Who's Counting the Dead in Iraq?

Remember the enemy body counts during the Vietnam War? Some of those U.S. tabulations were highly exaggerated in an effort to show gains on the battlefield.

Well, we don't do that anymore.

The Pentagon has meticulously reported the American fatality toll in Iraq, now up to 286. That number includes 183 deaths from hostile fire since the start of the war. It also includes 148 dead since May 1 when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations. A Pentagon spokesman said that 1,105 U.S. service personnel have been wounded since the war began.

That kind of numerical precision doesn't apply throughout Iraq. Trying to find the death count among Iraqis has proved to be mission impossible.

I asked Pentagon officials: ''How many Iraqis have been killed in this war?'' The answers were given ''on background'' -- meaning that the Pentagon spokesmen requested anonymity. The spokesmen were honest. They clearly were following orders from the policymakers when they replied that the Iraqi fatality toll was simply not our concern.

The reply to my first Pentagon call was: ``We don't track them (Iraqi dead).''

Weeks later I pursued the question and was told by a Defense Department official: ''They don't count. They are not important,'' meaning the casualty figures.

I later asked for an explanation of why there has been no attempt to find out the number of Iraqi war dead. A Pentagon officer patiently responded: ``In combat operations, we have objectives. We don't have an objective to kill people. Our objective was to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq.''

''If the Iraqis laid down their arms,'' he added, ''there was no problem. But if we have to go in by force to kill them, the numbers don't make a difference. It's not something we are concerned with.'' He said that U.S. forces used precision weapons to minimize the casualties.

''We achieved our military objective. We did not count'' the enemy dead, he said. ``It would be difficult at best to determine who was killed when dealing with soldiers on the ground.''

Various news organizations have come up with estimates of Iraqi dead that range from 1,700 to 3,000 persons. The heavy tonnage of bombs dropped on Iraq probably raised the civilian death toll higher.

An official at the U.S. Army Center of Military History acknowledged that the question of enemy fatalities ``is a bit sensitive to our people. We just don't face up to how many people were lost.''

Books at the history center refer to 50,000 Americans killed in World War I and some 250,000 Americans in World War II. Germany lost 1.8 million soldiers in World War I, and, as our archenemy in World War II, lost about 3.25 million people.

We do know, however, that in the Vietnam War 58,198 Americans died -- and many thousands more Vietnamese.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked this week whether President Bush knows how many people were killed and wounded in Iraq -- ''not just Americans but the total people killed and wounded in Iraq since the beginning of the war.'' He dodged the question, simply saying that Bush is ``well aware of the sacrifices that our troops have made and the sacrifices that their families are making with our troops over there in Iraq.''

On March 18, two days before the U.S. invasion, Barbara Bush had an interview with ABC-TV's Diane Sawyer.

''Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it's gonna happen?'' Mrs. Bush declared. ''It's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?'' Maybe she is right, but I don't think so.

If we do not know or care about the human cost of war for the winners and losers, America will be forever diminished in the eyes of the world.

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