The sorrow of war

With every heartbreaking picture of innocent victims, more of the world turns against the U.S. bombing. But the American military has taken more care to minimize civilian casualties than any other armed force in the world.

Published October 31, 2001 8:18PM (EST)

The AP photos that appeared in the New York Times on Monday were heartbreaking: Afghan men, including a father, weeping over the lifeless bodies of four small children, killed by errant American bombs. Coming on top of last week's reports that American planes had accidentally bombed a Red Cross facility in Kabul for the second time in as many weeks, the images forced the world to confront one of the most painful issues connected with any war -- and an extraordinarily sensitive one in this war -- civilian casualties.

To date, human rights groups have confirmed that American bombs dropped on Afghanistan have resulted in at least 48 civilian deaths. America's enemy, the Taliban, has claimed hundreds if not thousands have been killed -- figures the United States asserts are vastly exaggerated for propaganda purposes. But for much of the Islamic world, already deeply suspicious of America's motives and rectitude, any civilian casualties are evidence that the U.S. campaign is not against terrorism but against Islam itself. Key Islamic supporters of the campaign, like Pakistan, are nervous about how news of civilian casualties will resonate with their citizens and are calling for the air war to be quick and decisive.

Nor is it just the Islamic world that is sensitive to civilian casualties. European nations, both allies and neutrals, are also paying close attention to the issue. A Swedish policeman guarding a mosque in Stockholm told Salon last week, "I think the Swedish people are very worried about civilian casualties. They know this is a very difficult war, but many do not support it and they do not want to see innocent people killed." The European press, including the widely-watched BBC World News television program, has given prominent coverage to civilian casualties.

In fact, thanks to American policy, planning and execution, the number of civilian casualties so far has been exceptionally low, experts say. In a larger sense, the U.S. has come closer than any other nation to warring within the confines of the Geneva Conventions. But these experts also say that the United States has done a poor job of communicating to the world just how much importance it places on avoiding civilian deaths; has failed to explain in detail exactly what went wrong when mistakes have occurred; and has aroused unrealistic expectations by touting its super-precise weapons.

In a war as controversial, narrowly defined, morally complex and precariously supported as this one, and in a high-tech media age when shattering images of innocent children killed can instantly be beamed around the world, undercutting uplifting official pronouncements, any civilian casualties would have a potent effect on world opinion. But the United States has not helped its cause by the way it has told its story.

Continuing in the tradition of the Gulf War, the most press-managed conflict in history, government officials have attempted to control information through spin control, with tightlipped briefings, vague official statements and praise for "highly accurate" and "precision-guided" weapons that still occasionally miss. Instead of preparing the public for the inevitability of civilian casualties by explaining how American soldiers are trained to avoid them and describing what went wrong when they occur, the Bush administration and the Pentagon have instead created expectations that can't be met. Disappointment, if not anger, is the inevitable result.

The United States entered this war with narrow goals: find Osama bin Laden and destroy the al-Qaida network. A corollary goal was destroying or removing the Taliban. The war, officials repeated, was not against the Afghan people, or Afghanistan itself. But as the war has intensified, the distinction between attacking the Taliban and attacking Afghanistan has inevitably blurred -- with civilian casualties marking the boundary. John Voll, an Islamic history and international affairs professor at Georgetown University, says, "Civilian casualties are the red flag saying the U.S. is no longer just dropping bombs on removed terrorist camps, but also in urban areas. They broaden the scope of the war as the world sees it."

Government officials have at times been astonishingly insensitive. One unnamed administration official told the New York Times, "The lesson we're learning is that you can bomb the wrong place in Afghanistan and not take much heat for it, but don't mess up at the post office."

Neither the Bush administration nor the military has realized that military policy must be fused to an equally energetic effort on the public relations front. They have acknowledged that civilian casualties are an unfortunate consequence of war, but have yet to go much further.

