The Body Count and the Pentagon

George Patton once declared that, “There is only one unchanging principle of warfare: that is, to inflict the greatest amount of death and destruction upon the enemy in the least time possible.” This principle has been central to US military strategy since Grant and Sherman, and remains so today. But is it true? Is it a valid strategy?

There are obvious times when it is not true. For example, if Washington at Yorktown had slaughtered the army of Cornwallis instead of capturing it, the war might have continued for several more years, and might have convinced England to pour every available resource into defeating the colonists.

One finds no trace of such a “death and destruction strategy” in any of the great military theorists like Clauswitz or Jomini; nor in Sun Tzu who cautioned against using excessive force because one must live with one's neighbors after they are defeated.

Unfortunately for the Pentagon, the “body count” strategy (as it came to be known in Vietnam) is both militarily and morally suspect. After all, if one can defeat the enemy with few casualties, or defeat the enemy with tremendous casualties, all else being equal, one would morally prefer the strategy which results in fewer casualties.

The body count strategy is also militarily suspect. This is perhaps best illustrated by two non-fiction war movies just released, “Black Hawk Down” and “We Were Soldiers.” “Black Hawk Down” was micro-managed by the Pentagon which insisted on approving even the smallest details in exchange for its cooperation in making the movie, and the Pentagon influence is unmistakable. The message of the movie (and which has been noted by numerous commentators) is that the Somali battle was not a defeat for the US, but a victory, because the US killed more than a thousand Somalis in exchange for a handful of Americans.

“We Were Soldiers” however, demonstrates the futility of such a benchmark of success: how many of them did we kill? “We Were Soldiers” openly questions the body count strategy. The US went into a strategically worthless area in search of killing as many of the enemy as possible. A lot of US soldiers died, and lot of North Vietnamese soldiers died, and then the US abandoned the battlefield. As the movie says, the Army declared it a victory because more of them died; but what was the point of it all? Did the US “victory” at Ia Drang get us any closer to ultimate success, or was it just a lot of pointless death and destruction?

One could ask the same about the battle in “Black Hawk Down.” Did it accomplish anything, or was it just a lot of pointless death and destruction?

Another big difference between the two movies is their treatment of the enemy. “We Were Soldiers” – a thoroughly moral movie – gives a clear sense of the humanity of the enemy. These people dying are real people with sweethearts, wives and children just like us. Their deaths may be necessary, but it is tragic nonetheless. It is in the best Western tradition of Homer who tells us in the words of Odysseus, “It is no piety to rejoice over the dead.”

“Black Hawk Down,” however, has almost no vision of who the enemy was, or why they were fighting, but even worse, no sense of their humanity. An American death is a tragedy; 1000 Somali deaths is simply a statistic. They die anonymous and unmourned.

Unfortunately, this Pentagon “body count” strategy is alive and working in Afghanistan today, with tragic results. The Pentagon has done its best to “inflict the greatest amount of death and destruction in the shortest amount of time,” and if that entails unnecessarily high civilian casualties (by a policy which often seems be “shoot first and ask questions later”), then, as long as Americans are not dying no one seems to care. The US has on several confirmed occasions attacked friendly forces or civilians they thought were Taliban, but has refused to acknowledge that any mistakes were made, or that perhaps the US ought to be more careful to make sure to find out who it is killing before it starts shooting.

The body count strategy was most obviously espoused by the Pentagon when 8 US servicemen were killed in fighting the first week of March. Pentagon spokesman John Rosa declared such casualties were not a defeat because the US killed a lot more Afghans. Does that make it a victory?

As in “We Were Soldiers” they killed some of us, we killed a lot more of them on some strategically worthless mountain somewhere. It is yet to be seen if that amounts to a victory or is just a lot of pointless death and destruction. As in Vietnam, ultimate success relies on the US gaining the support of the civilian population and tribal leaders. Search and destroy missions and high level bombing – which has on numerous occasions ended up killing innocents or US allies – does nothing to gain the support of the people. In fact, it does the opposite. Some recent reports from Afghanistan say some leaders have turned against the US after they were mistakenly targeted or arrested (and allegedly mistreated).

The US military has always been a lot better at destruction than pacification. For example, is it really necessary to try to track down every tiny group of Taliban soldiers hiding in the mountains and kill them? Could the US be more effective by declaring an amnesty for former Taliban leaders? Several attempts to negotiate surrenders have been scuttled by the US, which has insisted on no amnesty. This policy of “unconditional surrender,” and its assertion that all Taliban leaders will be subject to trial for war crimes, has certainly encouraged them to keep fighting.

There is no way to know for certain, but had the US negotiated a surrender with Mullah Omar some months ago, those 8 servicemen, and hundreds of Afghans might be alive today.

The US unconditional surrender policy and body count strategy in Afghanistan risks higher casualties on all sides, and also risks continuing to alienate a billion Moslems world wide. When the US military kills someone (even someone like bin Laden), it creates a martyr. Militarily and morally it is better to convince someone to surrender than to create another martyr, another widow, and another orphan.

In “We Were Soldiers” one of the main characters says that he joined the Army to prevent people from becoming orphans, not to create more. Every US Serviceman, and every American ought to see that movie and consider that message very carefully. A lot of orphans were made at the World Trade Center, and that was a tremendous tragedy. The US military is tasked with preventing more people from becoming orphans; that is the unchanging moral principle of warfare. Inflicting the greatest amount of death and destruction is rarely the means to that end.

March 8, 2002