The Numerical War Crime

Escalation by the Numbers: What “Progress” in Iraq Really Means
By Tom Engelhardt

Someday, we will undoubtedly discover that, in the term “surge” — as in the President’s “surge” plan (or “new way forward”) announced to the nation in January — was the urge to avoid the language (and experience) of the Vietnam era. As there were to be no “body bags” (or cameras to film them as the dead came home), as there were to be no “body counts” (“We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team” was the way the President put it), as there were to be no “quagmires,” nor the need to search for that “light at the end of the tunnel,” so, surely, there were to be no “escalations.”

The escalations of the Vietnam era, which left more than 500,000 American soldiers and vast bases and massive air and naval power in and around Vietnam (Laos, and Cambodia), had been thoroughly discredited. Each intensification in the delivery of troops, or simply in ever-widening bombing campaigns, led only to more misery and death for the Vietnamese and disaster for the U.S. And yet, not surprisingly, the American experience in Iraq — another attempted occupation of a foreign country and culture — has been like a heat-seeking missile heading for the still-burning American memories of Vietnam.

As historian Marilyn Young noted in early April 2003 with the invasion of Iraq barely underway: “In less then two weeks, a 30 year old vocabulary is back: credibility gap, seek and destroy, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs, the dominance of domestic politics, winning, or more often, losing hearts and minds.” By August 2003, the Bush administration, of course, expected that only perhaps 30,000 American troops would be left in Iraq, garrisoned on vast “enduring” bases in a pacified country. So, in a sense, it’s been a surge-a-thon ever since. By now, it’s beyond time to call the President’s “new way forward” by its Vietnamese equivalent. Admittedly, a “surge” does sound more comforting, less aggressive, less long-lasting, and somehow less harmful than an “escalation,” but the fact is that we are six months into the newest escalation of American power in Iraq. It has deposited all-time high numbers of troops there as well, undoubtedly, as more planes and firepower in and around that country than at any moment since the invasion of 2003. Naturally enough, other “all-time highs” of the grimmest sort follow.

This September, General David Petraeus, our escalation commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, our escalation ambassador there, will present their “progress report” to Congress. (“Progress” was another word much favored in American official pronouncements of the Vietnam era.) The very name tells you more or less what to expect. The report has already been downgraded to a “snapshot” of an ongoing set of operations, which shouldn’t be truly judged or seriously assessed until at least this November, or perhaps early 2008, or…

With that in mind, here is the second Tomdispatch “by the numbers” report on Iraq. Consider it an attempt to put the Iraqi quagmire-cum-nightmare — two classic Vietnam-era words — in perspective.

Few numbers out of Iraq can be trusted. Counting accurately amid widespread disruption, mayhem, and bloodshed, under a failing occupation, in a land essentially lacking a central government, in a U.S. media landscape still dizzy from the endless spin of the Bush administration and its military commanders is probably next to impossible. But however approximate the figures that follow, they still offer an all-too-vivid picture of what the President’s much-desired invasion let loose. No country could suffer such uprooting, destruction, death, loss, and deprivation, yet remain collectively sane.

American civilian and military officials now talk about staying in Iraq through 2008, or 2009, or into the next decade, or for undefined but lengthening periods of time. And yet Iraq (by the numbers) has devolved month by month, year by year, for four-plus years. There was never any reason to believe that the latest escalation — or any future escalation, whatever it might be called, and whether accomplished via the U.S. military or by a growing shadow army of guns-for-hire employed by private-security firms — could be capable of anything but hurrying the pace of that devolution. So imagine what Iraq-by-the-numbers will be like in 2008 or 2009, given the clear determination of the Bush administration’s “strategic thinkers” to garrison that country into the distant future.

Here, then, is escalation in Iraq by the numbers — almost all of them continue to “surge” — as of mid-August 2008:

Number of American troops stationed in Iraq: 162,000 (plus at least several thousand government employees), an all-time high.

Estimated number of U.S.-(taxpayer)-paid private contractors in Iraq: More than 180,000, again undoubtedly an all-time high. That figure includes approximately 21,000 Americans, 43,000 non-Iraqi foreign contractors (including Chileans, Nepalese, Colombians, Indians, Fijians, El Salvadorans, and Filipinos among others), and 118,000 Iraqis, but does not include a complete count of “private security contractors who protect government officials and buildings,” according to State Department and Pentagon figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Percentage of private contractors in total U.S. forces deployed in World War II and the Korean War: 3-5%, according to the Congressional testimony of human rights lawyer Scott Horton. In Vietnam and the first Gulf War, that figure reached 10%. Now, it is at least near parity.

Number of private companies working in Iraq on contract for the U.S. government: 630, with personnel from more than 100 countries, according to Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestselling Blackwater, The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

Typical pay of a former U.S. Special Forces soldier working for a private-security company in Iraq: $650 a day, according to Scahill, “after the company takes its cut.” That rate, however, can hit $1,000 a day.

Number of trucks on the road each day as part of the U.S. resupply operation in Iraq: 3,000.

Number of attacks from June 2006 through May 2007 on U.S. supply convoys guarded by private-security contractors: 869, a near tripling from the previous twelve months.

Number of private contractors who have died in Iraq: Over 1,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, based on partial figures because private companies do not have to declare their war dead.

Predicted cost of a surge of 21,500 American troops into Iraq, according to White House calculations in January 2007: $5.6 billion, a figure offered the month the President’s surge strategy was announced.

Predicted cost of a one-year surge of 30,000-40,000 troops, according to Robert Sunshine, assistant director for budget analysis of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office: $22 billion (two years for a cut-rate $40 billion). These figures were offered in testimony to Congress five months after the President’s surge was officially launched.

Percentage of dollars annually appropriated by the U.S. government and spent on Iraq-related activities: More than 10%, or one dollar out of every 10, according to the CBO’s Sunshine.

Read the rest here.

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