"Doing Windows" in Iraq

Had Marla Ruzicka not died, she would be busy visiting survivors of the fifty people found dead in the Tigris River. That, after all, was what she did–it was her “windows.”

Every American has probably heard some version of the line, “I don’t do windows,” when someone doesn’t want to do something that seems a natural part of a complex task. In government, the line frequently seems to surface when the Pentagon is involved, as in Iraq where counting (or estimating) the numbers of civilian deaths is “doing windows.”

The apparent source and context of this sentiment is steeped in irony, both in itself and in relation to what is happening in Iraq today. It is invariably attributed to science-fiction great Ray Bradbury who was directing his ire at computer great Bill Gates: “Bill, I don’t do Windows.”

Bradbury called Windows 95 a “flimflam.” The same could be said of the military’s assertion that it doesn’t keep count of civilian casualties.

The implication in this Pentagon position is that doing so isn’t a part of the mission. When that explanation doesn’t pass muster, the fall-back is that taking time to count potentially exposes the troops to additional danger. Thus it isn’t a case of “can’t” but of “won’t.”

That’s the wrong answer–wrong operationally, wrong historically, wrong morally.

The military services have evolved a system of “spot reports” that every soldier learns. In the days before hand-held GPS and unmanned aerial vehicles, these were the primary sources of information for commanders and artillery fire support units about enemy locations, movement, strength, and armament and about the position and status of friendly forces. Whenever enemy forces were engaged, the results of the fighting were also relayed to commanders–friendly casualties (killed, wounded, missing), enemy losses, troop locations and status (e.g., equipment condition, ammunition, rations, water requirements)–as quickly as technology allowed: runner, mounted courier, radio, Windows 95 , or other computer program.

On the immediate battlefield, this is vital information in the form of feedback that can prompt an immediate follow-on action–defense, pursuit–or is examined for “lessons learned” that planners incorporate into orders for the next set of patrols or operations. In an even longer time frame, these reports are collected by or sent to the Center for Military History where the official “history” of all U.S. wars is compiled and made available to researchers and future commanders.

Problems appear when the reports in aggregate are used during the period of armed conflict as more than descriptions of what happened. This is what happened in Vietnam with the infamous “body counts” announced at the daily briefings for journalists. Numbers of enemy killed became a political measure of “success” against the Vietcong. In turn, the numbers themselves became grossly inflated all the way down to initial spot reports as troops perceived what commanders wanted was ever higher body counts to prove that the strategy was working.

Tracking and reporting civilian fatalities in an insurgency ought to be a no-brainer from the viewpoint of psychological operations–winning hearts and minds. This too, is being done in Iraq by civil affairs units and others who investigate claims of unprovoked deaths and injuries caused by U.S. and coalition forces.

The Pentagon has no choice about accurately tracking and reporting the number of U.S. service personnel rotating into the war zone (over one million to date) and fatalities (more than 1,550). It is trying to minimize the count of U.S. wounded: in early April the official number was 12,000, but if “wounded” as a category includes everyone who has had to be evacuated for any reason–war wound, illness, psychological impairment, overriding family emergency–thereby being “lost” to the unit, this total more than doubles.

For those who still say it’s too hard, they have the example of 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka and her Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict (CIVIC). Unarmed and unarmored, she visited, interviewed, comforted, recorded details, and helped victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq until a suicide bomber killed her and a co-worker April 16 th.

In other words, Marla “did windows.”

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org), a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.