Rounder and rounder

This Civil War historian's notorious love affair with round numbers may be part of a more general cultural failing.

I was watching a CNN piece on Indira Gandhi that gave the casualties in the storming of the Golden Temple: pilgrims, 500 and commandos 300.

The current wisdom in Civil War history - that it's absolutely pointless to try to arrive at specific numbers - is here carried to its absurd conclusion with numbers in the low hundreds rounded up. Who's going to count all those hundreds of bodies? Impossible! We'll estimate and round up. We're communications professionals and we've got things to do, people to see.

The thing you can say in CNN's defense is thatthe numbers are mere footnotes to the story. In Civil War history, the numbers are even more warped and everything is made to depend on them: evaluations of commanders, of military potential, and weight of outcomes.