Mike the Mad Biologist

I’ve described the Mad Biologist’s Rule of Base Ten Numbers before:

My colleagues have all heard of the Mad Biologist’s Rule of Base Ten Numbers: when you see too many numbers that end with zero, become skeptical. That’s because only one in ten numbers should do should end in zero.

I then added:

…if you read news reports that routinely say, “Today, American forces blew the crap out of [number that ends with zero] enemy forces” (and with a globe-spanning garrison empire, we do read a lot of those, don’t we?), nobody has a good idea what actually happened.

Sadly, thirty has become the new ten in Afghanistan (italics mine):

On Monday, the anonymous blogger Security Crank noticed something interesting: all the U.S. and NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan seemingly kill exactly 30 people every time. How can that be?

…Another blogger, Joshua Foust of the Central Asia blog Registan, seemingly stumbled upon the answer. In a tweet, he noted:

In 2003, an air strike killing 30 civilians could be launched w/o issues. 31 dead civilians and Rummy had to approve.

Foust then linked to an LA Times article from last July by Nicholas Goldberg that documented what field commanders were told.

…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.

In other words, the Pentagon determined that 30 casualties, even if they were civilian, were too few to matter politically or to attract the attention of the press for more than a few words. If commanders expected more civilian casualties than that, political leaders had to sign off on the attack in advance to make sure they were prepared for the PR fall-out.

This is disgusting. And there’s no evidence that this policy has changed under the administration of our most recent Nobel peace prize either.


  1. #1 Matt Platte
    December 13, 2009

    See Kissinger, ’73.