U.S. military isn't always up to date on casualty count

WASHINGTON -- With the war in Iraq now in its second week, the nation is again seeing the true cost of battle as the first military aircraft bearing the remains of Americans killed in action make their long, mournful journey home.

Measured against past wars such as Vietnam, where up to 200 Americans were killed in a single week, U.S. casualties in Iraq have been light. Slightly more than two dozen Americans have been reported killed.

But while the casualty count may be the most basic -- certainly the most personal and emotion-laden -- element of the war, it is also proving one of the most difficult to get specific, timely information about.

The U.S. military has in some cases been days behind news outlets in announcing numbers of killed, wounded, captured or missing.

It has not included casualty numbers as part of its daily account of the war's progress. (At the Pentagon, military spokespeople have given out such numbers if asked but have not released the information as a matter of routine.)

In fact, the military has given conflicting information about whether it even intends to disclose the information.

On Wednesday, asked about the number of U.S. casualties to date, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, told reporters at the daily briefing, "As a matter of practice, we just aren't going to announce numbers of casualties. I can tell you, any losses we've had have been very, very small."

Yesterday, he declined again when asked.

But at the Pentagon on Wednesday, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke responded differently when asked if the military had a policy of withholding the number of U.S. casualties. "Absolutely not," she said. "We release the numbers and the information that we have."

She said that delays can come from the difficulty in confirming information from the field as well as the process of notifying families of the deceased. But John M. Molino, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, said that the Pentagon is free to release numbers of casualties, if not their names, before next-of-kin notification is completed.

The Pentagon has also ordered military bases not to put out their own numbers of casualties and missing, saying it wanted all the information to be centralized.

A spokesman for Camp Lejeune said he was ordered yesterday to retract a news release issued earlier in the day that reported the number of Marines from the North Carolina base who had been killed, wounded or were missing.

Sgt. Spencer Harris said he was instructed to direct queries about casualties to the Department of Defense Web site.

A Pentagon spokesman said the directive was meant to ensure accuracy and consistency, not suppress information.

News organizations such as the Associated Press that keep a running count of U.S. troops killed, wounded, missing and taken prisoner have supplemented the information they're getting from the Department of Defense with their own local reporting as news of casualties usually sweeps through the communities affected.

"We count on the military to be our primary source of deaths, POWs and MIAs, but we often hear of these long before the names are released by the military," said Kristin Gazlay, deputy managing editor for national news for the Associated Press.

Like the Pentagon, the AP does not disclose names until next-of-kin have been notified by the military. But once the AP confirms that notification has taken place, it feels free to report the names even if the military has not released them.

Late yesterday, the Pentagon press office, in response to a query, said 28 U.S. troops have died in the conflict.

In one of the most heavily reported incidents -- the ambush of 15 members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company by Iraqi militiamen near An Nasiriyah on Sunday -- the Pentagon lagged days behind the AP in releasing the names of the soldiers killed, taken as prisoners or missing.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that in combat deaths such as those Sunday, Pentagon officials notify both primary and secondary family members -- usually a spouse and parents -- sometimes causing delays in the government's ability to release names.

"We're not trying to hide the fact that we have casualties," Whitman said. "We've said all along that this war will have a human cost."

But some analysts believe that the Pentagon is playing down casualties as part of its effort to highlight successes and keep public support for the war from wavering. "I do think the Pentagon is worried about managing the casualty perception issue," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

For one thing, the U.S. military is battling inflated expectations on the part of the public -- fostered in part by the administration -- that the war would be a slam-dunk for U.S. forces and result in few casualties.

In trying to garner public support for the war this year, the administration boasted of its high-tech, precision weaponry, its vast superiority over the Iraqi military and the warm welcome with which U.S. forces would be greeted by Iraqi citizens -- all contributing to a perception that the war would be quick and nearly bloodless.

U.S. casualties might be "coming as a shock to people given the atmospherics leading up to the war," says John Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor who has written about the link between casualties and public support.

What's more, the nation has grown accustomed to operations with light casualties. There were no U.S. combat fatalities in the military offensives in Bosnia and Kosovo in the late 1990s, about 64 to date in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and about 150 in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Such numbers stand in stark contrast to the Vietnam War and World Wars I and II, in which tens of thousands were killed.

Mueller, who studied public attitudes toward the Korean and Vietnam wars, found that the percentage of people who thought those wars were a mistake increased as the casualty counts went up.

But he and other political scientists believe that the public's tolerance for casualties is directly related to its feeling about the importance of the mission.

Military analyst William Arkin says the Pentagon's security considerations are also a likely factor in their quiet presentation of casualty numbers. "The military is fighting a war," he says. "They want to conceal their capabilities from the Iraqis."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun