At times it seems that no statistic to emerge from Iraq cannot be looked at in a glass-half-full kind of way. Last year, when the civilian death toll was having one of its moments in the spotlight, Iowan Republican Senator Steve King claimed: "My wife's at far greater risk being a civilian in Washington DC than an average civilian in Iraq." He explained that there were 45 violent deaths per 100,000 people in Washington in 2003 and 27.51 per 100,000 in Iraq as a whole. As it turned out, the source of his Iraq statistic was unclear, while his Washington figures were out of date ... but let's not dignify him any further.
The vignette merely illustrates that no matter how obviously dire a situation, there is usually some idiot on hand, someone who is bewilderingly able to "put a new perspective" on horrifyingly high civilian death tolls, or suggest that one can't make a big democracy omelette without breaking a few hundred thousand eggs (I paraphrase slightly).
Yet occasionally a statistic comes along that seems indefensibly absurd. And so it was with this week's news that the United States has lost 190,000 weapons issued to the Iraqi security forces since the 2003 invasion - a statistic on which Mr King has unsurprisingly yet to break his silence.
According to the US government accountability department - I know! the what? - 135,000 pieces of body armour are also missing, and even the most frothingly diehard supporters of the whole Iraq adventure are being forced to concede that the figures "raise questions".
Quite. Like: is there a decimal point missing in those figures - perhaps about three numbers in? Did we get tired of asymmetric warfare, so we're now trying to level the playing field a little for these people? Can we at least please stop cursing Iran for supplying insurgents with weapons when we do such a bang-up job of it ourselves? Is the coalition more or less proud than on the occasion when it failed to secure 380 tonnes of explosives after it had captured the al-Qaida installation in which the cache was housed? And finally, is the point at which we can't even locate our own weapons of destruction in Iraq the point at which even the Bush administration has to accept things are pretty much terminally screwed for its mission over there?
Alas, we do not have the answers, because a Pentagon spokesman explains that the multinational force in Iraq is still preparing a response. And really, which of us wouldn't need a bit of time on that one? As yet the administration will only go so far as to concede that "some" of the weapons will have "fallen into" the hands of insurgents - such a peculiarly woolly styling that you'd think they were attempting to suggest that the vast majority of these AK-47s and pistols were adopted by kindly Iraqi families and are now living peaceable existences on country farms, where they scare hot-weather crows and shoot tin cans off rustic fences.
What we do know is that 20% of US troop casualties have been caused by small-arms attacks, and while we will never be sure how many of their assailants were toting Pentagon hardware, the whole affair is starting to make those traditional gripes about how the CIA historically armed the Taliban look like a comparatively astute way of doing business.
Indeed in recent months plenty of commentators have seen fit to point out that Washington is now backing all manner of conflicting factions in Iraq, from supporting a Shia government in Baghdad to backing Sunni Arab militias in Anbar province in their continuing battles with al-Qaida. The unavoidable conclusion, that the US has effectively armed a proportion of the insurgents too, just looks that little bit hard to sell to an already short-fused public.
As the New York Times said this week, $19bn has been spent building and training security forces in Iraq, yet a White House document published last month reported that just six of these battalions are capable of operating without US support, which is four fewer that were able to do so in March. You have to think that even that fabled glass-half-full syntax mangler George Bush is going to have trouble spinning this one. We're not even making progress in not accelerating our regress ...
Still, no doubt he'll pull something out of the bag. I see yet another of those speeches in which the president feigns surprise and frustration at the media's failure to report the good news coming out of Iraq. I see him grinning: "I welcome the Iraqis' eagerness to embrace a market economy." A black market, admittedly, on which the main commodity traded is stolen US weaponry, but it's a truly significant step. Or perhaps he could couch it in different terms. "I look at Iraq and I see strong growth in key sectors." The weaponry transaction sector, sure - but really, we can all see a definite spike here.
Failing that, perhaps Senator King could be persuaded back into the limelight to declare that his wife is far more likely to be ambushed with a US government-supplied AK-47 in Washington than she is in Baghdad. After all, who's counting?
© 2007 The Guardian/UK