Bush Officially Embraces Vietnam-Era Strategy Of Publicizing Enemy Body Counts In Iraq

In late October, Bush told a group of conservative journalists that the administration had made a decision not to report the number of Iraqis killed by the U.S. military. The publication of those figures was widely seen as a counter-productive strategy during the Vietnam War. Byron York reported for the National Review:

“We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team,” Bush said, in a clear reference to the tabulations of enemy killed that became a hallmark of the Vietnam War. And that, in turn, “gives you the impression that [U.S. troops] are just there — kind of moving around, directing traffic, and somebody takes a shot at them and they’re down.”

Today, Tony Snow announced that the administration had reversed course and would be publicizing body counts to disabuse people of the notion that “our people aren’t doing anything” in Iraq. Watch it:

Snow said he couldn’t explain “why the president said what he said” previously about body counts “because I can’t put him on the couch right now.”

Full transcript:

QUESTION: The president, yesterday, said that about (inaudible) enemy forces have either been killed or captured in about the last two and a half months.

SNOW: Yes.

QUESTION: Can you elaborate on that — I mean, just make one broad statement about that?

What other information do you have to back that up, in terms of…

SNOW: Well, that’s the information that’s been produced by our people in the field.

QUESTION: Why did he decide to give enemy body counts, something that they generally try to stay away from?

SNOW: Well, that’s a good question. I won’t try to — rather than trying to tell you why the president said what he said, because I can’t put him on the couch right now, what I can do is at least offer one possible reason why that’s an important data point for Americans, which is — there’s a lot of concern about U.S. casualties and deaths, as there should be: 103 deaths in October alone.

SNOW: And there is quite often the impression — and I’ve talked about it up here — that our people aren’t doing anything; they’re just targets.

And I think there’s a certain amount of unease in the American public because they hear about deaths, but they don’t hear about what’s going on.

I was speaking last night with a service member, just recently back. He was at our party.

And he’s frustrated because a lot of the activities that they do never get reported.

One of the things that never seems to be counterposed to the death counts is what our service men and women are doing. And one of the things they’re doing is they’re fighting the bad guys.

And as General Chiarelli said recently, bad guys haven’t won a single battle.

For obvious reasons, going back to the Vietnam era, people are loathed to do body counts, but it probably is worth at least giving a general impression of the relative battlefield success of what’s going on, which is a great many members of Al Qaida in Anbar, and also, people who are committing acts of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere, are dying or being captured as a result of these military activities.

QUESTION: Is this something, then, the White House would like to the American public to judge: We killed this many bad guys versus how many of us are killed? Is that something you want as a metric from now on?

SNOW: I don’t know. But I think the most important — I think it is important that Americans learn as much as possible about what’s going on in Iraq.

And that’s not merely militarily — to get a sense of where the violence is located, how widespread it is, what’s going on in civil society. Is there hope in certain provinces? What is the full picture in Iraq?

And I’m afraid that that is something that people have not fully received, and so we will be talking about the fuller picture, good news and bad news.

QUESTION: Can I say that the White House and Pentagon have all said this is counterinsurgency and (inaudible) sectarian violence.

And when you look at a counterinsurgency, you don’t win a counterinsurgency by killing a whole lot of people.

So I guess my question is…

SNOW: Well, there…

QUESTION: Do you really want the American public to say this is how many people we’ve killed? Because — commanders will tell you that’s not how you win it.

SNOW: Well, the commanders will tell you a couple of things.

Number one, when you’re fighting insurgents, if they’re dead, they’re not going to fight you anymore.

SNOW: But the other important thing about counterinsurgency is that it has to be part of a broader program, which we’ve talked about many times, which involves not merely — you know, talk about Baghdad neighborhoods, for instance: clean, hold, but you’ve also got to sustain those neighborhoods.

And that involves creating a police force that is reliable and trusted. It means creating economic opportunity so you don’t leave a vacuum behind. It involves creating political consensus in the country so that people have buy-in.

So as the generals themselves have said…

QUESTION: So is that not happening, which is why he went to the body count?

SNOW: No. No. A lot of these things are happening. As I said…


QUESTION: … there’s not a lot of that happening.

SNOW: Well, no, you don’t assume that because we’ve introduced a new piece of evidence that other evidence does not play into the conversation.

QUESTION: And if you look back on numbers that have been given, here and in the Pentagon, about how many enemy there are over the years, I mean, at one point it’s 5,000, at one it’s 20,000. So in the last three months you’ve killed or captured 5,000. It seems like all the enemy should be gone at this point.

SNOW: Well, again, I know, but I’m just telling you that — I told you I’m not going to put the president on the couch; I’m offering you a possible explanation.

But it is important that people get a fuller picture. And you’ve heard it from troops. I’ve heard it from troops. And it should not be limited simply to that.

But one also should not assume that people out there are simply dying in vain or that our men and women are not accomplishing things when they’re taking on the people who are committing acts of violence that has killed thousands of Iraqis.

QUESTION: Are you making a differentiation between suicide bombers and insurgents or terrorists and insurgents, or are they all lumped together in the same…

SNOW: Anybody who is trying to take down this government or destabilizing the democracy through acts of violence are enemies to the democracy in Iraq.