"This is a worldwide war for public sentiment, and particularly sentiment in Islamic countries," says Richard Kohn, a military history professor at the University of North Carolina. "It's a propaganda battle. Every civilian casualty will be used by the other side to try to make the U.S. look brutal or savage and to try to smear the U.S. for making a war against Islam. These claims need to be answered. And yet, I see no evidence that the U.S. even knows it's in a propaganda war. They have no idea how important this is."

One of the problems, according to Col. Dan Smith, a former West Point professor who is now chief of research for the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank, lies with the inflated expectations produced by the military's focus on technological precision. They've oversold American military capability, says Smith. "The dilemma of bombing is one of the Pentagon's own making," he says. "For years they have touted the accuracy of precision guided munitions, but they obviously are not quite as precise as the military boasted they were." Smith says that the military brass should long ago have stopped stressing accuracy in the abstract and instead used concrete examples from past conflicts.

The fact stressed by Kohn and others is that the United States, more than any other country in history, has attempted to avoid civilian casualties. American bombing strategy has become progressively more focused not just on destroying the enemy but also on avoiding so-called "collateral damage."

World War II pilots worked with very different strategic goals. Unlike the current war against terrorism, in which military action -- itself severely hemmed in by diplomatic and political concerns -- is only one part of a multiprong strategy, World War II was a total war. American bombers aimed for military targets first, but it was considered acceptable to bomb entire cities such as Berlin in order to weaken the Third Reich. Pilots were also ordered to drop their bombs even if they couldn't find their targets, a situation dramatized in Joseph Heller's bitterly ironic anti-war novel "Catch-22." In the waning days of World War II, deliberate American firebombing of wooden Japanese cities, which had little military strategic value, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In Vietnam the Pentagon outlined "free fire zones" in which "anything that moved was enemy," says Smith, a Vietnam veteran. Vietnam also saw horrendous civilian massacres as in Mai Lai and indiscriminate bombing like the 1968 raids that leveled the entire city of Hue (which prompted General Westmoreland's infamous line "we had to destroy the city in order to save it.")

While those and many other high-profile incidents (such as the recent revelation that former Sen. Bob Kerrey and his troops knowingly killed civilians) highlight the American military's indiscriminate targeting of civilians in Vietnam, U.S. forces also made strenuous, if ineffective, efforts to separate civilians from military actions. Resettlement programs specifically aimed to move civilians out of strategic areas before bombings occurred or away from known military forces. These initiatives ultimately failed because Vietnamese society was so agrarian that being removed from their land left them without any economic tools for survival, but the plans still broke from previous military tradition.

The American military's desire to fight clean wars was given a huge boost by technological advances in the 1980s, when the F-117 was first used, says Smith. The Lockheed Martin fighter, made of radar-absorbing materials, allowed bombs to be dropped from about 10,000 feet, far closer than other bombers like the B-52. "[This] gave pilots the opportunity to come in lower to drop their weaponry," Smith explains.

In fact, however, there was still a built-in conflict between maximizing pilot safety and minimizing civilian casualties -- a tension that will never be overcome. "The Gulf War was the first widespread use (and trumpeting) of what is called precision munitions," Smith says. "And it is here that the problem of civilian casualties clashed with claims of precision. Just as expectations were raised that U.S. casualties would be low because pilots would not have to swoop in low to make sure they hit targets, so too were expectations raised that civilian casualties would be low."

Studies conducted after the war proved the expectations to be far-fetched. Human Rights Watch, the most trusted source for civilian casualty data, found that the number of civilian deaths in the Gulf War was "historically low" -- but more that 3,000 civilians were still killed.

"Considering the extent of the campaigns, these numbers are very low," Kohn says. But because the Pentagon led people to believe that there would be virtually no civilian casualties -- showing only pictures of successful targets hit at briefings -- the numbers seemed disturbingly high, he adds.

While the Pentagon pursued a tight-lipped P.R. strategy that largely ignored civilian casualties and highlighted precision-targeted cruise missiles, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was playing his propaganda cards for all they were worth. Highlighting alleged civilian deaths, he claimed that the U.S. was targeting Muslims rather than the Iraqi military machine. No doubt much of the Arab world was disposed against the U.S.-led war to begin with, but Saddam's cunning added fuel to the fire: Arabs rioted in the streets and denounced the U.S. The idea that the U.S. is targeting Muslims rather than its declared enemies (first Saddam, now bin Laden) still holds sway in much of the Arab world today.

