Killing Innocents – Does Anyone Out There Care?

Madoo is, or rather was, a tiny village in mountainous eastern Afghanistan near the Al Qaeda hideout of Tora Bora. All 15 of its houses were demolished by bombs dropped in the middle of the night Dec. 1, killing an estimated 55 innocent people, according to American press reports.

A surviving villager, Paira Gul, told Chicago Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek that American soldiers showed up afterward and asked if any Al Qaeda had lived there. "Is that an Al Qaeda?" Gul said to the reporter, pointing to a child's severed foot that he had recovered from a smashed house. "Tell me," he said, his voice choking with fury, "is that what an Al Qaeda looks like?"

There have, of course, been other reports by the American news media about air strikes gone bad. The Pentagon has acknowledged some and denied some, and then changed the subject. Overall, the issue of civilian casualties has not been in the forefront of coverage of the war.

Two studies on the subject have received minimal coverage by the media. One, by Marc W. Herold, a University of New Hampshire professor, claims more than 3,800 Afghani civilians have been killed by U.S. bombs. The other, by the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Cambridge, Mass., think tank, is much more conservative, estimating between 1,000 and 1,300 have died.

Herold has compiled hundreds of reports from American and foreign news organizations covering the war. His results are laid out on the internet. The website provides a day-by-day list since the bombing began Oct. 7, giving the location, estimate of casualties and source for each incident. The great majority of the entries rely on more than a single source.

Herold obviously put a great deal of work into compiling the list, and the sheer volume of the study is impressive. But it is not presented on the website in a very professional manner, and Herold's virulent anti-Bush rhetoric accompanying the list has undoubtedly damaged his credibility with the media.

The Project on Defense Alternatives relied solely on accounts from Western news organizations in compiling its estimate of casualties in "Operation Enduring Freedom" (the name given by the Pentagon to the war in Afghanistan), discounting reports from newspapers in India, Pakistan and other countries. The main focus of its study was the lack of precision in the bombing.

"Despite the adulation of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) as a 'finely tuned' or 'bull's eye' war," writes project co-director Carl Conetta, "the campaign failed to set a new standard for precision in one important respect: the rate of civilians killed per bomb dropped. In fact, this rate was far higher in the Afghanistan conflict – perhaps four times higher – than in the 1999 Balkans war."

Conetta looked at the period from Oct. 7 to Dec. 10. By that date, approximately 12,000 weapons (bombs and missiles) had been used in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense, and at least 1,000 civilians had been killed, according to his figures – 1 death for every 12 bombs/missiles. In the Kosovo war, 23,000 weapons were used but no more than 528 civilians were killed (according to a study by Human Rights Watch) – a ratio of 1 death for every 43 bombs/missiles.

"The high likelihood that 1,000-3,000 civilians were killed in the OEF bombing campaign directly contradicts the notion that the campaign was 'cleaner' than other, recent ones," says Conetta.

The Defense Department declined to comment on the Herold and Conetta studies. "There is no official Department of Defense judgment on these studies," said Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a public affairs spokesman. "People should make their own judgments about them."

Lapan said there is no way for the department to determine accurately the number of casualties. "Some casualties are inevitable," he said. "It's the nature of war. It's not a perfect science. Obviously, we regret the loss of life, but the people responsible are the people who started this war by attacking our country."

And that seems to be the attitude of the American public, at least as reflected in the polls. There has been a collective shrug of the shoulders. We were attacked and we had to fight back. In the process, innocent Afghanis died, but we had no alternative.

Of course, there really was an alternative. A much more effective response to Sept. 11 would have been – and still is – to put all our resources into a cooperative campaign with other nations to gather intelligence and use police agencies to capture terrorists in Afghanistan and the dozens of other countries where they hide, and bring them to justice. But President Bush chose instead to bomb a whole nation, and the American press and public cheered him on.

Now the Pentagon hawks, flush with what they view as success in Afghanistan, are said to be pushing to expand the anti-terrorism campaign to any number of other countries. The President's tough talk in the State of the Union address gave credence to those reports. And I think to myself: Will they kill terrorism, or will they just kill more and more innocent people, especially children?

The September attack has given us a severe case of the willies. Most of us are so scared that we have bought into this bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age mentality, even if it means killing off hundreds or thousands of innocent people. Some of us are simply saying: There's a better way to do it. The life of the child in Madoo was just as valuable as the lives of our tragic victims in America.

Ed McManus

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