Tragic Errors in U.S. Military Policy
Targeting the civilian population
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, September 2002
U.S. military policy has long been based on strategies and
tactics that involve a heavy civilian toll. This has followed
from a combination of factors, whose proportions and effects vary
depending on circumstances. But this combination always yields
a large, sometimes vast, civilian toll. However, as it is claimed
by the war managers that these deaths and injuries are not deliberate,
but are only "collateral" to another end, they are treated
by the mainstream media, NGOs, new humanitarians, and others as
a lesser evil than cases where civilians are openly targeted.
But this differential treatment is a fraud, even if we accept
the sometimes disputable claim of inadvertence (occasionally even
acknowledged by officials to be false, as described below). Even
if not the explicit target, if collateral civilian deaths are
highly probable and statistically predictable they are clearly
acceptable and intentional. If in 500 raids on Afghan villages
alleged to harbor al Qaeda cadres it is likely that civilians
will die in 450 of them, those deaths are an integral component
of the plan and the clear responsibility of the planners and executioners.
As law professor Michael Tonry has said, "In the criminal
law, purpose and knowledge are equally culpable states of mind."
Furthermore, the Geneva Conventions state that combatants
"shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population
and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives
and, accordingly, shall direct their operations only against military
objectives" (Part IV, Chap. 1, Article 48). When Tony Blair
claims that the West is doing "all
we humanly can" to prevent civilian casualties in Afghanistan,
this is a brazen lie, given that U.S. bombing strategy-over which
Blair has not the slightest influence-has featured the targeting
of literally hundreds of heavily inhabited civilian sites that
might also harbor Taliban or al Qaeda personnel, attacked them
with high level bombing and anti-personnel weapons, and sometimes
based these attacks on dubious information sources.
What are the factors that determine the civilian toll? One
is the attitude toward civilian casualties in a targeted state.
Where the population is known to support the side that we oppose,
and enemy forces depend on and live among that population, as
in the Vietnam War, the population is treated ruthlessly and is
either a direct target or a victim of targeting that is quite
content with "collateral damage." Civilian casualties
in this case ran into the millions.
In other cases, as in Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan,
where the population may be victimized by the targeted leadership
and/or is of varying and uncertain loyalty, the attitude toward
civilian casualties may be less cavalier (or less positive), but
this is not certain. One reason is that enemy populations are
regularly demonized in war propaganda, and made "willing
executioners," as much of the media treated the population
of Serbia. Another reason is that attacks that kill civilians
may hasten the end of a war, a key factor in the NATO expansion
of the attacks on civilian facilities in Serbia during its war
with Yugoslavia and also a major consideration in the war against
Because of the demonization process, and patriotic ardor,
the killing of foreign civilians, especially if not publicized
and personalized, entails little or no political cost to politicians
and the military establishment. On the other hand, the political
cost of dead U.S. military personnel, given the normally high
publicity given such deaths, is very high. Too many such deaths
may impede a military campaign and are therefore something to
be avoided (and concealed) at all costs.
Thus the second factor affecting military strategy and tactics
is the desire to avoid U.S. casualties. This has encouraged a
shift to high-tech warfare and the use of weapons that can kill,
damage, and instill fear from a distance and without risk to U.S.
personnel. This shift fits not only the U.S. bias toward technological
fixes, but also it is a windfall for the military-industrial complex,
as it provides the basis for continuous innovation and "progress"
in developing instruments that hurt, kill, and destroy. During
the Vietnam War we saw U.S. technology produce Tiger Cages, prison
manacles that would tighten when a prisoner struggled, and instruction
to the Vietnamese army on using electric shocks ("wiring
them up") to get prisoners to talk; as well as ever improving
napalm, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons to kill rice crops
and incapacitate humans.
"Progress" has continued in all these spheres, with
each little war useful for testing progress on the targeted states
and peoples. In lraq and Yugoslavia we saw the testing of fuel
air explosives, depleted uranium, and improved cluster bombs;
and in Afghanistan we have seen still more deadly cluster bombs,
daisy cutters, thermobaric bombs, and huge quantities of depleted
uranium used in Raytheon's Bunker Buster-GBU-28 (Robert Parsons,
"Depleted Uranium in Bunker Bombs, America's Big Dirty Secret,"
Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2002). We should note also the use
of virtually airless metal containers in which to stuff and transport
Taliban prisoners (hundreds suffocated to death in the process),
and the small wire cages in which captured prisoners are housed
at Guantanamo Bay, a throwback to the Vietnam era Tiger Cages.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has produced no discernible
mainstream criticism of this evolving weaponry, and its development
and use illustrates well the effective division of labor in ruling
circles in a supposedly democratic society, with the technical
elite, Pentagon, and its cadres and mercenaries developing and
using these horrendous weapons, the mainstream media normalizing
their use-mainly by suppression-and the public led to believe
that their state is run by highly moral individuals (see Lisa
Peattie, "Normalizing the unthinkable," Bulletin of
Atomic Scientists, March 1984).
