Analysis 01-24-2020


The Politics of Lies and Body Counts

Before leaving the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said the injuries sustained by the American service members in the attack on a base in Iraq were “not very serious.”

“I heard they had headaches and a couple of other things,” the president told reporters. “I don’t consider them very serious injuries, relative to the other injuries that I’ve seen.”

Trump’s comments drew criticism from veterans advocates who noted that since the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs have put in place procedures to treat and lessen the impact of traumatic brain injuries suffered from the blasts from roadside bombs and injuries considered to be the signature wounds of those conflicts.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military acknowledged an additional number of service members had been flown from Iraq to Germany for observation nearly two weeks after the missile attack on the Al Asad airbase. Last week 11 service members were flown out of Iraq for further observation after presenting concussion-like symptoms.

When pressed by reporters, Trump continued his claim that the injuries weren’t very serious relative “to other injuries I have seen.”

President Donald Trump holds a news conference at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 22, 2020.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

. “No, I do not consider that to be bad injuries. No.”

Trump’s remarks also drew swift criticism from veterans’ groups that have advocated for the victims from violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, tweeted: “The @DeptVetAffairs and hundreds of thousands of post-9/11 veterans disagree: Don’t just be outraged by #PresidentMayhem’s latest asinine comments. Take action to help vets facing TBIs:


The DeptVetAffairs and hundreds of thousands of post-9/11 veterans disagree:  Don’t just be outraged by #PresidentMayhem’s latest asinine comments. Take action to help vets facingTBIs: …


Wow. @realDonaldTrump just told (I think) @weijia that he doesn’t think US service members who suffer Traumatic Brain Injuries had anything very serious happen to them.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as “a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.”

In addition, service members and veterans potentially have added exposure to blasts, from combat and from training.

TBI injuries have been treated as the “signature wound” and “silent epidemic” of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where insurgents used roadside bombs to significant effect. While the blasts from those bombs caused serious physical injuries to U.S. service members, they also caused a much larger number of TBI injuries that were not immediately visible.

This Jan. 8, 2020, satellite image released by Planet Labs Inc., reportedly shows damage to the Ain al-Asad US airbase in western Iraq, after being hit by rockets from Iran.Ho/Planet Labs Inc. /AFP via Getty

According to the VA, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) “reported more than 408,000 TBIs among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000 and early 2019.”

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut accused the president of misleading the American public for weeks by denying any U.S. personnel were injured in an Iranian missile strike earlier this month and downplaying the severity of their injuries once they became public.

“You don’t get sent to Germany for headaches,” Murphy, a Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS News in an interview. “You get airlifted to Germany when you’re in seriously bad shape.”

The controversial issue of body counts and casualties raised its head this week as it was learned that dozens of Americans were sent to hospitals in Germany and Kuwait in the wake of the Iranian missile attack on Al-Asad air base.

Right after the attack, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had said, “Most importantly, no casualties, no friendly causalities, whether they are US, coalition, contractor, etc.”

Now it has been learned that 11 US soldiers were injured in the attack and were flown out of Iraq several days later to be treated for head injuries after they showed signs of concussion, additional soldiers sent later to Germany for evaluation and treatment.

The Pentagon justified their original assessment by saying, “That was the commander’s assessment at the time.  Symptoms emerged days after the fact and they were treated out of an abundance of caution.”

Whatever the reason, the history of battle casualty reports is one of lying and misrepresenting the facts.

Obviously, insisting one’s side has suffered few casualties has been common over the years.  It helps improve the moral of one’s army and civilian populations by making it seem that victory is within sight.  This was the German tactic in WWI, when the Germans insisted that killing more French at Verdun meant it was a German victory.  Of course, the Germans never captured Verdun and France eventually defeated the Germans.

In the case of the Iranian missile attack, by claiming no American casualties, Trump was able to calm down a situation that could have led to a war with Iran.  It also supplied political ammunition by showing that Iran’s missile threat was overblown.

The great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz warned nearly 200 years ago, “Casualty reports…are never accurate.”  He continued by writing that figures are “no accurate measure of the loss of morale; hence…the abandonment of the fight remains the only authentic proof of victory.”

