UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) July 30, 2007
Over the past two years, this Iraq Benchmarks column has been probably the most controversial and criticized column or product that United Press International has published. Curiously, the controversy and criticism has never queried the reliability or accuracy of the statistical figures on U.S., Iraqi civilian and insurgent casualties, or other statistics on the Iraq war that the column monitored.
All the figures that this column has cited have been taken from official U.S. Department of Defense and Iraqi government figures, or were otherwise reliably collected and vetted by the excellent Iraq Index Project headed by Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution, one of the largest and most venerable Washington think tanks.
Also, almost none of the criticism complained about the analysis and deductions we drew from our published data, whether that was optimistic or sobering to U.S. fortunes in the war at any given time.
The criticism, instead, focused on two issues: first, that running a column on statistics dehumanized the war and lacked respect for the American soldiers serving so selflessly and so bravely in it; and second, that a statistical analysis column, by its nature, was bound to be misleading and could not help but distort Americans' understanding about the war.
The second criticism should be tackled head-on first. The answer is simply this: Even limited and inadequate analysis is vastly preferable to no analysis at all.
It is extraordinary that during the four and a quarter years the Iraq conflict has been running so far, no other mainstream American news outlet has run any regular column -- weekly, biweekly or monthly -- to analyze statistical trends in the war, nor, as our sister Eye on Iraq column did, to analyze political or strategic developments in it.
This failure does no service to the well-being and prospects of American soldiers serving in the conflict. Through World War II, the Korean War and even at later periods in the Vietnam conflict, many of the most successful and respected U.S. generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and Matthew Ridgeway carefully read the dispatches of the leading war correspondents and invited them to their headquarters to pick their brains and get their perspectives on the conflict independent of those who came filtered up the long and complex military chains of command.
In wars like World War II, where the U.S. and British media were relatively independent, aggressive and questioning, the feedback they provided proved to be of the greatest value to their own top generals and the soldiers serving in the field.
By contrast, the British media was at its most craven and slavish during World War I when the British "quality" and tabloid press, led by Lord Alfred Northcliff's "Daily Mail," completely covered up the criminal incompetence of Sir Douglas Haig and his favored colleagues that sent almost a million British soldiers to their deaths for no appreciable gain or significant damage inflicted on the German Army. Until Gen. Philippe Petain, the only outstanding Allied general in that conflict, took over the French army, the same fate befell an even larger number of French soldiers for similar reasons.
The more analysis of developments in the war that can be published, and the better informed the American public and their elected representatives in Congress are, the higher public morale and trust in the government and its top military commanders will be, as Winston Churchill well understood in Britain in World War II.
Too much of the wrong kind of suppression of unwelcome and painful facts and developments proves poisonous to morale and to the social contract between the people and their elected governments. And it historically has usually been the most tyrannical governments who were least beholden to their own people, like Adolf Hitler's in Nazi Germany, Gen. Hideki Tojo's in World War II Japan, Ho Chi Minh's in North Vietnam, and Josef Stalin's in the Soviet Union during World War II that have thrown away the precious lives of their own people with far more abandon than democracies have done -- with the disastrous exception, again, of Britain and France during World War I.
This argument obviously has relevance to the other major complaint raised about the nature of this column: that it lacked respect for American soldiers by reducing them to statistics.
But effective analysis and adaptation based on that analysis to changing circumstances has always been essential to victory in war.
The best way to show respect for soldiers serving bravely in combat is to be an honest part of the contribution that exposes unsuccessful policies to public scrutiny and forces overdue changes in them.
Even in World War II, the British media that proved open, critical and valuable in exposing and bringing an end to unsuccessful command practices in the land and sea campaigns gave the long bomber offensive against Germany a free pass, even though more than 72,000 British airmen were slaughtered in it, in large part because of the inflexible stupidity of their own high command. Sir Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris rejected the most basic precautions, such as increasing the size of escape hatches on Lancaster bombers, so that crew members wearing parachutes were not able to squeeze through them to escape burning planes.
This column has always been written with the acute awareness that behind the dry statistics it has cited lay stories of human bravery, suffering and sacrifice in the finest traditions of the armed forces of the United States. It has always been designed to be a contribution, however modest, to serving them.