The consequence of this focus on technology to reduce U.S.
casualties has been dire for civilians in the target states. The
improved weapons kill and injure more efficiently, many of them
have lasting effects on health (depleted uranium) or kill quickly
but with a time lag (unexploded cluster bombs). And delivered
from great heights or distances, with targeting errors, misinformation,
and technical failures supplementing the civilian toll of on-target
bombs, civilian casualties can be quite high. The tradeoff in
the shift to high-tech to reduce U.S. casualties is greater civilian
casualties in the target states.
A third factor affecting civilian casualties, already noted,
is the ability to keep what U.S. wars do to enemy-state civilians
out of sight. Where this ability is great, civilians can be killed
more freely, which explains the unremitting struggle of the Pentagon
to control the flow of information. One of the most important
features of the Vietnam War was the fact that the most vicious
and civilian-damaging operations by the U. S. war machine were
carried out in South Vietnam, which the United States was allegedly
protecting against aggression and "saving" from North
Vietnam. All the napalm was dropped in South Vietnam, and the
immense program of chemical warfare was also carried out exclusively
in the south. While this is where the war was fought, a key consideration
was that publicity could be kept low because the victims were
under the political control of the United States and its puppet
government, who understood too well that the people were the enemy.
It is droll to see how the Pentagon and media rush to count
bodies of civilians in places like Kosovo, but are remarkably
uninterested in and skeptical of claims of bodies in Panama, Iraq,
Serbia, and currently, Afghanistan. If, as Madeleine Albright
said about 500,000 Iraqi children killed by the "sanctions
of mass destruction," that their deaths were "worth
it," that is enough for the mainstream media-they won't look,
show pictures, or concern themselves with body counts.
But it is also true that their leaders go to great and increasing
pains to make it difficult for them to report on civilian casualties
and these leaders have gotten more brazen in their censorship
efforts over the past several decades (with the help of the media,
who downplay these efforts and fail to contest them with any vigor).
Access to scenes of damage were increasingly subject to Pentagon
control and censorship from Grenada in 1983 to Panama in 1989
to Iraq in 1991 and to Yugoslavia in 1999, although in the last
case there were few restrictions on the rush to refugees and body
counts in Kosovo after the NATO takeover .~. in June 1999, where
the toll could be attributed to an official enemy.
Civilian Killings in Afghanistan
With the war in Afghanistan we have reached a still more advanced
phase in official attempts to limit information on civilian casualties
and to explain away those that could not be kept under the rug.
We have also reached a further stage in media cooperation to keep
such information at a very modest level. This has been important
as the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been an anti-civilian war,
with devastating consequences for the target population. This
results in part from the fact that the Taliban had strong links
to a major segment of Afghan society and also because many of
its facilities were in or near cities and villages. But, as in
all recent U.S. wars (Iraq, Yugoslavia), there has been a deliberate
targeting and destruction of the industrial and public infrastructure
of the country-roads, bridges, railroads, electric power, water,
etc.-which is a direct assault on the entire civilian population.
It was also an anti-civilian war because the Bush administration
and Pentagon were determined to win quickly, with high-tech warfare
and little exposure of U.S. personnel to ground fighting, and
they had no concern over "collateral damage" except
as a public relations threat. Furthermore, in their explanations
of civilian casualties it repeatedly slipped out that the victims
were friendly to the Taliban, implying good riddance ("This
is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and Al Qaeda,"
said General Gregory Newbold, about the killings at the wedding
ceremony at Kakrak; or "The people in the vicinity clearly
were connected to those activities," as Rumsfeld said about
a mass killing of civilians at Karam village; or even that "The
people there are dead because we wanted them dead," as an
unidentified Pentagon official asserted on CNN about the scores
of civilian killed at Chowkar-Karez). The media never pressed
them on such remarks or considered their relevance to evaluating
Pentagon claims of care to avoid civilians.
The result of this unconcern-or worse-was a policy of shoot
and bomb first, based sometimes on dubious Afghan sources of information
that proved to be wrong; shooting at and bombing "targets
of opportunity" like buses and cars with unknown sets of
passengers (frequently civilians in flight); and the lavish use
of B-52 bombers and devastating weapons on or near all Afghan
cities and many Afghan villages, dozens of which were literally
wiped off the map.
