Bring Back the Body Count

"We don't do body counts," says America's soldier-in-chief, Tommy Franks. That's a damn shame.

During the Vietnam war, the body count was served up every day on the evening news. While Americans ate dinner, they watched a graphic visual scorecard: how many Americans had died that day, how many South Vietnamese and how many Communists. At the time, it seemed the height of dehumanized violence. Compared to Tommy Franks' new way of war, though, the old way looks very humane indeed.

True, the body count turned human beings into abstract numbers. But it required soldiers to say to the world, "I killed human beings today. This is exactly how many I killed. I am obliged to count each and every one." It demanded that the killers look at what they had done, think about it (however briefly), and acknowledge their deed. It was a way of taking responsibility.

Today's killers avoid that responsibility. They perpetuate the fiction so many Americans want to believe -- that no real people die in war, that it's just an exciting video game. It's not merely the dead who disappear; it's the act of killing itself. When the victim's family holds up a picture, U.S. soldiers or journalists can simply reply "Who's that? We have no record of such a person. In fact, we have no records at all."

This is not just a matter of new technology. There was plenty of long-distance impersonal killing in Vietnam too. But back then, the U.S. military at least went through the motions of going in to see what they had done. True, the investigations were often cursory and the numbers often fictional. No matter how inaccurate the numbers were, though, the message to the public every day was that each body should be counted. At some level, at least, each individual life seemed to matter.

The difference between Vietnam and Iraq lies partly in overall strategy. In Vietnam, there was no territory to be conquered and occupied. If U.S. forces seized an area, they knew that sooner or later the Viet Cong would take it back. The only way to measure "victory" was by killing more of them than they killed of us. In Iraq, the goal is control of place. U.S. forces can "take" Basra or Nassiriya and call it a victory, without ever thinking about how many Iraqis had to be killed in the process. So the body count matters less.

However, the end of body counts can not be explained simply by the difference in strategy. The old-fashioned body counts disappeared during the first war against Iraq, when the goal was still defined by territory: pushing Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

It's much more likely that "we don't do body counts" because Vietnam proved how embarrassing they could be. As the U.S. public turned against that war, the body count became a symbol of everything that was inhumane and irrational about that war. The Pentagon fears that the same might happen if the Iraq war bogs down. How much simpler to deny the inhumanity and irrationality of war by denying the obvious fact of slaughter.

What I fear is a world where thousands can be killed and no one is responsible, where deaths are erased from history as soon as they happen. The body count was more than an act of responsibility. It was a permanent record. It made each death a historical fact. You can go back and graph those Vietnam deaths from day to day, month to month, year to year. That turns the victims into nameless, faceless abstractions. But it least it confirms for ever and ever that they lived and died, because someone took the time to kill and count them.

In Iraq, it is as if the killing never happened. When a human being's death is erased from history, so is their life. Life and death together vanish without a trace.

The body count has one other virtue. It is enemy soldiers, not civilians, who are officially counted. Antiwar activists rightly warn about civilian slaughter and watch the toll rise at IraqBodyCount.org. It is easy to forget that the vast majority of Iraqi dead and wounded will be soldiers. Most of them were pressed into service, either by brute force or economic necessity. As the whole world has been telling us for months, there is no good reason for this war, no good reason for those hapless Iraqi foot-soldiers to die. They are victims of brutality -- inflicted by their own government and by ours -- just as much as the civilians. They deserve just as much to be counted.

So let us bring back the body count. If we must kill, let us kill as one human being to another, recognizing the full humanity of our victims. Without a body count, our nation becomes more of a robotic killing machine. As we dehumanize Iraqis, we slip even further into our own dehumanization. Let us bring back the body count, if only to recover our own sense of responsibility to the world's people, to history, to our own humanity.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Email him at chernus@colorado.edu.

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