Euphoric after a victory that took only 43 days, the Pentagon failed to realize that touting precision weapons could backfire. The bombing campaign in Kosovo continued the pattern. During 78 days of NATO bombing, about 500 civilians died. This was a historic low for a war in which 26,000 bombs were dropped and a staggering 37,465 sorties flown, but the videos of a civilian train being hit by a missile and graphic accounts collected by the Yugoslavian government, Human Rights Watch and other organizations posed stark challenges to American and allied support for the war. As in the Gulf War, the resident dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, made hay out of claiming that the NATO air war was indiscriminately killing civilians.

Midway through the war President Clinton issued an executive order banning the use of cluster bombs because their use in the northern Serbian town of Nis had killed 14 civilians and provoked a disastrous public relations backlash. Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, notes that "Clinton needed to keep the coalition together and couldn't afford to rock the boat. And one thing that will rock the boat is killing a lot of civilians, because the home publics of many governments will stand up and scream and say 'What are we doing in this coalition?'."

Joost also notes that the U.S. military works to integrate the laws concerning the treatment of noncombatants into all its troops. "There's a fairly strong integration of these concerns: Military manuals reflect U.S. obligations; officers and soldiers are instructed in rules of war." Joost also noted that "lawyers are involved who go over target lists and look at new weapon systems that are being developed in order to ensure that there are no violations in principle of the U.S. obligations under international humanitarian law. To that extent, the U.S., like other Western governments, has done quite a bit to integrate these concerns into its military."

Joost notes that legal analysis of targets can result in differences of opinion, as in the targeting of electricity facilities. "You could argue, legitimately in some cases, that the military is completely dependent on electricity grid -- but civilians are also completely dependent on that grid. It becomes a proportionality argument. You need to determine whether by hitting an electric plant that you've done more damage to the military and less to the civilian population.

"It's a difficult balancing act. The U.S. has developed new technologies between the Iraq and Yugoslavia wars that, instead of destroying facilities, limit their use. In Yugoslavia the U.S. used graphite bombs which cause shorts and some damage to the electricity grid but that damage is eminently repairable."

In his book "Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond," Michael Ignatieff detailed the extent to which American forces under NATO leadership went to avoid civilian casualties. Each target had to be vetted by a chain of lawyers, who examined its military uses and potential for causing civilian casualties. A variation of that protocol is still standard operating procedure for the Air Force.

"There are very strict rules about engagement," says Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of political ethics at the University of Chicago and author of "But Was it Just?," a book of essays on the morality of the Gulf War. "If a military target is obscured, if an unforetold situation arises where you would knowingly be increasing the chance of hitting civilians, pilots are supposed to return with their coordinates intact. This is a complete reversal from World War II where if you couldn't find the target, you just bombed something else."

From an historical perspective, the present war in Afghanistan looks relatively tame. "Any civilian casualties are to be lamented, but if people's points of comparison went back further, if people asked would you rather be in Baghdad during the Gulf War or Berlin in 1944, they might realize that our strategy in Afghanistan is not as bad as it looks," she says. "We've become far more morally sensitive about this issue."

Bill Arkin, a military analyst for NBC and adjunct professor at the School of Advanced Air Power Studies at the U.S. Air Force Air War College, agrees. He points to a constant improvement in the precision of U.S. air wars. "The reality is this: Nine percent of the air weapons used in the Gulf War were precision weapons, partially because only a certain number of planes could utilize them. In Kosovo about 30 percent of the air weapons used were precision-guided. By 1999 all planes could carry precision-guided weapons. And the cost of those weapons has gone down, which has led to a greater willingness to use them."

The protocols, while contributing to a significant decline in civilian casualties, have not eliminated unforeseen trouble. Joost notes that unintended deaths have occurred because of "intelligence mistakes with target selection, problems with precisely hitting targets, coordination errors, and using the wrong munitions."