Marc Herold lists by name several hundred separate villages
struck by U.S. bombs, some repeatedly, all of which suffered civilian
casualties; his count of documented deaths ran to over 3,000 between
October 7, 2001 and March 30, 2002 1"A Dossier of Civilian
Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive
Accounting," [revised, March 2002]). The idea that most of
these civilians were killed by "errant" bombs or targeting
errors is the central and most important establishment lie-they
were killed in accord with a deliberate policy of sending missiles
to, and dropping bombs on, targets in populated areas based on
reports of a Taliban or al Qaeda presence. That presence might
be a single person in a sea of civilians and the information might
be of dubious origin and unconfirmed, but down come the missiles
and bombs, from great heights and distances, and with great power
to kill over a wide area.
"Every vehicle is a target for the American bombers as
they hunt down the stragglers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda,"
writes Suzanne Goldenberg in Zhawar, an area of mountain hamlets
where the villagers described to her the indiscriminate devastation
they suffered: "The village [Shudiaki] is completely flattened.
My house was destroyed and my neighbors were killed.... The dead
remain there in the village. Everybody else has left" ("Day
100: another raid in the bombing war without end," Guardian
[London], January 15, 2002). One air assault was based on the
sighting of a tall man who seemed to be authoritative, therefore
maybe Bin Laden, and no more information was needed to kill six
On a larger scale, the village of Kama Ado "has ceased
to exist" after B-52s unloaded dozens of bombs that killed
115 women, men and children in early December. About 150 civilians
died in early November in the carpet bombing of Khananbad, the
B-52 pilots "seemingly oblivious to the fact that the buildings
they were bombing were civilian homes" (these quotes are
from the British press). Herold lists 12 mosques struck by U.S.
bombs between October 10 and December 20, 2001, only two claimed
by the Pentagon to have been "mistakes." There were
repeated cases where bombs were dropped on sites long abandoned
by the Taliban, or based on obsolete maps, or on information from
paid informers with an axe to grind.
The official unconcern with civilian casualties has also been
obvious from the repeated bombing of well-marked Red Cross facilities
in Kabul, which destroyed civilian-bound food supplies and medicine;
the bombing of a Red Cross clinic in Kandahar; and the unwillingness
to halt the bombing during Ramadan, requested by all the international
aid agencies to allow emergency supply runs to a stricken population
and to permit a polio immunization program for children (that
both the Taliban and Northern Alliance had honored in past years).
The threat to bomb and then the bombing war itself, carried out
in a country suffering from mass starvation, causing mass flight
and disruption of supplies, and which probably caused many more
indirect deaths than the bombing, tells us a great deal about
the concern of the war managers for Afghan civilians.
The steady stream of official denials and lies on civilian
casualties has been gross, contradictory, and regularly confuted
by independent evidence-so much so that an honest media would
treat official statements with contempt. This happens in the British
press, but not here: Richard Parry notes in the British Independent
that the destruction of Kama Ado "didn't happen.... We know
this because the US Department of Defense told us so...[and] because
the US is meticulous in selecting only military targets associated
with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network." After the bombing
of Qalaye Niazi on the night of December 29, based on "indications"
of the presence of senior Taliban and Al Qaeda officials, the
Pentagon reported that there was "no collateral damage."
But Rory Carroll, visiting the scene for the London Guardian,
reported massive evidence of civilian damage, with over 100 farmers,
their families, and wedding guests killed. The New York Times
first reported this incident under the heading "Afghan Leader
Warily Backs U.S. Bombing" (January 2, 2002), framing the
killing of over 100 civilians in terms of general approval of
U.S. policy by the U.S.-installed leader.
Richard Parry visited Tora Bora after a bombing attack that
killed and wounded several hundred people in three villages (the
wounded also visited by Susan Glasser of the Washington Post and
Tim Weiner of the New York Times); but any collateral damage was
denied by Rear Admiral Craig Quigley ("We have meticulous
reporting whenever we have killed a single person") and Rear
Admiral John Stufflebeem ("We know there were no off-target
hits" and, regarding civilian casualties, "I don't know
them to be true").
