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Body Count Nation

Judging by our wars, we're not much more advanced than ancient civilizations.

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Soon enough the Pentagon was regularly releasing such figures in reports on its operations and, in December 2006, the President, too, first slipped such a tally into a press briefing. ("Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy.")

It wasn't, of course, that no one had been counting. The President, as we know from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, had long been keeping "'his own personal scorecard for the [global] war [on terror]' in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists -- each ready to be crossed out by the President as his forces took them down." And the military had been counting bodies as well, but as the possibility of victory disappeared into the charnel houses of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the president finally gave in. While this did not stoke an antiwar movement, it represented a tacit admission of policy collapse, a kind of surrender. It was as close as an administration which never owned up to error could come to admitting that two more disastrous wars had been added to a string of military failures in the truncated American Century.

That implicit admission, however, took years to arrive, and in the meantime, Iraqis and Afghans -- civilians, insurgents, terrorists, police, and military men -- were dying in prodigious numbers.

The Global War on Terror as a Ponzi Scheme

As it happened, others were also counting. Among the earliest of them, a website, Iraq Body Count, carefully toted up Iraqi civilian deaths as documented in reputable media outlets. Their estimate has, by now, almost reached 100,000 -- and, circumscribed by those words "documented" and "civilian," doesn't begin to get at the full scope of Iraqi deaths.

Various groups of scholars and pollsters also took up the task, using sophisticated sampling techniques (including door-to-door interviews under exceedingly dangerous conditions) to arrive at reasonable approximations of the Iraqi dead. They have come up with figures ranging from the hundreds of thousands to a million or more in a country with a prewar population of perhaps 26 million. United Nations representatives have similarly attempted, under difficult circumstances, to keep a count of Iraqis fleeing into exile -- exile being, after a fashion, a form of living death -- and have estimated that more than 2 million Iraqis fled their country, while another 2.7 million, having fled their homes, remained "internally displaced."

Similar attempts have been made for Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has, for instance, done its best to tally civilian deaths from air strikes in that country (while even TomDispatch has attempted to keep a modest count of wedding parties obliterated by U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq). But, of course, the real body count in either country will never be known.

One thing is certain, however: it is an obscenity of the present moment that Iraq, still a charnel house, still in a state of near total disrepair, still on the edge of a whole host of potential conflicts, should increasingly be portrayed here as a limited Bush administration "surge" success. Only a country -- or a punditry or a military -- incapable of facing the depths of destruction that the Bush administration let loose could reach such a conclusion.

If all roads once led to Rome, all acts of the Bush administration have led to destruction, and remarkably regularly to piles of dead or tortured bodies, counted or not. In fact, it's reasonable to say that every Bush administration foreign policy dream, including its first term fantasy about a pacified "Greater Middle East" and its late second term vision of a facilitated "peace process" between the Israelis and Palestinians, has ended in piles of bodies and in failure. Consider this a count all its own.

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