Not everyone thought that way.  Post Napoleonic strategist Baron Antoine Jomini said that war could best be understood in terms of mathematics – things that could be counted.

America and its Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara took this theory to the extreme in the Vietnam War.  McNamara, the former head of Ford Motor Company, thought that counting dead North Vietnamese could prove the US was winning the war, just like counting the number of Fords sold could prove that Ford Motor Company was making money.

This led to the notorious body count syndrome that was used to prove the US was winning the Vietnam War.  Soldiers counting bodies were encouraged to inflate the number of enemy dead found on a battlefield.  They were also indiscriminate in counting dead civilians as enemy soldiers.

In later years, General Giap admitted that he had lost 500,000 soldiers from 1964 to 1969, but they meant nothing.  North Vietnam won the war despite horrendous body counts.

The result was that, after Vietnam, American officers moved away from the body count philosophy.  During the war to retake Kuwait, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander stated that as a Vietnam veteran, he abhorred body counts as a measure of success.

General Tommy Franks was to comment, “We don’t do body counts.”

However, after the first Gulf War, the US has drifted back into the old mindset as the never-ending War on Terror has continued for nearly a generation.  Without clear victories in places like Afghanistan, it is much easier to count bodies in order to claim victory.

The art of body counts has evolved as technology has evolved.  Today, the deaths and injuries caused by drone strikes is a subject of controversy.  Naureen Shah, Director of the Human Rights Clinic as Columbia University says, “That it is the US government that owes the public an accounting of who is being killed.”

A report by Columbia University warns that low civilian casualty estimates may provide false assurance to the public and policy makers that drone strikes do not harm civilians.  Many of the “militants” who are victims of drone attacks are very likely to be civilians who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Admittedly, body and casualty counts are vague and the definition of injured and can change.  In the case of the soldiers injured in the Iranian missile retaliation, they weren’t originally counted as they had no visible signs of injury after the attack.  It was only when they showed signs of concussion that they were sent to medial facilities.

Brain trauma like concussion is a relatively new injury as researchers have discovered that concussions are much more dangerous than previously thought.  In Vietnam, soldiers who suffered concussions were told to either “walk it off” or to go to the barracks to rest for a few hours.  They weren’t considered injured when making reports.

In other words, the Iranian missile attack victims would have not been considered casualties by medical standards of the Vietnam War.

Then there is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), which may not show up until the soldier returns home or occurs years later.

Reporting body and causality counts of the enemy is still subjective, especially if there are no friendly troops in the area.  Drone and air strikes rely upon overhead imagery for damage assessment.  If the imagery is captured after a few hours, bodies may have already been removed.  There is also the question of victims in the wreckage of buildings.

In this case, the count may be very subjective, especially if the senior officers want to prove a strike is successful.  In that case, the junior officers will gladly make up casualty numbers that will make their bosses happy – even if that includes dead civilians or imaginary enemy caught under wreckage.

Sending troops to make an actual body count in unsecured territory is risky.

Another factor of false casualty count is the moral factor.  Wars, especially those that last a long time, require some proof that they are being won.  Otherwise, they tend to lose the support of the voters (Vietnam is an excellent example) and the troops.  This is especially true in Afghanistan, where the US has been at war for 19 years – with no end in sight.

American voters have shown that they want to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, while still winning – one reason Trump won in 2016.  If body and causality counts can be used to prove the US is winning, it is easier to withdraw.

Another use of false casualty count is diplomatic.  In the case of the Iranian missile attack, the immediate announcement of American casualties would have engendered calls by Americans for retaliation against Iran – which would have led to more Iranian attacks that could have led to a general war.

By announcing no American casualties, it gave Trump a chance to lower tensions by not retaliating against Iran.  It can be said that the relative peace in the region is due to the “fudging” of American casualty figures.

Despite all the controversy, in the end, the practice of faking or fudging body and casualty figures will continue.

Clausewitz once said, “In war everything is uncertain.”

He was wrong.  In war, false body counts will always be certain.