Should the Military Return to Counting Bodies?

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The body of a suspected Taliban fighter lies in a pickup truck; he had been killed in an ambush on the outskirts of Ghazni in March

Tallying the enemy's dead as a metric of battlefield progress was discredited for a generation in the U.S. military after the Vietnam debacle, but the body-count measurement appears to have been revived by the Army in Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the 101st Airborne Division has been publicizing each enemy death — for a total of nearly 2,000 — over the past 14 months. That news has already renewed the debate over the wisdom of relying on such numbers. "This isn't going to do anything to convince the American public that we're winning," says Lawrence Korb, a Pentagon personnel chief during the Reagan Administration. "It should be stopped, because at best it gives a false impression of what's happening and at worst it can rally the other side."

While many military experts remain opposed to a tally, there does seem to be a growing acceptance of the judicious citing of body counts to combat Taliban propaganda that shows only U.S. deaths and civilian casualties. "Publication of this information is part of the information campaign, and I think it's justified," says Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as a top aide to General David Petraeus in Iraq from February 2007 to May 2008. "But I don't know that I'd go so far as to do every single death," says Mansoor, who now teaches military history at Ohio State University. "Then you get into a situation where some people will start to tally up the score and say, 'Well, you've killed 2,000 people — why are you still losing?' " (See pictures of U.S. troops braving the Korengal valley.)

The regular release of body counts — a Pentagon press release on Monday had the headline "Troops in Afghanistan Kill 17 Militants" — marks a reversal in U.S. military thinking. During Operation Anaconda, the first big battle following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan nearly eight years ago, General Tommy Franks slapped down reporters who demanded to know how many enemy fighters had been killed. "I won't talk to you about body count," he said flatly. That's because for decades, the very phrase body count had been deemed poison in the ranks due to its use — and misuse — during the Vietnam War. A generation ago, commanders' careers were made, or hindered, by the number of dead North Vietnamese and Viet Cong chalked up by the forces under their command. The intense focus on only one of what the military calls "measures of effectiveness" distorted the American public's perception of how well the war was going, as enemy body counts towered over those incurred by the U.S. and its South Vietnamese ally. (Watch TIME's video "The Challenge on the Ground in Afghanistan.")

The notion of charting military progress by counting enemy dead was championed by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who believed in analyzing all sorts of data to determine how the war was going. The emphasis on those numbers led to some commanders' emphasizing killing over winning and to inflated body counts — which often included counting civilian casualties as enemy dead. "The Army's selection of the body count as its primary metric may not only have contributed to losing the war, but in the end it proved so morally corrosive that it led to a crisis of soul-searching in the postwar officer corps," William Murray wrote in 2001 in Parameters, the Army's scholarly journal; it then led to a discrediting of the practice in the U.S. military.

Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary who oversaw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, saw little use for toting up enemy KIAs (those killed in action). "If you'll recall the Vietnam War, they had body counts that went on day after day after day," he said in 2006. "The implication of that was that you were winning if the body count went up and losing if the body count went down." Relying on such numbers distracts from the fact that the outcome of the war is more likely to be determined by the political will on each side. The body count "is not the metric that's appropriate for an insurgency," Rumsfeld said.

But Robert Scales, a retired Army major general and military historian, says there may be a useful purpose served by reviving the corpse count. Unlike in Vietnam, where the tally was used to "keep score" among U.S. units and for Americans back home, Scales says the key audience for the Afghan tallies is the Afghan people themselves. For too long, he says, the U.S. has remained mute on its successes while the Taliban has shaped perceptions of how the war is going by exaggerating civilian deaths and posting videos of U.S. vehicles being blown up by roadside bombs.

"As long as the enemy has free rein to count American bodies and we don't have free rein to count enemy bodies, then the enemy is going to gain a perceptual advantage, which in this new era of war is all that counts," Scales says. Accurate U.S. reporting of Taliban fighters killed "strikes at the core of the enemy's perceptual dominance," he says. All of a sudden, Scales suggests, the Taliban may no longer be sure that God is on their side. "That's an essential argument in an Islamist country," he adds, "and they may start to question the whole theocratic underpinnings of their movement." That's assuming people in Afghanistan will believe what they're being told by a foreign army. And that the return of body counts doesn't have the opposite effect, causing Americans to begin questioning the underpinnings of a war that has lasted for nearly a decade of inconclusive combat and resulted in nearly 700 U.S. deaths.

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See pictures of U.S. troops' 6 years in Iraq.