Civilian Casualties

by Jonathan Wallace

War is a deeply messy enterprise. It is fought in and across civilian areas--cities, villages, farms--and the civilians often cannot get out of the way in time. Shots aimed at the enemy hit them by accident, or they are shot or bombed because mistaken for the enemy. In certain wars, such as Viet Nam, they die because they are indistinguishable from the enemy, or are assumed to be the "water in which the enemy swim". (Hence the No Gun Ri and My Lae massacres, among numerous examples.)

Military folk all know there is no war without the death of civilians. Since the populations back home and in other countries whose opinions matter to us, tend to be shocked by civilian casualties-- presumably few people can look with pleasure or calm on pictures of the dead bloody bodies of cute four year old girls with curly hair--the military have developed a set of stock responses and rationales which are found in every press account without exception:

"The [name of country's] army does not target civilians." This is a generic disclaimer. Since we do not target civilians, it is improbable we hit any this time, or if we did, we should not be blamed.

"We are not aware of any civilian casualties." Since we do not know about it, it did not happen.

"We are conducting an investigation." This is the perfect bland Teflon response: all messes slide off of it. It defuses anger by admitting that something may have happened but takes no specific responsibility. The short attention span of the press and public is deflected; the results of these investigations are never disclosed, if in fact they ever take place; no-one is ever held responsible.

"They were not civilians." Here we are shading over into the defensive and culpable, so it is best to avoid this level of specificity. The Israelis use this one most often: they may have been teenagers but they were throwing rocks.

"They had it coming." This one is a mistake; there is really no reason to arrive at this level of harsh admission when all the other excuses are available. This is along the lines of "they support the enemy, they mingle with the enemy, naturally they will be killed when we kill the enemy." This is the underlying nuance in the response, for example, to the bombing of wedding parties, which seems to happen with some regularity in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Air Force: "We hit a terrorist compound today." The villagers: "You bombed a wedding party. Adorable four year old curly-haired girls are lying dead and bloody." The Air Force: "Well, they shouldn't have been attending a wedding in a terrorist compound, should they?" They had it coming.

"He looked like Osama bin Laden." This is my personal favorite, though it has only been uttered once that I am aware of. A tall Afghan metal collector was scrounging scrap metal on a deserted plateau with two assistants. Some CIA functionary, looking through the cameras of a pilotless drone aircraft, thought he might possibly be bin Laden, and fired a missile from the drone. It is dangerous to be a bearded Afghan over six feet tall dressed in traditional robes and headgear.

The press also has its own formulas which are heard with some regularity. In its relentless pursuit of apparent objectivity (let's face it, there is no such thing as neutrality, its a crock), the press can only report on bloody, dead four year old girls if it avoids blaming the military and presents every conceivable side of an issue. After all, it is fairly rare for a journalist to see someone shoot a four year old girl. Press reporting on these incidents tends to fall into two familiar categories:

"There were dead bloody four year old girls with curly hair at the scene but we couldn't tell who shot them." After all, they could have been killed by the other side, possibly in an attempt to make our military look like barbarians.

"We do not know if there were really dead four year old girls at the scene." We have it only on the authority of Al Jazeera or local villagers who after all, are the water in which the enemy swim. They may be lying, or using stock footage from other suspect incidents. They are inherently suspect, because foreign, of unknown or hostile motivation, and cannot possibly be neutral (unlike us!)

Of course, our press made a decision long ago not even to run the pictures of dead children: it is considered unpatriotic, inflammatory, not newsworthy. Most people, unable to confront all the ramifications of the proposition "I don't want that to happen!" can go no further than "I don't want to see that!" My take: if it happened, we should look at it. We are grown-ups. Let us confront what we are doing, in every detail.

The hallmark of all of these carefully qualified press cop-outs are the words "Independent verification was impossible." This means that the reporter was fearful of becoming a civilian casualty and did not go to the scene to see if there were really dead four year old girls there.

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who know that civilian casualties will occur in any war, and those who foolishly believe they are avoidable. The former are honest enough to confront the question, "How many bloody, dead, cute four year old girls can I tolerate?" The latter, believing that there ae solutions, usually technological, to avoid the breakage of cute four year olds, makes fateful decisions to launch into war without considering the true cost in dead cute children.

The Israelis, jaded and experienced in war, fall into the first category. An Israeli acquaintance, angered when I drew a parallel between American behavior in Iraq and Israeli behavior in Gaza, said: "If a bombmaker runs and hides in a kindergarten, getting him is worth the death of every child there." There is little one can say to this except: "Thank you for being truthful."

Americans fall into the second category. We all believe that our Air Force has, or is on the edge of developing, bombs which can find 123 Hassan Street, walk up to the fourth floor, ring the bell of apartment 4D, ask for Mr. al-Majid, and when he answers, scan the room for adorable four year old girls before deciding to detonate. As a result of this naive belief, which allows us to eliminate the death of children as a factor in our calculations, we will go right on killing little girls.