Four decades ago, American leaders sought to measure their progress in Vietnam by counting dead enemy soldiers. But that ghoulish yardstick created an international backlash that damaged the U.S. effort. These days, the military is attracting criticism again, but this time it's for not counting the enemy casualties in the war in Iraq.
Opponents of the war highlight figures that point to the human cost of the U.S. military intervention. Supporters trumpet data showing that Iraqi casualties have been dropping and that living conditions have been improving in the past year.
But for the U.S military, counting corpses is strategically risky because body counts create propaganda opportunities and even provide an incentive for the enemy to raise the toll by killing bystanders. In September, however, the U.S. military announced that it had killed 18,000 enemy fighters since 2003.
During the initial fighting and the immediate occupation, no effective civilian Iraqi government existed to count casualties -- some of whom were blown to bits or buried secretly. Recently, the government has been in a better position to count the bodies, because Iraqis who wish to claim pensions and other government services after a relative dies must have a death certificate.
When a body arrives at the morgue or hospital, relatives and government agencies receive copies of a death certificate. Conditions in Iraq are so dangerous, however, that it is difficult for Baghdad officials to stop local authorities from selling fake death certificates, or to find all of the buried, blasted, and missing bodies. Moreover, various factions within the Iraqi government have incentives to inflate or deflate the total number of deaths.
Outside organizations -- some with ideological agendas of their own -- track casualties by accumulating government and media reports. The iCasualties.org website and the Associated Press keep careful track of U.S. deaths, and in late December, Terrorist Death Watch's ticker reported that 20,010 Iraqi insurgents had died in the war.
The most comprehensive accumulation of casualty reports can be found at the website of London-based Iraq Body Count, which on January 1 reported that 81,174 to 88,585 civilians had died violently. This estimate includes murdered police officers but excludes unreported deaths, Iraqi military deaths, and the deaths of confirmed insurgents.
Some critics say that Iraq Body Count records only a small proportion of the dead, but the group's operators are confident about their numbers because they collect data from many sources, including reports translated from Arab outlets. Iraq Body Count misses few casualties from car bombs, for example, says spokesman Josh Dougherty, because Iraqi reporters use cellphones to publicize 99.4 percent of car bomb attacks within 24 hours, by way of an average of six competing media outlets. In November, the group reported that car bombs had killed 11,700 Iraqis since 2003.
Polls and surveys are another counting method, but they are complex and subject to error and bias. An Iraqi polling company reported, for example, that an August 2007 survey of households showed 1.2 million dead, including 264,126 car bomb victims. The company's owner told National Journal that he began polling to help drive U.S. forces from Iraq and that he timed the release of his estimate to coincide with Gen. David Petraeus's September testimony before Congress.
The two best-known surveys were conducted by researchers in Iraq and at Johns Hopkins University, who published their results in The Lancet. In 2004, they polled 33 neighborhoods and announced an estimate of at least 98,000 "excess" deaths from violence, disease, and infant mortality. In 2006, the team polled 47 neighborhoods and announced that 654,965 had died, mostly in violent incidents. Critics have challenged these polls on numerous grounds.
A U.N. agency and the Iraqi Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology conducted the latest study in 2006. The final estimate is being kept confidential until publication by a medical journal, perhaps early this year. This survey has concluded that the death toll is well below what the so-called Lancet II study found in 2006, several sources told National Journal.
One advantage of surveys, compared with body counts, is that they can also track the number of lives saved by the removal of a despotic government, by better medical care, and other factors. In Iraq, this effect is likely to be smaller than in Afghanistan, where improved medical care is saving an estimated 89,000 infants per year, according to a recent survey managed by Gilbert Burnham, the Johns Hopkins professor who managed the controversial Lancet surveys. This figure far exceeds the estimates of people reported dead in the fighting between the government and the Taliban -- which means that the war in Afghanistan is, at least by one count, producing more lives than deaths.