These are standard Pentagon lies. The lie syndrome reached
a new peak with the bombing of the village of Kakrak and three
neighboring villages on July 1, with 60 or more dead and over
100 wounded and the occupying troops not allowing the wounded
to be moved to hospitals for many hours. The lie sequence was
as follows: (1) first, a claim of an errant bomb [eventually abandoned];
then (2), an attack was launched following "sustained anti-aircraft
fire" [muted when no anti-aircraft weapons could be found];
then (3) it was common for the Taliban/al Qaeda to put weapons
and troops in civilian areas [but no weapons or troops were found];
and (4) the locals might have been injured by falling antiaircraft
fire [no anti-aircraft weapons found, and 200 people killed or
wound by this route is laughable]; (5) the Pentagon had "reliable
information" that senior Taliban officials were being sheltered
in Kakrak [no source given and no Taliban officials found]; and
(6) the Pentagon couldn't confirm civilian casualties, and "there
should have been more blood." But with even Karzai complaining
a bit here, an investigative team was being sent to Kakrak and
Rumsfeld promised that it would take only a few days to come up
with "useful information."
Whereas the Pentagon was very forthcoming in giving estimates
(invariably inflated) of civilian deaths in Kosovo, it cannot
come up with a count in Afghanistan, and it puts cases "under
investigation" only when this is required for public relations
purposes. Could it be that the Pentagon deliberately avoids body
count as part of the strategy of cover-up, to permit merciless
warfare with heavy civilian casualties? This is not a proper subject
for a propaganda system, and the media either avoid it or produce
disinformation, as does the New York Times in its front-page article
on "Uncertain Toll in the Fog of War: Civilian Deaths in
Afghanistan" (February 10, 2002). This article claims, "The
American military routinely reviews the effectiveness of its air
raids, but by its own admission it has faced insurmountable difficulty
in tracking the toll of civilian deaths." This statement
implies that the military is anxious to identify civilian casualties,
and fails to do so for (unexplained) technical reasons; the phrase,
"by its own admission," is a semantic trick to reinforce
this apologetic premise. In fact, spokespersons for the Pentagon
have admitted that they are not even collecting data on this subject.
This same article also quotes the Pentagon claim "that
extraordinary efforts have been made to minimize civilian losses,
something that even most critics of the war would not dispute."
This again is a straightforward propaganda claim, asserted as
true without any evidence. The article only allows for "misdirected
air strikes," never admitting the possibility that large
numbers have been directed at sites "rumored" to house
a Taliban leader, along with perhaps 500 civilians, or that "targets
of opportunity" have been interpreted generously. Only William
Arkin's estimate of civilian casualties is given. Arkin, who works
for Human Rights Watch and teaches at the U.S Air Force School
of Advanced Airpower Studies, puts the word "victims"
in quote marks when referring to Afghan civilian casualties, and
he resents the excessive attention given this subject. Arkin asks
Afghans "When are you going to pay the US for the cost of
the bombs and the jet fuel and the American lives selflessly given
to topple the Taliban and rout Al Qaeda, all done so that you
can have a future?" ("Checking on Civilian Casualties,"
WP, April 9, 2002).
The advanced coverup strategy that the Bush administration
and Pentagon employ encompasses several elements. One is to create
a moral environment at home that will keep the media under maximum
constraint. The government has therefore played the "terrorist
threat" gambit to the full, creating a war atmosphere in
which any criticisms of military policy verge on the treasonous.
This is helped along by super-patriotic flak machines such as
Lynne Cheney's and Joseph Lieberman's American Council of Trustees
and Alumni (ACTA) and William Bennet's Americans for Victory Over
Terrorism (AVOT), which name and castigate deviationists. It is
also helped by the numerous far right warriors in the media (Fox,
New Republic, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, and many others)
who always stir up fervor for war and attack war critics. Among
the others, Christopher Hitchens, the ex-leftist columnist for
Vanity Fair and the Nation, has distinguished himself for assailing
war critics and praising the Pentagon for an "almost pedantic"
policy of avoiding civilians in its bombing war.
There has also been a threat that the Arab dissident station
Al Jazeera, with an office in Kabul, might continue to show pictures
of dead and injured Afghan civilians, and that an independent
commercial satellite news service might take pictures of bombed
civilian sites that would best be kept under wraps. The Pentagon
handled these problems efficiently. Al Jazeera's office in Kabul
was bombed and destroyed. It was not feasible to bomb Al Jazeera's
offices in Qatar, a friendly state, but State Department head
Colin Powell urged the sheik of Qatar to curb Al Jazeera, and
National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice advised U.S. TV stations
to avoid transmitting Bin Laden speeches, which allegedly might
contain hidden instructions to al Qaeda forces.
As for the threat of out-of-control satellite photos, the
Pentagon solved that problem by buying exclusive rights to all
photos made by Denver-based Space Imaging, the only commercial
operator gathering high resolution images by satellite.