"If you're hitting a military target in a civilian area, you'd better make sure that you use a smart weapon," he says. "But the truth is that maybe two decades ago it wouldn't have been possible to hit a military target in a civilian area and not cause civilian casualties. Now it's possible if everything goes right." But he adds, "There is always human and technical error; there is no such thing as a war that has no casualties. We have to continue to weigh whether combatants break the laws of war."

While U.S. military actions over the past 12 years have demonstrated dramatic improvements in keeping noncombatants from harm, other major wars have shown just the opposite. Russia's 1994-1996 war in Chechnya was excoriated by human rights organizations, the State Department and other governments. Russian armed forces made few attempts to focus exclusively on military targets, using scorched-earth tactics harking back to Vietnam and the Second World War. They completely leveled Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, killing, according to Rachel Denbar of Human Rights Watch, "conservatively 15,000 to 20,000 civilians."

Denbar points to numerous incidents in the first Chechnyan war like the "bombing of the market in Grozny in the middle of the day in 1999 that killed 50 to 100 people." Denbar says that the "Russians claimed that it was an arms bazaar. Maybe arms were being sold there, but it looked like it was occupied predominantly by civilians and there was no investigation of who was actually there."

Other nations that have waged war over the past two decades, in particular less developed ones, have shown almost no regard for civilian casualties. Indeed, civilians have frequently been the major targets in appallingly violent civil wars like those that convulsed Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Congo's continuing struggle and many others.

In those bloodbaths, civilian casualties were unquestioned. But in wars involving more delicate political considerations, civilian casualties can be critical factors. The NATO-led intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999 faced constant pressure from within and without over high-profile civilian casualties, as did the U.S. in the Gulf War.

Just how badly a single horrific episode of civilian casualties can hurt a controversial, narrowly defined military action became evident in 1996, when during its "Operation Grapes of Wrath" invasion of Lebanon Israel accidentally shelled a U.N. refugee center at Qana, killing 102 civilians. International outrage and U.S. pressure led Israel to pull out of Lebanon.

What should the American government and military do to better communicate their position on civilian casualties? Kohn favors the creation of a department of war information, similar to what the U.S. maintained during World War II. Elshtain says that "a briefing about the rules of engagement that the pilots are under would be a very good thing." But the military and government still appear reluctant to take up these suggestions -- or even to directly confront the inevitability of civilian casualties in internal reports and training.

According to Arkin, there's a critical lack of information about the results of air wars on civilian populations. "The Air Force did a four-volume study on the air war over Yugoslavia that the secretary of defense, William Cohen, suppressed," he says. "The study wasn't even distributed to the Air Force until last year when Cohen left the government. There has been no methodical study of an air campaign's effects. Very few people have experience of what happens on the ground in air wars, and those that do have doctrinal blinders that often stand in the way of doing what's best."

If the military can conduct its own investigations on civilian casualties and realistically assess that information, then its tactics could be further refined to avoid such casualties. The admission of mistakes, honest contrition and efforts at amelioration might actually increase trust and result in a more transparent and effective force -- though there's no way of knowing if this more open approach would work.

Voll and other Middle East experts argue that the present level of support for the war will be hard to maintain, regardless of improved P.R.

"When we were attacking Kosovo, we were attacking a country," Voll says. "This time, we have never said we're in it to destroy Afghanistan, but we are de facto attacking a country when the war aim was to attack a terrorist network. This is harder for our Muslim allies to support. Our coalition partners didn't sign on to destroy a country."

But even if improving America's story didn't shore up wavering allies, some experts maintain that it would still have a generally positive effect.

"The propaganda on the other side has to be answered and countered and they're just not doing it," Kohn says. "These people are hiding themselves and their equipment in mosques, just like the Iraqis did. They're playing on our commitment to follow international law. The fact that the hypocrisy of the other side is so glaring indicates to me that this is not being handled as aggressively as it should be. Here are these great jihad warriors hiding behind their women and children. That's the message the world should be hearing."

Additional reporting by Gary Kamiya.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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By Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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