By the Numb3rs


Over time Westmoreland asked for and received large numbers of U.S. troops, eventually totaling well over half a million…  

…Westmoreland’s first resort in claiming progress in the war was always body count, but in fact this was meaningless. All the enemy’s losses were quickly made up. Westmoreland was on a treadmill. 

Lewis Sorely

                Over the course of a military career, nothing will take up more time than counting. Counting people and counting things starts from a private’s first day in service and continues to the final day of a 4-star general’s career. This obsession with counting and numbers occurs in operational and institutional commands. Failing to count properly can end a promising career. To explain this obsession with number, I break down the many (although not all) ways in which those in a uniform count

Keeping an accurate count starts early in a career at the individual level. For example, knowing your pace count is essential to pass land navigation courses. Unfortunately, land navigation tends to occur in rough and dense terrain, making a pace count irrelevant. Individuals must continually count and maintain accountability of sensitive items, from weapons and ammunition to night vision devices. Indeed, this counting is paramount to any soldier looking to avoid non-judicial punishment and hence have any shot at a career.  Indeed, at the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, students tie each piece of equipment to themselves, so when they are tired, cold, or wet, they do not lose a key piece of equipment. It has been written, that losing equipment can have greater consequences than losing a war.

 Counting people lies at the heart of the NCO Corps. Accountability of teams, squads and platoons. While on patrol, squad leaders and platoon sergeants consistently conduct head counts to ensure nobody fell asleep next to a tree. In garrison, counting people ranges from head-counts in dining facilities, to knowing the number of people who used the on-base gym on any given day. We level entire forests to produce sign in sheets for the post gym and the personnel office.

While counting people at the tactical level is a general concern of NCOs, counting things is where officers come into play. Ask any company commander to expound on the percentage of their time spent on property book inventories, and you will learn quickly the stress that counting things places on military leadership. Officers hold additional duties such as Unit Status Report (USR) officer (normally reserved for the Battalion or Brigade Chemical Officer), where counting equipment, and the readiness of vehicles in the motor pool becomes a specialized skill.

With the advent of the Defense Travel System (DTS), every service member must strictly account for every penny spent while travelling. Fortunately, DTS is easy to navigate and not open to interpretation by approving officials at every

Looking to training, a leader’s report card often depends on the number of people they train. Power Point slides presented at Quarterly Training Briefs depict the number of soldiers who qualify expert on rifle, the number who passed and failed a PT test, the number who attended SHARP training. Often, these numbers sit beside a circle colored red, yellow, or green known as the gumball chart. Numbers as a measurement of success don’t stop in garrison, they translate to how we fight our wars.

Counting things is not some garrison phenomena, soldiers count many things in combat as well, usually days. The first 100 days in a combat zone are important to a tactical unit much like the first 100 days of a presidential administration. Soldiers count the 14 days they are allowed of leave, and of course the countdown to the day when they go home throughout a 365-day deployment.  In many cases, that countdown to the end begins the day they deploy. Indeed, software such as the famous “Donut of Misery” is a direct outgrowth of this phenomenon. Moreover, most soldiers learn to subtract one day from their time starting in basic training by adding the phrase “and a wake up,” as if that final day does not count.

The Donut of Misery, often added to a staff officer or NCO's desktop on Day 1 of a deployment

The Donut of Misery, often added to a staff officer or NCO's desktop on Day 1 of a deployment

Throughout the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the influence of numbers impacted nearly every commander’s update brief. Hours of electricity per day, number of wells dug, and the numbers of schools built quickly became the Global War on Terror’s version of body counts in Vietnam. The U.S. military spent thousands of man hours keeping track of the number of Iraqi Army soldier and policemen trained. Whatever that number added up to in 2011 was certainly less than the 800 or so ISIS fighters that rolled into Mosul.  Eight years of judging success by the number of security forces we manned, equipped, and trained didn’t amount to much. Indeed, according to a recent estimate the United States has killed over 50,000 ISIS fighters, which is nearly 30,000 more than the CIA’s estimated of the total number of ISIS members back in 2014. Fifty percent of the time, body counts work all the time.

Two recent and notable episodes of numbers and counting making the news was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2009 surge in Afghanistan. There was little debate in the scheme of maneuver, the tactics or strategy of either operation. Rather, the debate centered on the number of boots on the ground. General Shinseki, who recommended a force of 500k was rebuked by Secretary Rumsfeld who thought the mission could be accomplished by three or four guys. (That’s not the exact number Rumsfeld insisted upon, but I was not privy to his snowflakes). The debate on the right number continues to this day, although there is a camp of thinkers who would argue that the number of troops required for the invasion of Iraq was irrelevant. We invaded a nation halfway around the world and attempted to impose western democracy on a culture most Americans don’t understand.   

General McCrystal’s surge had three courses of action, and each was based on a specific number. Indeed, military planners often develop various courses of action as a “Heavy” “Medium” or “Light” option, all based on the numbers of troops they would require.  Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars chronicled the infighting that occurred in deciding what course of action to choose. But, in limiting the courses of action to specific numbers, the paradigm of operational planning changed from distinct COAs to presenting a Range of Military Options, commonly known as the ROMO (no relation to the current second string Dallas Cowboys Quarterback).

At the strategic level, counting involves much larger numbers involving force structure. For example, one number that continually arises in political discussions is the number of ships the U.S. Navy requires. Numbers range from the current status over about 220, to those who believe the Navy should expand to well over 300 ships. For those keeping count, the U.S. Navy has 11 Carrier Strike Groups, while the rest of the world combined has zero. Adversaries such as Russia and China own aircraft operate carriers with ramps, similar to those kids use with skateboards. The 11-0 shutout in Carrier Strike Groups helps me sleep at night.

On the land domain, the Army has been fighting for the right number of troops in the current era of downsizing the force. Indeed, the wartime high back in 2007 was an Army of 570k, which is on its way down to 450k. Lower numbers means lower percentage of promotion rates, which back in 2007 hovered at nearly 98%, allowing for officers with DUIs on their record to advance in rank. The percentage now teeters between 50-70%, and good people don’t make the cut. It’s a cruel reality, and makes for a good debate on Tom Ricks’s blog.

Other key way to count thing at the strategic level are the “ways” and “means.”  One of the major contributions that Washington, D.C. makes is funding things. The almighty dollar still reigns supreme. And the bigger the problem, the more money that flows its way. Arguably, inside the beltway strategy is what gets funded, and any plan or program without dollars associated with it is more a fantasy than reality. The recent Washington Post article on the Pentagon’s $125 billion in possible savings, and the Navy’s Fat Leonard corruption scandal highlight how influential money can be.   


Those looking to enter and serve in the United States Military should know and understand the value of math (don’t worry, little to no algebra though). We spend countless hours trying to find accurate numbers to display a measure of success in our operations. But when you read the history of Vietnam, of how small numbers of insurgents paralyzed the strategic decision making of the United States, or how the large Soviet Army failed to defeat an even smaller opponent, you realize two things. With humans at the center of warfare, Clausewitz was right when he described warfare as uncertain. Second, warfare being uncertain and defined by fog, friction, and chance; sometimes numbers don’t mean a damn thing.

War is not and will never be a wholly quantitative phenomena.  Although quantity has a quality all of its own, mass, money, and numbers are not everything.  When the budget cuts come, the force size is reduced, or the body counts start to rise, the numbers can be overwhelming, confusing, and could tempt one to dive deep into minutiae.  At these times, there is one and only one question the strategic thinker should ask themselves about the numbers…that question is “so what?”