Body count

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Edward III counting the dead after the battle of Crécy

A body count is the total number of people killed in a particular event. In combat, a body count is often based on the number of confirmed kills, but occasionally only an estimate. Often used in reference to military combat, the term can also refer to any situation involving a number of deaths, such as those of a serial killer.

The military gathers such figures for a variety of reasons, such as determining the need for continuing operations, estimating efficiency of new and old weapons systems, and planning follow-up operations.

Military use[edit]

Body count figures have a long history in military planning and propaganda. In ancient battles, the penises (and sometimes the scrotums as well) of killed and dying enemies were collected from the field to count the dead.[1]

Sassanian Empire[edit]

According to Procopius, when the Persians are about to march to a war, the king sits on the throne and many baskets are set before him. The men of the army pass along the baskets one by one, each throwing one arrow in the baskets, which are then sealed with the king's seal. When the army returns to Persia, each man takes an arrow, and the number of casualties will be determined by the number of remaining arrows.[2]

Vietnam War[edit]

Since the goal of the United States in the Vietnam War was not to conquer North Vietnam but rather to ensure the survival of the South Vietnamese government, measuring progress was difficult. All the contested territory was theoretically "held" already. Instead, the US Army used body counts to show that the US was winning the war. The Army's theory was that eventually, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army would lose after the attrition warfare.

According to historian Christian Appy, "search and destroy was the principal tactic; and the enemy body count was the primary measure of progress" in General Westmoreland’s war of attrition. Search and destroy was coined as a phrase in 1965 to describe missions aimed at flushing the Viet Cong out of hiding, while the body count was the measuring stick for the success of any operation. Competitions were held between units for the highest number of Vietnamese killed in action, or KIAs. Army and marine officers knew that promotions were largely based on confirmed kills. The pressure to produce confirmed kills resulted in massive fraud. One study revealed that 61 % of American commanders considered that body counts were grossly exaggerated.[2]

In 1946, Ho Chi Minh said, in reference to the French, "You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win."[3] Some analysis of war casualties indicated that the US and its allies inflicted roughly a three-to-two ratio of communist combat deaths against allied deaths.[4] Eventually, the US signed the Paris Peace Accords and pulled out.

The Vietnamese government reported 849,018 NVA/NLF combatants died during the war[5], while 58,220 Americans and about 313,000 South Vietnamese combatants died [6] in the conflict.[7] The official US Department of Defense figure was 950,765 communist forces killed in Vietnam from 1965 to 1974. Defense Department officials believed that these body count figures need to be deflated by 30 percent.

Iraq War[edit]

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US military adopted an official policy of not counting deaths. General Tommy Franks' statement that "we don't do body counts" was widely reported. Critics claimed that Franks was only attempting to evade bad publicity, while supporters pointed to the failure of body counts to give an accurate impression of the state of the war in Vietnam. At the end of October 2005, it became public that the US military had been counting Iraqi fatalities since January 2004 but only those killed by insurgents and not those killed by the US forces.[8]


In censorship, "Body count" has been used as a criterion to judge the 'shock value' of a movie, and hence its suitability for younger viewers. It is usually calculated by the number of deaths or bodies shown on-screen. This has led some directors to imply deaths instead of showing them, for example showing a group of unarmed people facing a villain, then cutting to the villain firing a gun and grinning. The victims' bodies are never shown, but the viewer will understand that they were killed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Holy Bible, 1 Samuel 18:25-27". New International Version. Retrieved 11 May 2014. 
  2. ^ Prokopios, The Wars of Justinian, translated by H. B. Dewing, Hackett Publishing, 2014, ISBN 9781624661723, page
  3. ^ Ho Chi Minh
  4. ^ Charles Hirschman et al.; "Vietnamese Casualties During the American War: A New Estimate" Archived March 27, 2016, at the Wayback Machine., Population and Development Review, Vol. 21, No. 4. (Dec., 1995), pp. 783-812.
  6. ^ Rummel, R.J (1997[1]
  7. ^ Thayer, Thomas C (1985). War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam. Boulder: Westview Press. p.106.
  8. ^ "U.S. Quietly Issues Estimate of Iraqi Civilian Casualties", The New York Times