Number of Iraqis Killed in War May Never Be Known : Casualties: One historian puts deaths at 30,000 to 40,000. The Pentagon has no plan to produce a formal estimate.

Share via

Unlike previous U.S. military actions, the Persian Gulf War may never produce an authoritative estimate of enemy casualties, Pentagon officials suggested Thursday.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, while acknowledging that the number of Iraqi deaths undoubtedly was in the tens of thousands, said allied officials would never be able to determine the true number conclusively, or even to produce a reasonable guess.

“We don’t know how many Iraqis were killed. We’re unlikely ever to know how many Iraqis were killed,” Cheney said in an interview with a small group of journalists.


“We have no idea how many were killed and shipped north during the campaign. We have no idea how many were killed and buried in the theater during the campaign. And I’m not sure how you’d ever find out,” the secretary said.

Cheney said there will be no formal effort to produce such an estimate. Although the difficulty of determining the number of Iraqi deaths caused by weeks of allied bombing is one reason, he conceded that a reluctance to repeat past mistakes also is involved.

“In this business, the whole idea of body counts was given a very bad name a long time ago,” he said. “We’ve tried religiously to stay away from that sort of thing, and we will continue to do that.”

In Vietnam, progress in the war was measured at the end of each day and each week by the “body count” of enemy killed, as reported by U.S. and South Vietnamese combat leaders in the field. The commanders and units that produced the highest numbers were rewarded, leading to a vast and ultimately scandalous exaggeration of enemy casualties.

While agreeing that any estimate of Iraqi dead in the Gulf War would be imprecise, some historians are complaining that the governments involved are doing history a disservice by not making an effort to calculate the human cost of the brief but intense conflict.

“We want to know it to the last detail,” said retired Army Col. Trevor DuPuy, a prominent military historian . “But it’s the Iraqis’ moral obligation to their citizens to give a casualty estimate. They have to make an accounting to the relatives of those who don’t come back.”


U.S. officials calculated with some confidence the number of deaths in U.S. military operations in Panama and Grenada. The December, 1989, invasion of Panama left 50 Panamanian soldiers dead, while the October, 1983, operation in Grenada killed 45 Grenadian troops.

Cheney said military officials know with some precision how many Iraqi troops were in the theater before the war began Jan. 17--roughly 545,000. U.S. officials also know how many Iraqi deserters and prisoners of war are in allied hands--about 70,000.

But there is no estimate of the number of troops who fled as the air campaign unfolded. Nor is there a reliable count of the number who were killed and their remains either returned to Iraq or buried in mass graves in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

“It’s a very difficult problem,” Cheney said. “It isn’t that we wouldn’t like to know; it’s obviously an interesting military proposition.”

He said he had not seen any estimates, official or unofficial, and did not expect to. But given the level of destruction wreaked by the air assault and the testimony of Iraqi survivors, he said, the death toll was “very heavy indeed.”

“If anybody is curious about what we think happened, we think there were a lot of Iraqis killed. Our military effort was aimed specifically at the destruction of those forces that took Kuwait, the destruction of (Saddam Hussein’s) offensive capability, the destruction of divisions he used over the years to terrorize his neighbors, and we did it,” the secretary said.


The United States carefully counts its own dead. In the Gulf War, 119 Americans were killed in combat, two died of wounds received in combat, and 78 died of disease or from noncombat accidents. (Ten are still listed as missing in action, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said Thursday.) In addition, 106 servicemen and women died in accidents during the six-month buildup to the war.

Military historians said there is no obligation for the victors to tote up the casualties of the defeated.

“Historically, belligerents leave it to each other to come up with such figures,” said Michael Howard, a distinguished British military historian teaching at Yale University. “They have a certain interest themselves, and ultimately when one costs up the liabilities incurred in undertaking the war, the extent of the casualties figure largely. It is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to know.”

DuPuy, the former Army officer and author, said that historians “haven’t the foggiest idea how many (North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) were killed” in Vietnam. “It was their problem, not ours,” he said, referring to the leadership in Hanoi.

Some years after the war ended, the U.S. government estimated that 444,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were killed during the American military’s 12-year involvement in that conflict, according to various reference works.

DuPuy said there still are “no hard figures, only estimates” of China’s casualties during World War II and the Soviet Union’s military losses during the same war. Historians believe that 2.2 million Chinese soldiers and 7.5 million Russian troops perished in the conflict.


Because of their interest in completing the record, historians apply enormous efforts to estimate casualties when no official figures are provided.

“You either admit you don’t have the foggiest idea or you estimate,” DuPuy said. “It is possible to make some estimates, and some may be fairly close.”

After combing through the historical records of hundreds of battles and wars, DuPuy has generated rules of thumb for making such estimates based on more commonly available information, such as the number of wounded and the extent of weapon and equipment losses.

Using those methods, DuPuy has estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 Iraqis may have perished in the Gulf War and that another 70,000 to 110,000 may have been wounded.

While U.S. government estimates had calculated in advance that as many as 120,000 Iraqi soldiers would die in a six-week aerial bombardment, the Pentagon’s analysts have not been asked to gauge the accuracy of the preliminary estimates.

In part, said one government analyst, that is because of the unique nature of Operation Desert Storm, in which the overwhelming number of casualties appear to have been caused by the prolonged air war. In addition to the Iraq dead hastily buried by U.S. and Arab forces in the desert in the aftermath of fighting, countless more would have been buried during the air war in unmarked graves.


“We probably killed more than 100,000 people without ever occupying the territory. We didn’t take the lines and move forward. We passed over them day after day, and that’s a different kind of war historically than we’ve ever fought,” said one knowledgeable source.

Times staff writer Jennifer Toth contributed to this report.