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 the Taliban.

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 peasants.

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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