Next: Statistics don't always lie
The first part of the answer to this claim, as we noted Monday, is that even incomplete and partial coverage of such trends is far better than none at all. There are obviously very tight limits on what can be included in a single 800 word or 900 word column run once a week, or once every two or three weeks. It is also, obviously the case that in any conflict, any statistics collected at the time may well be inaccurate or misleading. And even if the authorities manage to collect accurate statistics, for various reasons they may choose not to release them, either because it may tip off the enemy about the authorities' sources of information or because the figures would confirm suspicions that the war was not going very well.
It is also certainly true that statistics, when misapplied or collected about the wrong subjects, can mislead disastrously. The late David Halberstam in his book "The Best and the Brightest" about U.S. policymakers and the Vietnam War noted that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was obsessed by statistics and their analysis to the lack of all other considerations, and that many of the benchmarks he demanded statistics on were misleading or plain meaningless.
It was, for example, meaningless to demand figures on the numbers of Viet Cong guerrillas killed in conflicts when Vietnamese civilians were routinely included in the figures and, since the Viet Cong were not in uniform, there was no way of ascertaining for such counts how many of the dead were enemy combatants, let alone whether they were significant ones.
Nevertheless, in World War II, for example, accurate collection and analysis of statistics proved essential to major governments, especially those of eventually victorious Britain and the Untied States, in assessing how certain campaigns or kinds of campaigns were going.
In Nazi Germany, Armaments Minister Albert Speer's mastery of statistical collection and analysis proved crucial in boosting the Third Reich's armaments production in 1943 and 1944 at the very time the Allied bombing offensive was at its height -- allowing the Nazis to prolong the war by at least a year.
It is also striking -- and ironic -- that it was former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who both in his long career in government and as a senior business executive always preached the importance of selecting a few crucial benchmark issues and carefully collecting statistics on them to ascertain how the product, project or war was going. In launching this column, we took him at his word.
Finally, as the old saying goes, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." And as Jesus says in the New Testament, "By their fruits shall ye know them."
In the two years and that this column has been in publication, it has always been skeptical; but it has never proved defeatist or inaccurate about major trends, positive or negative, in the Iraq war. At times when U.S. military casualties appeared to spike sky high, we would caution that this was because specifically heavy fighting had been recorded in one operation or another, or was due to a run of accidents or bad luck, and that longer term trends needed to be monitored before jumping to too negative conclusions. Almost always, this caution was then confirmed by subsequent events.
We confirmed and monitored the early successes of Gen. David Petraeus and President George W. Bush's "surge" policy in dramatically reducing the level of random killings in Baghdad in the first few months of this year. But we were also confirmed in our repeated cautions about accepting too optimistic claims that the Sunni insurgents were being significantly reduced in their operational capabilities.
We repeatedly monitored in this column the levels of multiple fatality bombings, suicide bombings and car or truck bombings in Iraq and were able to deduce from these figures that insurgent capabilities were not being eroded in any significant way.
We were also the first in the mainstream U.S. media to point out that the U.S. military's claims of casualties being inflicted per month on Sunni Muslim insurgent forces in Iraq were suspiciously uniform and were being rounded off to the same neat approximate figures, month after month.
From this observation, we deduced that no accurate figures in fact existed, or could be collected, about the numbers of insurgents who were being killed, or whether those being killed were easily replaceable low level operatives or experienced and far more important higher-level officers, organizers and commanders.
Philip Knightley called his classic book on war correspondents "The First Casualty" -- his argument being that in war truth is always the first casualty to be suppressed by the competing nations. But war cannot be effectively waged or won without a respect for the truth, especially when its messages are unwelcome.
For war is about adapting to chaos and rapidly changing circumstances, and as the late U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, greatest of all 20th century American war strategists, repeatedly warned, to abandon the capabilities to do that is to make your own defeat inevitable.
Truth in war is more difficult to hold than slippery mercury; but it is also more valuable than gold. We are proud to note that in more than two years of monitoring statistics, this column has repeatedly proved to be a reliable guide to general trends in the Iraq war, often long before the rest of the media picked them up. On that record, we rest.
Source: United Press International
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Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century
China Takes Aim At US Over Claims Chinese Missiles Are In Iraq
Beijing (AFP) July 26, 2007
China on Thursday accused the United States of deliberately misleading the public after the US military said it had found Chinese-made missiles in Iraq that were probably smuggled in from Iran. "For some time now, certain countries have connected China's normal military trade links with other countries to military smuggling and even destabilisation of areas," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
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