Bush Cites Body Counts as Proof of Success in Iraq

President Bush has resisted comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, but this week, he started citing body counts as evidence of U.S. effectiveness in Baghdad and elsewhere. That raised a comparison with a PR tactic generally discredited after Vietnam.

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Tomorrow, President Bush will attend the swearing in of his new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. Gates replaces Donald Rumsfeld, who has become a lightning rod for discontent with the Iraq War. As a rule, the White House has resisted comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, but in one recent appearance, Mr. Bush himself invoked that ill-starred conflict.

Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE: The mood inside the Bush White House this month has been one of soul searching. Aides say the president feels some urgency to speak to the nation to tell Americans he's charting a new course in Iraq. But so far, he hasn't settled on anything he's ready to make public. For now, Mr. Bush has been trying to highlight whatever successes he can in Iraq. That led him to say this on a visit to the Pentagon last week.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: 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.

GREENE: An enemy body count was something Mr. Bush has rarely, if ever, discussed. And the fact that he did so last week was a significant departure. During the war in Vietnam, a Pentagon desperate to find a silver lining often cited the number of enemy fighters killed. Since then, public officials and military analysts have said the body count device was a mistake. Given out those numbers may have fed anti-American sentiment and angered civilians on the ground.

The lesson was not forgotten. In 2002, General Peter Pace was asked about enemy body counts during the war in Afghanistan. Pace is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he made these comments, he was vice chairman.

General PETER PACE (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Having been a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam, asking questions from Washington about how many dead today is truly counterproductive and can seriously negatively impact the safety of our forces on the ground.

GREENE: Pace was applying Vietnam lessons to Afghanistan. In Iraq, U.S. military officials have talked about enemy casualties at times, but for the president to proclaim the numbers killed over the last three months gave the practice new prominence. White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked why Mr. Bush had decided to go there.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): For obvious reasons, going back to the Vietnam era, people are loathe to do body counts. But it is probably is worth at least giving a general impression of the relative battlefield success of what's going on.

GREENE: Snow seemed to be saying the president needed something to tell a restless American public, something that might offset daily reports of U.S. soldiers being killed.

Mr. SNOW: And there is quite often the impression - and I've talked about it up here - that our people aren't doing anything. They're just targets.

GREENE: The view that Americans are targets has eroded support for the war in Iraq, which reached record lows in half a dozen national polls published last week. And while there are many differences between Iraq and Vietnam, both wars left Americans grasping for an exit strategy. In 1969, President Richard Nixon was looking for just that, having inherited the Vietnam conflict from his predecessor.

President RICHARD NIXON: Now, many believe that President Johnson's decision to send American combat forces to South Vietnam was wrong. And many others, I among them, had been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted. But the question facing us today is, now that we are in the war, what is the best way to end it?

GREENE: That in a nutshell is the question facing President Bush today, how to close out an unpopular war. He has said he wants U.S. forces home as soon as possible. He has said he shares the frustrations Americans feel. But he's also said the U.S. won't leave Iraq until the new government there can sustain itself, and his job now is to try and sort all that out. So far, he has committed himself only to taking his time.

President BUSH: I will be delivering my plans after a long deliberation, after steady deliberation. I'm not going to be rushed into making a difficult decision.

GREENE: Mr. Bush will be at the White House this week, but he's made it clear he won't announce a new policy direction until after the holidays, when he'll split his time between Camp David and his ranch in central Texas.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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