole generation of American military commanders, those are the ultimate dirty words.
Briefing reporters and a worldwide television audience Wednesday from his headquarters in Riyadh, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, made it clear that he will not repeat the blunder that bedeviled American generals in Vietnam by citing estimates of enemy casualties as a measure of military success.
“Body count means nothing, absolutely nothing,” declared Schwarzkopf, an infantry officer in Vietnam. “And all it is is a wild guess that tends to mislead people as to what’s going on. . . . It puts undue pressure on commanders to come up with numbers that are unreal.”
In Vietnam, a war with no real front line, cities did not change hands and the Pentagon could not chart progress by sticking colored pins in a map. Ordered by then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to devise some way to quantify the war, military commanders came up with the body count--a comparison of casualties on each side.
Ultimately, it became clear that the casualty comparisons were either wrong or misleading. In 1970, for instance, the Pentagon listed U.S. deaths since 1961 at 41,057 and Viet Cong deaths at 610,308.
The American figures were considered accurate because U.S. military units must account for every soldier, listing each as either present, killed, captured or missing. But there is no similar way to assess enemy casualties, and even military officials have acknowledged that the Vietnam estimates were off the mark.
In 1977, a survey of 173 American generals who served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1972 ranked body counts as one of the worst mistakes of the war. The survey, published in Human Behavior magazine, found that 61% of the generals believed the body counts were “grossly exaggerated.”
But Schwarzkopf’s aversion to counting enemy casualties did not extend to a military operations officer in Washington. Discussing an early Wednesday ground engagement between American and Iraqi troops, the officer said the press was “making too big a deal of the 12 Marine losses.”
“The Iraqis lost up to 500 (killed),” he said. “We waxed them.”