Body Count Proved to Be a False Prophet : Tactics: It was discarded after Vietnam War. Military people now realize that quantifying victory is far more complex.


Body count. That’s one of the more grisly aspects of the Vietnam War that the U.S. military can’t seem to shed, no matter how hard it tries.

Time after time, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander in the Persian Gulf, has emphatically stated that as a Vietnam veteran he abhors body counts as a measure of military success, that he thinks such statistics are not only meaningless but misleading and that body counts can push junior commanders into a numbers game that compromises their integrity. If he has anything to do with it, he vowed in one of his early press conferences, his U.S. Central Command will never engage in the body-count business.

But still the reporters persist. “Why is he so adamant?” a war correspondent asked me this week in a call from the Gulf. “Is he trying to hide something? Is he refusing to tell us how many Iraqi soldiers have been killed for fear of stirring up anti-war sentiment at home?”


Conspiracy is not the answer. Gen. Schwarzkopf does not know, and BDA (bomb damage assessment) cannot tell him with any degree of precision how many Iraqi bodies are piled up in the trenches.

It is still true, as the great Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz noted more than 160 years ago, that “casualty reports . . . are never accurate” and, in any case, such figures are “no accurate measure of the loss of morale; hence . . . the abandonment of the fight remains the only authentic proof of victory.”

That “authentic proof” is not yet at hand, for so far Iraq has neither abandoned the field of battle nor given up the fight. But there is another, far more important reason why the body count is taboo. For the military, “no more Vietnams” means, among other things, a rejection of the Jominian notion (after Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, a Napoleonic military strategist) that war could best be understood in terms of mathematics, in terms of things that can be counted.

The quintessential Jominians during the Vietnam War were Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and his coterie of “whiz kid” program analysis number-crunchers, most of whom had probably never heard of Jomini. But they surely embraced his belief that war could be mathematically measured, codified and computerized. And in their quest for numbers to prove we were winning, the body-count syndrome was born.

Ironically, although condemned as wildly inflated, the U.S. body counts reflecting heavy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties were borne out. North Vietnam’s defense minister, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, admitted in an interview with an Italian reporter in 1969 that he had lost 500,000 soldiers killed from 1964 to 1969 alone. But accurate or not, the figures were meaningless.

In my book “On Strategy,” I repeated a bitter little story that had swept the Pentagon after President Richard M. Nixon took office in 1969. Supposedly a computer was fed all the quantifiable data on the United States and North Vietnam--population size, gross national product, steel production, size of the armed forces, numbers of tanks, guns, ships, planes and the like. The computer was then asked, “When will we win?” Instantaneously it spit out the answer: “You won in 1964!”

The story had a bite. Jomini and the neo-Jominian whiz kids had proved to be false prophets. By any quantifiable analysis, there was no match between the United States and North Vietnam. But in the end that proved irrelevant because, as we found, there is much more to war than those things that can be counted.

In the military’s war colleges and staff colleges after the end of the Vietnam War, Jomini was rejected in favor of another philosopher of war, Von Clausewitz. Like Jomini a product of the Napoleonic wars, Von Clausewitz totally rejected the quantifiers.

“They aim at fixed values,” he said, “but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. They direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical qualities, whereas all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects. They consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites.

“Military activity is never directed against material force alone,” Von Clausewitz emphasized. “It is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life.” The difficulty for reporters attempting to discern how the Persian Gulf campaign is progressing is that such “moral values can only be perceived by the inner eye, which differs in each person. . . .”

Having said that, however, the great war correspondents had just such an inner eye. In World War II, Ernie Pyle didn’t need a ream of statistics to tell how the war in North Africa or at Anzio was progressing. And neither did David Halberstam or Neil Sheehan or Peter Braestrup, to name but a few, in Vietnam.

Reporters in Saudi Arabia today are harping on statistics because, with the air campaign, there is little else to report--numbers of sorties, numbers of missiles fired, bombs dropped, planes lost to enemy action, Scuds destroyed and so forth.

But when and if the ground war starts, there will be far more significant stories to tell. Unlike the war in Vietnam, progress in the Gulf can be clearly measured as the front lines move forward or retreat, and body count will fade into the oblivion it so richly deserves.