The Pentagon is eager to announce in grand numbers how many tanks, troops and airplanes it has arrayed against Iraq. The Pentagon will speak in less-specific, less-grand terms about how many U.S. soldiers could die if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf.
But what the Pentagon won't say is how many body bags and coffins it has stockpiled in Saudi Arabia to handle those casualties. That information is "classified."
The truth is that U.S. strategists don't want to endanger the already shaky patriotic spirit of Americans gearing up for war. While the Pentagon will talk about the clean and shiny implements of war that will assure a victory, it has repeatedly hedged on releasing information that would bring the human cost of that victory front and center in American minds.
"That kind of information" doesn't need to be splashed around in print during the holidays, one House Armed Services Committee staffer told us. "No one wants to hear it."
"No one wants you to hear it," would be more accurate.
A Pentagon spokesman told our reporter Paul Parkinson that logistical information about body bags, coffins and other preparations to handle the dead is "classified." He explained that by releasing the numbers, the Pentagon would "give the enemies an advantage."
Documents we have obtained show that one Marine mortuary unit and two Army Reserve mortuary units have been deployed to Saudi Arabia, but the specific number of people in those units, and the number of casualties they can handle is "classified."
The men and women of those units would clean, dress and prepare the bodies of dead soldiers for return to the United States.
Other advance work for the dead has included the installation of several large refrigeration units to preserve bodies in the heat of the Saudi desert until they can be flown home.
One Pentagon source went so far as to tell us that there is a worldwide stockpile of 63,000 body bags in the Pentagon inventory, but he refused to say how many have been allocated for use in Operation Desert Shield or how many have already been shipped there.
He also said the Pentagon has a stockpile of 4,000 metal caskets that can be used and reused for ferrying bodies home, but wouldn't say if any were already on the scene in Saudi Arabia.
When outspoken Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Dugan was fired for having loose lips, one of his more candid comments was this: "The American people will support this operation until body bags come home."
Apparently the Pentagon and the White House now fear that the American people's support would wane if they knew how many empty body bags had been sent over.
We reported in November that President Bush had been sobered by the top-secret casualty estimates the Pentagon gave him. Those figures say that as many as 10,000 Americans could die in the first week of a war with Iraq, and as many as 30,000 could be dead if the war lasted 20 days.