Death by the Numbers

Should the numbers of enemy fighters killed by American forces be published? That’s the topic of the moment at the Wall Street Journal, as summarized by Slate:

The WSJ fronts a look at how the U.S. command in Afghanistan has been releasing numbers of every enemy fighter killed in combat. It marks the first time the military has released such detailed body counts since the Vietnam War, when the practice was common. But there’s still great debate within military circles about the value of keeping close track of these numbers, particularly in a war that is not being fought over clear front lines and that has more to do with getting the allegiance of the local population. Some think that advertising the dead might turn Afghans against Western service members; they argue it takes attention away from rebuilding efforts. But proponents of the practice insist it’s a useful tool to counter Taliban propaganda and make it clear to the American people that they’re making progress. It has also become a contentious issue with allies, who are against releasing body counts, which means the NATO-led forces almost never release tallies of dead enemy fighters.

The military might be discussing which sorts of disclosure are most beneficial or harmful, and for who, but that is its concern. The issue, it seems to me, is that we (the public and the media) need to be aggressively pressing for full disclosure in almost every instance: How many are killed, irrespective of the side they are on; the number wounded; the numbers of civilians harmed. Media in all countries should always push for more information, not less—along with constant efforts to assess what the numbers tell us. It may be in the military’s interest to spin statistics for psychological and tactical purposes, but it is rarely in the public interest.

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