Security Crank and Moon of Alabama have has posts up recently noting how strangely often reports of U.S and NATO military actions claim that, as a result of collateral damage, precisely 30 civilians were killed. As Security Crank writes,
[T]he much more important point remains: how could we possibly have any idea how the war is going, here or anywhere else, when the bad guys seem only to die in groups of 30? The sheer ubiquity of that number in fatality and casualty counts is astounding, to the point where I don’t even pay attention to a story anymore when they use that magic number 30.
We don’t know much about how it works, but in 2007, Marc Garlasco, the Pentagon’s former chief of high-value targeting, offered a glimpse when he told Salon magazine that in 2003, “the magic number was 30.” That meant that if an attack was anticipated to kill more than 30 civilians, it needed the explicit approval of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or President George W. Bush. If the expected civilian death toll was less than 30, the strike could be OKd by the legal and military commanders on the ground.
This all seems fairly telling, but given how many civilian deaths there are in the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, for any given number you choose, it’s fairly easy to pick out a list of articles all citing to that number of civilian casualties. So I did a very unscientific ’empirical’ test: the Google Hit Count. Using the phrase [“n civilians” + killed + US], I checked the number of results for civilian deaths from 5 – 30. Below 5, and the results don’t work as well because it seemed reporters more often used two or three instead of 2 or 3, and above 35, the numbers are not interesting and pretty steadily decrease or remain at low counts thereafter.
Now, this does provide a little support for the idea that 30 is the magic number. If it is true that < 30 deaths requires less paper work, we would expect to see that, for close cases, commanders would have an incentive to determine that the number of civilian deaths is at or just under 30. Note that at 31 and 32 civilian deaths, there is a noticeable drop off, and that the number of deaths in the 25-30 categories is a bit higher than the usual range. This is consistent with the idea that commanders are quietly moving attacks with 31 or 32 deaths into the 30 or below reports. However, once there are 33 deaths, they don’t bother with trying to fudge it.
Still, any effect is a small one. The real question here is what on earth is going on with the number 7? And, to a lesser extent, 21? I know this survey is far from perfect, but the google returns for 7 deaths are so far out from the rest of the data set that it is hard to believe it is merely a random fluke. Looking at the Google results provides no obvious clues to explain the difference.
The number 21 also has an oddly high number of reports. This is a bit counter-intuitive, as if there was an attempt by the PR machine to make the numbers more appealing, I would guess that they would aim for 18 or 19 instead — you know, the old salesman’s trick of setting the price at $19.99.
I wish I had something clever to say here about what might be going on, but I don’t. Still, if we are going to be questioning the accuracy of military civilian death counts, the alleged ubiquity of the number 30 may be a red herring — 7 and 21 seem like much more promising anamolies to investigate.