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Checking the Math on the Pentagon’s ISIS Body Counts

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
August 16, 2016


The U.S. military has a long habit of quickly forgetting its principled opposition to touting body counts. In 1962, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) started releasing weekly estimates of Viet Cong killed by U.S. troops, even as senior military and civilian officials doubted their accuracy or pertinence. In March 2002, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then-chief of U.S. Central Command, declared, “You know we don’t do body counts,” when asked about the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan killed in recent airstrikes; they would, in fact, “do” body counts until the policy’sreversal in July 2009. And, in May 2004, the Pentagon started releasing body counts from the Iraq War, just six months after then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed: “We don’t do body counts on other people.”

It’s no secret why military officials tend to overcome their opposition to providing such data: The numbers are influential, at least when it comes to public opinion. A 2006 study by North Carolina State University researchers demonstrates that when Americans hear and read about these numbers, it changes public perceptions of success and progress in war.

It should be no surprise then that President Barack Obama’s administration has been using body counts in the ongoing war against the Islamic State. In January 2015, just 16 days after Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby asserted in a press conference that he wasn’t “getting into an issue of body counts.… It’s simply not a relevant figure,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones, unprompted, told an Al Arabiyainterviewer that “the airstrikes have now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq.”

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