Body counts — enumerating the enemy dead — have made a spectacular comeback in Afghanistan, Michael M. Phillips reports in The Wall Street Journal:
In recent months, the U.S. command in Afghanistan has begun publicizing every single enemy fighter killed in combat, the most detailed body counts the military has released since the practice fell into disrepute during the Vietnam War.
The story is superb, but in tracing the history of this dubious metric Phillips misses a point: body counts aren’t back — they never left. They were very much part of the modus operandi of the Petraeus command in Iraq, and it’s no surprise they have resurfaced on the “publicity battlefield” in Afghanistan.¹
That’s fine by me — if you think detailing Taleban losses helps you win the war, knock yourself out. The practice becomes problematic, however, when extended to civilian casualties. Numbers may be useful in depicting the ebb and flow of a force-on-force conflict, but in describing civilian suffering they are meaningless. They reduce a human tragedy into something akin to a stock market index, as if 134 men, women and children killed were somehow less horrible than 138.
¹ No — I haven’t sifted through MNF-I press releases from spring 2007. I’m happy to do it, though, should you want substantiation. For now, I’m content with exercising the stupid man’s prerogative of going with one’s gut feeling.