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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2001 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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The costs of war

Civilian casualties and collateral damage are inevitable in any war --
CIVILIAN CASUALTIES. Collateral damage.

These have been the focus of much of the coverage of the war in Afghanistan in the past week or so. Television networks have transmitted pictures provided by the Taliban of children or other civilians allegedly killed or wounded by American bombs. These stories fit into a template the assumptions of which are (on American media) unspoken but clear: Civilians should never be hit, and the American war effort is morally suspect if they are.

But those assumptions are wrong. And the fact that there are civilian casualties and collateral damage are not very newsworthy.

Not newsworthy, because civilian casualties and collateral damage are inevitable in any war. American news media seem to assume that bombing techniques are so precise that there is no good excuse for a bomb missing its target. In this they have been encouraged by the Pentagon, which in this war as in the Persian Gulf War has shown footage of bombs hitting precise targets. But everyday experience tells us that mechanical contraptions (like the laptop on which this is being written) sometimes misfire. Americans are not today, and were not in the Gulf War, so na´ve as to suppose that every single bomb performs as well as those on the Pentagon's footage.

What is remarkable about American precision bombing is that it works as well as it does. Since the Vietnam War, our military has developed laser-guided weapons that home in on targets with remarkable, though not total, accuracy. In the old days, something on the order of 90 percent of bombs missed their targets. Today, something on the order of 90 percent hit them. That means that we can inflict militarily significant damage nine times as great with the same quantity of explosives. And in the process, we reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage by a similar order of magnitude. This is a great triumph of American ingenuity.

What is newsworthy is not that there are still occasional civilian casualties. What is newsworthy is that so many bombs hit their targets. This is the story the news media should tell, while pointing out that accuracy is still less than 100 percent.

Then there is the question of whether civilian casualties and collateral damage render our war making immoral. This argument is made widely in the Islamic world and by hand-wringers in our country. This question has been addressed before, by George Orwell in May 1944, in response to a British pamphlet attacking "obliteration" bombing. Orwell's words on this issue, as on so many others, are worth quoting. "The catchwords used in this connection are 'killing civilians,' 'massacre of women and children,' and 'destruction of cultural heritage.' It is tacitly assumed that air bombing does more of this than ground warfare. When you look a bit closer, the first question that strikes you is: Why is it worse to kill civilians than soldiers? Obviously one must not kill children if it is in any way avoidable, but it is only in propaganda pamphlets that every bomb drops on a school or an orphanage." And of course that is far less likely today than in Orwell's time.

"A bomb kills a cross section of the population; but not quite a representatve selection, because the children and expectant mothers are usually the first to be evacuated, and some young men will be away in the army. Probably a disproportionately large number of bomb victims will be middle-aged. ... On the other hand, 'normal' or 'legitimate' warfare picks out and slaughters all the healthiest and bravest of the young male population. Every time a German submarine goes to the bottom, about 50 young men of fine physique and good nerve are suffocated. Yet people who would hold up their hands at the very words 'civilian bombing' will repeat with satsisfaction such phrases as 'We are winning the Battle of the Atlantic.' "

There is tragedy in every war-inflicted death-but such deaths are necessary and justified if the war itself is.

Orwell goes on, in words as applicable now as then: "War is not avoidable at this stage in history, and since it has to happen it does not seem to me a bad thing that others should be killed besides young men. ... I can't feel that war is 'humanized' by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes 'barbarous' when the old get killed as well." It is a cold-blooded argument, and one that leaves you uncomfortable, and should. The costs of war are terrible, and that never should be forgotten. But those costs must inevitably include civilian casualties, and what is newsworthy today is that they are far less common than they were when Orwell wrote.

Our news media should stop reporting every allegation of civilian casualties or collateral damage as if it were front-page material and evidence of a war crime. To do so is to give credence to our enemies' false argument that civilian casualties make our military action immoral. War is hell, but this war has not been made by us but on us.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone