From the ninth to the seventh centuries BCE, the palace walls of the kings who ruled the Assyrian Empire were decorated with vast stone friezes, filled with enough dead bodies to sate any video-game maker and often depicting -- in almost comic strip-style -- various bloody royal victories and conquests. At least one of them shows Assyrian soldiers lopping off the heads of defeated enemies and piling them into pyramids for an early version of what, in the VCE (Vietnam Common Era) of the 1960s, Americans came to know as the "body count."
So I learned recently by wandering through a traveling exhibit of ancient Assyrian art from the British Museum. On the audio tour accompanying the show, one expert pointed out that Assyrian scribes, part of an impressive imperial bureaucracy, carefully counted those heads and recorded the numbers for the greater glory of the king (as, in earlier centuries, Egyptian scribes had recorded counts of severed hands for victorious Pharaohs).
Hand it to art museums. Is there anything stranger than wandering through one and locking eyes with a Vermeer lady, a Van Eyck portrait, or one of Rembrandt's burghers staring out at you across the centuries? What a reminder of the common humanity we share with the distant past. In a darker sense, it's no less a reminder of our kinship across time to spot a little pyramid of heads on a frieze, imagine an Assyrian scribe making his count, and -- eerily enough -- feel at home. What a measure of just how few miles "the march of civilization" (as my parents' generation once called it) has actually covered.
Prejudiced Toward War
If you need an epitaph for the Bush administration, here's one to test out: They tried. They really tried. But they couldn't help it. They just had to count.
In a sense, George W. Bush did the Assyrians proud. With his secret prisons, his outsourced torture chambers, his officially approved kidnappings, the murders committed by his interrogators, the massacres committed by his troops and mercenaries, and the shock-and-awe slaughter he ordered from the air, it's easy enough to imagine what those Assyrian scribes would have counted, had they somehow been teleported into his world. True, his White House didn't have friezes of his victories (one problem being that there were none to glorify); all it had was Saddam Hussein's captured pistol proudly stored in a small study off the Oval Office. Almost 3,000 years later, however, Bush's "scribes," still traveling with the imperial forces, continued to count the bodies as they piled ever higher in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pakistani borderlands, and elsewhere.
Many of those body counts were duly made public. This record of American "success" was visible to anyone who visited the Pentagon's website and viewed its upbeat news articles complete with enumerations of "Taliban fighters" or, in Iraq, "terrorists," the Air Force's news feed listing the number of bombs dropped on "anti-Afghan forces," or the U.S. Central Command's stories of killing "Taliban militants."
On the other hand, history, as we know, doesn't repeat itself and -- unlike the Assyrians -- the Bush administration would have preferred not to count, or at least not to make its body counts public. One of its small but tellingly unsuccessful struggles, a sign of the depth of its failure on its own terms, was to avoid the release of those counts.
Its aversion to the body count made some sense. After all, since the 1950s, body counting for the U.S. military has invariably signaled not impending victory, but disaster, and even defeat. In fact, one of the strangest things about the American empire has been this: Between 1945 and George W. Bush's second term, the U.S. economy, American corporations, and the dollar have held remarkable sway over much of the rest of the world. New York City has been the planet's financial capital and Washington its war capital. (Moscow, even at the height of the Cold War, always came in a provincial second.)
In the same period, the U.S. military effectively garrisoned much of the globe from the Horn of Africa to Greenland, from South Korea to Qatar, while its Navy controlled the seven seas, its Air Force dominated the global skies, its nuclear command stood ready to unleash the powers of planetary death, and its space command watched the heavens. In the wake of the Cold War, its various military commands (including Northcom, set up by the Bush administration in 2002, and Africom, set up in 2007) divided the greater part of the planet into what were essentially military satrapies. And yet, the U.S. military, post-1945, simply could not win the wars that mattered.
Because the neocons of the Bush administration brushed aside this counterintuitive fact, they believed themselves faced in 2000 with an unparalleled opportunity (whose frenetic exploitation would be triggered by the attacks of 9/11, the "Pearl Harbor" of the new century). With the highest-tech military on the planet, funded at levels no other set of nations could cumulatively match, the United States, they were convinced, was uniquely situated to give the phrase "sole superpower" historically unprecedented meaning. Even the Assyrians at their height, the Romans in their Pax Romana centuries, the British in the endless decades when the sun could never set on its empire, would prove pikers by comparison.
In this sense, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and the various neocons in the administration were fundamentalist idolaters -- and what they worshipped was the staggering power of the U.S. military. They were believers in a church whose first tenet was the efficacy of force above all else. Though few of them had the slightest military experience, they gave real meaning to the word bellicose. They were prejudiced towards war.
With awesome military power at their command, they were also convinced that they could go it alone as the dominating force on the planet. As with true believers everywhere, they had only contempt for those they couldn't convert to their worldview. That contempt made "unilateralism" their strategy of choice, and a global Pax Americana their goal (along with, of course, a Pax Republicana at home).
