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Who counts the civilian casualties?

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"It would be impossible to obtain a perfect accounting of civilian casualties, in part because the civilian status of many victims may be doubted," says Professor Orentlicher. "But it doesn't make sense to respond to the proverbial fog of war by donning a blindfold."

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In a report titled "Disappearing the Dead," the Project on Defense Alternatives in Washington asserts that in Afghanistan and Iraq "there were more than 85 incidents involving multiple civilian fatalities (sometimes running into the dozens) whose particulars were supported by multiple Western sources, on-site reporting, substantial visual records, and interviews with eyewitnesses, survivors, and sometimes hospital and aid workers."

As a result, writes Carl Conetta, the report's author, "The human cost of war ... and the prospect of collateral damage must figure centrally in any free decision to go to war."

Centrally or not, the prospect of civilian deaths does figure into US decisions to use deadly force, as Clinton and Bush administration officials pointed out last week in testimony before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks.

The US uses a much higher percentage of precision weapons today than ever before. It is replacing cluster bombs (large numbers of which fail to detonate on impact and can later maim or kill civilians) with those that become inert after a short period if they don't explode when dropped or fired. Pentagon lawyers are involved in target planning to ensure the Laws of Armed Conflict are not being violated.

"If you talk to the Red Cross or most other observers, you'll find that [US forces] did a rather good job of avoiding or minimizing collateral damage" in both Iraq and Afghanistan. says Robert Goldman, who specializes in human rights and armed conflict at American University's Washington College of Law. (Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are as difficult to calculate as those in Iraq.)

This was not the case in previous wars. In World War II, tens of thousands of civilians were killed in single attacks. Mussolini terror-bombed Ethiopia; Nazi Germany indiscriminately bombed London; and the Allies firebombed Dresden and other German cities. Tokyo was firebombed, and the US dropped atom bombs on two Japanese cities.

"We've certainly changed our practices since World War II - everyone has - where the cities themselves were seen as targets," says Prof. Goldman.

Yet, in some ways, civilian casualties increasingly have become part of war - certainly part of the Pentagon's planning for what's called "asymmetrical war" fought against terrorist cells, insurgencies, and stateless organizations like Al Qaeda.

"In our war games, the bad guys gave up fighting us directly," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who has taught at the National Defense University. "They moved into cities. They attacked our supply lines with explosives. They wore civilian clothes. They took hostages. They responded to our new weapons by forcing on us the dilemma of killing civilians and of their killing of civilians."

That's exactly what's happening in Iraq today, and it portends the kind of dilemma US soldiers are likely to face if the White House and Pentagon civilians continue to send them into harm's way.

"Nowadays civilian casualties, and even specific incidents, can have a strategic effect on a conflict out of all proportion to their size, especially in an age of instant video transmission around the world," says military analyst Marcus Corbin of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "If the Defense Department doesn't have its own estimates, even if [only] a broad range, it cedes the territory to opponents who may use wildly inflated estimates, which may unfortunately be readily believed by gullible foreign populations."

Of course, debates on the means and significance of calculating civilian losses in Iraq skirt a more central moral issue: Was the US justified in invading the country in the first place?

Yet once the fighting starts, that's no longer the question up for debate. Concerns then become what President Bush touched upon in his State of the Union address on the eve of war. He promised to spare - "in every way we can" - innocent Iraqis. But he also said, "If war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military - and we will prevail."