Counting Kills

How is it that the army of a liberal, democratic country, one that prides itself as the champion of liberty worldwide, could possibly descend to the level exemplified by the war crimes committed at Haditha, Samarra, and Abu Ghraib?

This is baffling to those who have yet to absorb the libertarian lesson that all states, everywhere, are nothing but criminal gangs with a monopoly on coercion in a given geographical area. My naïve liberal and conservative brethren, who still believe in the fairy tale of the "benevolent" state, are either surprised (the former) or in denial (the latter): in any case, they are not equipped, intellectually, to handle the horrific reality, as reported by the Los Angeles Times:

"Military prosecutors and investigators probing the killing of three Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops in May believe the unit’s commanders created an atmosphere of excessive violence by encouraging ‘kill counts’ and possibly issuing an illegal order to shoot Iraqi men.

"At a military hearing Wednesday on the killing of the detainees near Samarra, witnesses painted a picture of a brigade that operated under loose rules allowing wanton killing and tolerating violent, anti-Arab racism."

Shades of the Vietnam War rise to haunt us. As one account of the My Lai massacre put it, that infamous slaughter was made possible not only by the character and personality of the American commander, Lt. William Calley, but also due to:

"The incessant demand of those higher up the command chain for a ‘body count’ – and, as G.I.s often joked, ‘anything not white and dead is a VC.’ Units frequently exaggerated their body counts, or counted any dead Vietnamese as a combatant. C Company had recently been chided – mocked, in fact – by the colonel further up the chain of command for its low kill count. Both of the factors mentioned thus far are related to the fact that America was fighting a war without the support of its public – they were forced to commission men of little ability, and the need to show the public they were winning the war meant the chain of command put pressure on soldiers to come up with results, whatever the cost."

The U.S. military is a bureaucratic organization as much as it is a killing machine: as such, like all government agencies, it is answerable not to the exigencies of the marketplace, but to some other standard of value that must be constructed to measure its success. In days of yore, this was no big problem: If Ruthenia invaded Carpathia, took its capital city, razed the place to the ground, and annexed its territory to the rising Ruthenian Empire, then this was all the measure of success anyone required. In the modern era, however, especially the post-World War II period, things are no longer so simple. There are no "victories," as such, at least in the old-fashioned sense – only the prospect of a perpetual occupation.

The Vietnam War brought this home to the American high command; here, after all, was a conflict in which we seemed to be "winning" all the battles, but losing the war. By the traditional rules of the battlefield, this made no sense: in the framework of a struggle against native insurgents, however, it made all the sense in the world. What the American commanders didn’t realize was that they were fighting a new kind of war – what is today called "fourth generation warfare."

In order to justify the continuation of the war, and the release of huge military expenditures by the legislative branch, the U.S. military had to somehow make the case that the war was winnable – that they were, in fact, winning, and needed only to persevere in order to "pacify" the Vietnamese countryside. To make this case, they needed what every bureaucratic fiefdom seems to generate like bees produce pollen: numbers, and plenty of them. Everything was counted: there were "kill counts," counts of the wounded, counts of the captured, counts of air raids over North Vietnamese territory, counts of targets hit, etc. The sum total of all this counting was that we were winning, or had some expectation of imminent victory, and the numbers "proved" it.

This mindset, far from being discredited by the Vietnam defeat, thrives in our era of fascination with what passes for "science," including the so-called science of modern warfare. In a memo dated Oct. 16, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained:

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?"

If only we had the metrics, the numbers, we could feed them into the computer and – presto! – we’d have a solution to our problem. War crimes committed in Samarra, Haditha, and God-knows-where-else were attempts to pump up the numbers. If "kill counts" are the coin of the realm, then there’s a built-in incentive to shoot first and ask questions later: or, worse, engage in indiscriminate killings and label the dead "combatants," or, better yet, "terrorists." Think of it as gathering "metrics" for Rummy.

These aren’t isolated incidents, as the War Party avers: war crimes are built in to the system, inherent in the faux-scientific paradigm of Rumsfeld & Co., which reduces human lives to digits and feeds them into a computer. This is how they justify their bloated budgets – and a foreign policy founded on the principle of unremitting aggression.

In the case of Haditha, the focus is on the attempted cover-up, but what’s notable in the Samarra incident is that the commander, Army Col. Michael Steele, appears to have ordered his troops to "kill all military-age men" in the vicinity. The Times reports:

"On Wednesday, a military court heard testimony from a witness who suggested that a culture of racism and unrestrained violence pervaded the unit. The account of Pfc. Bradley Mason and other witnesses bolstered the findings of investigators who say the brigade’s commanders led soldiers to believe it was permissible to kill Iraqi men. …

"Mason said that just before ‘Operation Iron Triangle’ began on an island in Tharthar Lake near Samarra, Steele and other officers ordered them to ‘engage and kill all military age men.’ The Defense official familiar with the investigation said that even if Steele did not issue a verbal order, many in the brigade believed that was what the commander wanted."

The more we hear that this war isn’t like Vietnam, the more insistently it comes to resemble that storied disaster. From "kill counts" to "free-fire zones," we are living in one continual moment of déjà vu, the past as seen in a fun-house mirror – the Bizarro World of the post-9/11 era.

I hate to bring up this pet theory of mine, once again, but I don’t see how anyone can deny the irrefutable truth of it. The force of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center tore a hole in the space-time continuum, and we all slipped into an alternate universe – Bizarro World, where up is down, black is white, and mass murder is mere "metrics." That much is clear. But what I want to know is – how do we get out of here? How do we reestablish our moral bearings? Show trials of those who were just following orders?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].