If All Else Fails, Count the Bodies
It was in this context that they were not about to count the enemy dead. In their wars, as these fervent, inside-the-Beltway utopians saw it, there would be no need to do so. With the "shock and awe" forces at their command, they would refocus American attention on the real metric of victory, the taking of territory and of enemy capitals. At the same time, they were preparing to disarm the only enemy that truly scared them, the American people, by making none of the mistakes of the Vietnam era, including -- as the President later admitted -- counting bodies.
Of course, both the Pax Americana and the Pax Republicana would prove will-o'-the-wisps. As it turned out, the Bush administration, blind to the actual world it faced, disastrously miscalculated the nature of American power -- especially military power -- and what it was capable of doing. And yet, had they taken a clear-eyed look at what American military power had actually achieved in action since 1945, they might have been sobered. In the major wars (and even some minor actions) the U.S. military fought in those decades, it had been massively destructive but never victorious, nor even particularly successful. In many ways, in the classic phrase of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, it had been a "paper tiger."
Yes, it had "won" largely meaningless victories -- in Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983; against the toothless Panamanian regime of Manuel Noriega in Operation Just Cause in 1989; in Operation Desert Storm, largely an air campaign against Saddam Hussein's helpless military in 1990 (in a war that settled nothing); in NATO's Operation Deliberate Force, an air war against the essentially defenseless Serbian military in 1995 (while meeting disaster in operations in Iran in 1980 and Somalia in 1993). On the other hand, in Korea in the early 1950s and in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from the 1960s into the early 1970s, it had committed its forces all but atomically, and yet had met nothing but stalemate, disaster, and defeat against enemies who, on paper at least, should not have been able to stand up to American power.
It was in the context of defeat and then frustration in Korea that the counting of enemy bodies began. Once Chinese communist armies had entered that war in massive numbers in late 1950 and inflicted a terrible series of defeats on American forces but could not sweep them off the peninsula, that conflict settled into a "meatgrinder" of a stalemate in which the hope of taking significant territory faded; yet some measure of success was needed as public frustration mounted in the United States: thus began the infamous body count of enemy dead.
The body count reappeared quite early in the Vietnam War, again as a shorthand way of measuring success in a conflict in which the taking of territory was almost meaningless, the countryside a hostile place, the enemy hard to distinguish from the general population, and our own in-country allies weak and largely unable to strengthen themselves. Those tallies of dead bodies, announced daily by military spokesmen to increasingly dubious reporters in Saigon, were the public face of American "success" in the Vietnam era. Each body was to be further evidence of what General William Westmoreland called "the light at the end of the tunnel." When those dead bodies and any sense of success began to part ways, however, when, in the terminology of the times, a "credibility gap" opened between the metrics of victory and reality, the body count morphed into a symbol of barbarism as well as of defeat. It helped stoke an antiwar movement.
This was why, in choosing to take on Saddam Hussein's hapless military in 2003 -- the administration was looking for a "cakewalk" campaign that would "shock and awe" enemies throughout the Middle East -- they officially chose not to release any counts of enemy dead. General Tommy Franks, commander of the administration's Afghan operation in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq thereafter, put the party line succinctly, "We don't do body counts."
As the President finally admitted in some frustration to a group of conservative columnists in October 2006, his administration had "made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team." Not intending to repeat the 1960s experience, he and his advisors had planned out an opposites war on the home front -- anything done in Vietnam would not be done this time around -- and that meant not offering official counts of the dead which might stoke an antiwar movement... until, as in Korea and Vietnam, frustration truly set in.
When the taking of Baghdad in April 2003 proved no more of a capstone on American victory than the taking of Kabul in November 2001, when everything began to go disastrously wrong and the carefully enumerated count of the American dead in Iraq rose precipitously, when "victory" (a word which the President still invoked 15 times in a single speech in November 2005) adamantly refused to make an appearance, the moment for the body count had arrived. Despite all the planning, they just couldn't stop themselves. A frustrated President expressed it this way: "We don't get to say that -- a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It's happening. You just don't know it."
Soon enough the Pentagon was regularly releasing such figures in reports on its operations and, in December 2006, the President, too, first slipped such a tally into a press briefing. ("Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy.")
It wasn't, of course, that no one had been counting. The President, as we know from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, had long been keeping "'his own personal scorecard for the [global] war [on terror]' in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists -- each ready to be crossed out by the President as his forces took them down." And the military had been counting bodies as well, but as the possibility of victory disappeared into the charnel houses of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon and the president finally gave in. While this did not stoke an antiwar movement, it represented a tacit admission of policy collapse, a kind of surrender. It was as close as an administration which never owned up to error could come to admitting that two more disastrous wars had been added to a string of military failures in the truncated American Century.
That implicit admission, however, took years to arrive, and in the meantime, Iraqis and Afghans -- civilians, insurgents, terrorists, police, and military men -- were dying in prodigious numbers.
The Global War on Terror as a Ponzi Scheme
As it happened, others were also counting. Among the earliest of them, a website, Iraq Body Count, carefully toted up Iraqi civilian deaths as documented in reputable media outlets. Their estimate has, by now, almost reached 100,000 -- and, circumscribed by those words "documented" and "civilian," doesn't begin to get at the full scope of Iraqi deaths.