The mainstream U.S. media, so gung-ho for the "free flow
of information" when worried about limits on their own access
to foreign media markets, were entirely unbothered by these Pentagon
efforts to contain the free flow, and the New York Times provided
a complementary article castigating Al Jazeera for bias (Fouad
Ajami, "What the Muslim World Is Watching," Nov. 19,
2001). By contrast, several well-researched academic studies have
praised Al Jazeera's accuracy in reporting, as has a recent full-length
book, even though all recognized that Al Jazeera "speaks"
from a position.
Control of media access by the already excessively friendly
U.S. media has also reached new levels, going beyond the censorship
and pool system of the Persian Gulf War. U.S. reporters have been
cooped up at Bagrum base, with a twice daily "briefing"
reminiscent of the "5 o'clock follies" in Vietnam, the
reporters mainly dutifully transcribing and transmitting this
"news." Walt Rodgers of CNN has said that "We had
greater freedom of coverage of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan
than we had at Camp Rhino" (a forward Marine base camp).
In a dramatic case illustrating the treatment of the media, Doug
Struck of the Washington Post, attempting to visit a site of civilian
casualties, was threatened with being shot by a U.S. soldier.
But in the New York Times version on "Uncertain Toll"
and its reasons (February 2), the paper, explaining the knowledge
gap, says that "Some of this has been deliberate. For months,
the Taliban excluded any foreign observers. Much of what they
claimed about civilian casualties has been proven false. But now,
even with the Taliban gone, truth is hard to come by. The sites
of past air raids are often in remote locations..." The Paper
of Record cannot admit that truth is hard to come by as a result
of "deliberate" Pentagon policy and apparently only
Taliban claims have been proven false.
Actually, Pentagon restrictions were only icing on the cake,
as indicated by these Times obfuscations and lies. With only very
marginal exceptions, the media have lined up to serve the state
in treating Afghan casualties as well as on related issues. CNN
even ordered its reporters to recognize, "the Pentagon has
repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize" Afghan
civilian casualties-and that reporters should always mention 9/11
casualties when obliged to deal with Afghan victims. Reporters
are thus instructed to take as true a Pentagon propaganda claim,
which is a demonstrable lie. That lie is institutionalized in
the media, as noted in the earlier quotes from the New York Times.
It is also clear why Marc Herold's detailed studies have been
kept out of the mainstream media (although cited regularly in
the British and German media). He gives overwhelming evidence
refuting the big lie; and it is easier to just ignore him than
to try to refute him.
Almost ten months after the start of the bombing campaign,
the Times ran a front-page article, which acknowledged, deep in
the piece, that the evidence suggests "that many civilians
were killed by airstrikes hitting precisely the target they were
aimed at...because in eagerness to kill Quaeda and Taliban fighters,
Americans did not carefully differentiate between civilians and
military targets" (Dexter Filkins, "Flaws in U.S. Air
War Left Hundreds of Civilians Dead," July 21). The article
documents civilian deaths in a review of 11 bombed sites and stresses
the irresponsible use of contaminated information as well as targeting
practice. But the heading "Flaws in U.S. Air War" is
deceptive in that, as the text indicates, the Pentagon is quite
satisfied with the results, with few U.S. casualties, so that
the civilian deaths are not "flaws" from the official
perspective. It also reports only "hundreds" dead, continuing
the refusal to cite Herold's work, underestimating the direct
toll, and failing to mention any lagged deaths from injuries,
cluster bombs, depleted uranium, deaths resulting from the assault
on the infrastructure or the starvation toll of civilians.
Marc Herold has pointed out that the average daily rate of
Afghan civilian deaths from the U.S. bombing has been approximately
41-47 per day (through March 2002). This is roughly the number
of deaths at Racak, Kosovo in January 1999, which outraged NATO
officials and the mainstream media and provided a rationale for
bombing Yugoslavia (although whether the people killed there were
civilians remains in dispute). But the United States can kill
innocent civilians at that rate for months on end and the mainstream
media can take this with a grain of salt, because the ends are
good (by patriotic definition) and the killings are merely tragic
errors, even if an integral component of the policy.
When the lid can't be kept on the evidence, U.S. Ieaders may
say they are sorry for the tragic errors. The New York Times editors
congratulated President Bush for calling President Karzai and
expressing his sympathy for the victims at Kakrak and three other
villages struck by "errant or mistargeted American fire,"
and the editors urge Washington to compensate demonstrably "innocent"
Afghanis, even though we are "not required to compensate
unintended victims" ("Afghanistan's Unintended Victims,"
ed., July 8, 2002). This will make a good war even more just.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media analyst.
His most recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is Degraded
Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000).
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