Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Bringing up the bodies

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For the last few weeks, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s devastating documentary series Vietnam. The other night, we finished the episode “Resolve,” which includes an extraordinary sequence—you can find it here around the twenty-five minute mark—about the war’s use of questionable metrics. As narrator Peter Coyote intones: “Since there was no front in Vietnam, as there had been in the first and second World Wars, since no ground was ever permanently won or lost, the American military command in Vietnam—MACV—fell back more and more on a single grisly measure of supposed success: counting corpses. Body count.” The historian and retired Army officer James Willbanks observes:

The problem with the war, as it often is, are the metrics. It is a situation where if you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important. So, in this particular case, what you could count was dead enemy bodies.

And as the horrifying images of stacked bodies fill the screen, we hear the quiet, reasonable voice of Robert Gard, a retired lieutenant general and former chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: “If body count is the measure of success, then there’s the tendency to count every body as an enemy soldier. There’s a tendency to want to pile up dead bodies and perhaps to use less discriminate firepower than you otherwise might in order to achieve the result that you’re charged with trying to obtain.”

These days, we casually use the phrase “body count” to describe violence in movies and video games, and I was startled to realize how recent the term really is—the earliest reported instance is from 1962, and the oldest results that I can find in a Google Book search are from the early seventies. (Its first use as a book’s title, as far as I can determine, is for the memoir of William Calley, the officer convicted of murder for his involvement in the My Lai massacre.) Military metaphors have a way of seeping into everyday use, in part because of their vividness and, perhaps, because we all like to think of ourselves as fighting in one war or another, but after watching Vietnam, I think that “body count” ought to be forcibly restored to its original connotations. It doesn’t take a lot of introspection to see that it was a statistic that was only possible in a war in which the enemy could be easily dehumanized, and that it encouraged a lack of distinction between military and civilian combatants. Like most faulty metrics, it created a toxic set of incentives from the highest levels of command to the soldiers on the ground. As the full extent of the war’s miscalculations grew more clear, these facts became hard to ignore, and the term itself came to encapsulate the mistakes and deceptions of the conflict as a whole. Writing in Playboy in 1982, Philip Caputo called it “one of the most hideous, morally corrupting ideas ever conceived by the military mind.” Yet most of its emotional charge has since been lost. Words matter, and as the phrase’s significance is obscured, the metric itself starts to creep back. And the temptation to fall back on it increases in response to a confluence of specific factors, as a country engages in military action in which the goals are unclear and victory is poorly defined.

As a result, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a return to body count. As far back as 2005, Bradley Graham of the Washington Post reported: “The revival of body counts, a practice discredited during the Vietnam War, has apparently come without formal guidance from the Pentagon’s leadership.” More recently, Reed Richardson wrote on FAIR:

In the past few years, official body count estimates have made a notable comeback, as U.S. military and administration officials have tried to talk up the U.S. coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq…For example, last August, the U.S. commander of the Syrian-Iraq war garnered a flurry of favorable coverage of the war when he announced that the coalition had killed 45,000 ISIS militants in the past two years. By December, the official ISIS body count number, according to an anonymous “senior U.S. official,” had risen to 50,000 and led headlines on cable news. Reading through that media coverage, though, one finds little skepticism about the figures or historical context about how these killed in action numbers line up with the official estimates of ISIS’s overall size, which have stayed stubbornly consistent year after year. In fact, the official estimated size of ISIS in 2015 and 2016 averaged 25,000 fighters, which means the U.S. coalition had supposedly wiped out the equivalent of its entire force over both years without making a dent in its overall size.

Richardson sums up: “As our not-too-distant past has clearly shown, enemy body counts are a handy, hard-to-resist tool that administrations of both parties often use for war propaganda to promote the idea we are ‘winning’ and to stave off dissent about why we’re fighting in the first place.”

It’s worth pointing out, as Richardson does, that such language isn’t confined to any one party, and it was equally prevalent during the Obama administration. But we should be even more wary of it now. (Richardson writes: “In February, Gen. Tony Thomas, the commander of US Special Operations Command, told a public symposium that 60,000 ISIS fighters had been killed. Thomas added this disingenuous qualifier to his evidence-free number: ‘I’m not that into morbid body count, but that matters.’”) Trump has spent his entire career inflating his numbers, from his net worth to the size of his inauguration crowds, and because he lacks a clear grasp of policy, he’s more inclined to gauge his success—and the lack thereof by his enemies—in terms that lend themselves to the most mindless ways of keeping score, like television ratings. He’s also fundamentally disposed to claim that everything that he does is the biggest and the best, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This extends to areas that can’t be easily quantified, like international relations, so that every negotiation becomes a zero-sum game in which, as Joe Nocera put it a few years ago: “In every deal, he has to win and you have to lose.” It encourages Trump and his surrogates to see everything as a war, even if it leads them to inflict just as much damage on themselves, and the incentives that he imposes on those around him, in which no admission of error is possible, drag down even the best of his subordinates. And we’ve seen this pattern before. As the journalist Joe Galloway says in Vietnam: “You don’t get details with a body count. You get numbers. And the numbers are lies, most of ‘em. If body count is your success mark, then you’re pushing otherwise honorable men, warriors, to become liars.”

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2017 at 8:15 am

One Response

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  1. This is an excellent post. I think you should submit it to a newspaper.

    inglotpoems

    October 24, 2017 at 9:18 am


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