Various groups of scholars and pollsters also took up the task, using sophisticated sampling techniques (including door-to-door interviews under exceedingly dangerous conditions) to arrive at reasonable approximations of the Iraqi dead. They have come up with figures ranging from the hundreds of thousands to a million or more in a country with a prewar population of perhaps 26 million. United Nations representatives have similarly attempted, under difficult circumstances, to keep a count of Iraqis fleeing into exile -- exile being, after a fashion, a form of living death -- and have estimated that more than 2 million Iraqis fled their country, while another 2.7 million, having fled their homes, remained "internally displaced."
Similar attempts have been made for Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has, for instance, done its best to tally civilian deaths from air strikes in that country (while even TomDispatch has attempted to keep a modest count of wedding parties obliterated by U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq). But, of course, the real body count in either country will never be known.
One thing is certain, however: it is an obscenity of the present moment that Iraq, still a charnel house, still in a state of near total disrepair, still on the edge of a whole host of potential conflicts, should increasingly be portrayed here as a limited Bush administration "surge" success. Only a country -- or a punditry or a military -- incapable of facing the depths of destruction that the Bush administration let loose could reach such a conclusion.
If all roads once led to Rome, all acts of the Bush administration have led to destruction, and remarkably regularly to piles of dead or tortured bodies, counted or not. In fact, it's reasonable to say that every Bush administration foreign policy dream, including its first term fantasy about a pacified "Greater Middle East" and its late second term vision of a facilitated "peace process" between the Israelis and Palestinians, has ended in piles of bodies and in failure. Consider this a count all its own.
Looked at another way, the Bush administration's Global War on Terror and its subsidiary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have, in effect, been a giant Ponzi scheme. At a cost of nearly one trillion taxpayer dollars to date (but sure to be in the multi-trillions when all is said and done), Bush's mad "global war" simply sucked needed money out of our world at levels that made Bernie Madoff seem like a small fry.
Madoff, by his own accounting, squandered perhaps $50 billion of other people's money. The Bush administration took a trillion dollars of ours and handed it out to its crony corporate buddies and to the Pentagon as down payments on disaster -- and that's without even figuring into the mix the staggering sums still needed to care for American soldiers maimed, impaired, or nearly destroyed by Bush's wars.
With Bush's "commander-in-chief" presidency only days from its end, the price tag on his "war" continues to soar as dollars grow scarce, new investors refuse to pay in, and the scheme crumbles. Unfortunately, the American people, typical suckers in such a con game, will be left with a mile-high stack of IOU's. In any Ponzi scheme comparison with Madoff, however, one difference (other than size) stands out. Sooner or later, Madoff, like Charles Ponzi himself, will end up behind bars, while George, Dick, & Co. will be writing their memoirs and living off the fat of the land.
Eight years of bodies, dead, broken, mutilated, abused; eight years of ruined lives down countless drains; eight years of massive destruction to places from Baghdad to New Orleans where nothing of significance was ever rebuilt: all this was brought to us by a President, now leaving office without apology, who said the following in his first inaugural address: "I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility... to call for responsibility and try to live it as well."
He lived, however, by quite a different code. Destruction without responsibility, that's Bush's legacy, but who's counting now that the destruction mounts and the bodies begin to pile up here in the "homeland," in our own body count nation? The laid off, the pension-less, the homeless, the suicides -- imagine what that trillion dollars might have meant to them.
It's clear enough in these last days of the Bush administration that its model was Iraq, dismantled and devastated. The world, had he succeeded, might have become George W. Bush's Iraq.
Yes, he came up short, but, given the global economic situation, how much short we don't yet know. Perhaps, in the future, historians will call him a Caesar -- of destruction.
Veni, vidi, vastavi... [I came, I saw, I devastated...]
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years now ending.
[Note: I rely on many wonderful sources and websites in putting together TomDispatch.com, but as 2009 starts, I would feel remiss if I didn't credit three in particular: Antiwar.com, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Paul Woodward's The War in Context. Each is invaluable in its own way; each made my task of trying to make some sense of George W. Bush's world so much easier. A deep bow of thanks to all three. Finally, I can't help wondering about one missing Iraqi who remains on my mind: a young Sunni woman living in Baghdad in 2003, who adopted the pseudonym Riverbend. She began her "girlblog from Iraq," Baghdad Burning, with this epigraph: "...I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend..." For several years, she provided a vivid citizen's reportage on Bush's disaster that should have put most journalists to shame. As I wrote in 2006, hers was "an unparalleled record of the American war on, and occupation of, Iraq (and Riverbend writes like an angel). [It represents] simply the best contemporary account we are likely to have any time soon of the hell into which we've plunged that country." Her last report from Syria -- she had just arrived as a refugee -- was posted on October 22, 2007. Since then, as far as I know, she has not been heard from.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt
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This story was published on January 8, 2009.