Do you know how safe a war can be for noncombatants nowadays? Me neither. There has really never been a clear accounting, for instance, of how many innocent lives were lost in Vietnam. And good luck trying to find out how many civilians died in the Gulf War. This vacuum has emerged once again in the debate over U.S.-caused “collateral damage” in Afghanistan.
Not that everybody is afraid of plunging into a vacuum. The foreign media have been hammering the United States on civilian deaths in Afghanistan almost since the shooting started. Typical is a BBC report aired last October that led with the Taliban’s claim of 1,500 civilian deaths, and went on, even after admitting that there was no independent confirmation of this figure, to conclude, “There are many incidents of civilians being killed.” Until very recently, however, Afghan civilian deaths weren’t a theme of American press coverage, which tended to reflect the U.S. government’s line that reports of them were wildly inaccurate.
But now—because the United States has backpedaled some on its original firm denials that two of its lethal attacks were mistaken and is also looking into charges that in a third our Special Ops raiders killed some innocent Afghan villagers and beat others thinking they were Taliban or al-Qaida—all that’s changed. Within the past week, for instance, the Washington Post asserted that some of “the Pentagon’s recent biggest triumphs”—that commando raid and using a drone-launched Hellfire missile to wipe out a group of people including a tall man perhaps thought by U.S. intelligence to be Osama Bin Laden—”appear instead to have been tragedies.” And the New York Times flatly reported that “certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent Afghans have lost their lives during American attacks.”
The administration’s reflex thus far has been to ramp up its counterspin. As the Washington Post put it, it’s “almost as if the administration fears that any admission of fallibility will cause overwhelming public support for the war at home to collapse—and for key partners abroad to withdraw their backing.” Well, sure, running a war in which the lives of civilians (civilians you are supposed to be helping) appear to be heavily discounted is indeed a PR problem, but it’s also something much deeper. This is, after all, a war against terrorism, and since the essence of terrorism is the wanton lack of concern for the lives of noncombatants, displaying that lack of concern yourself means the whole effort doesn’t just appear flawed but is flawed.
What to do? Well, the ritual Rumsfeldian reassurances—the U.S. military is conducting its own formal investigations of the disputed incidents, and we’ll keep quiet about all this until they’re done, next question please—don’t cut it. For two reasons: 1) Can you say “fox”? Can you say “henhouse”? All the institutional imperatives line up to push military fact-finders into concluding that their brethren in uniform did nothing wrong. My Lai was whitewashed by the military before (and after) it was broken by the press. 2) Why should the first investigation of these cases—the one with the best chance to collect accurate evidence—be secret? (Why should enterprising Washington Post reporter Doug Struck, who managed to reach the site of the disputed Hellfire attack, have been kept from investigating it by gun-toting U.S. soldiers?) And even in PR terms, this strategy is a loser, because even if 1) and 2) turned out not to be problems, most people think they are.
On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult for purely outside investigations conducted by journalists or human rights groups or academics to find out what really happened in a combat situation. Suppose it’s claimed that a U.S. airstrike killed all 75 peaceful inhabitants of the tiny hamlet of Sleepyvillagestan, comprised of only a mosque and a hospital. How would a visiting journalist be sure that the bodies she saw weren’t really Taliban fighters whose weapons had been carried off post-mortem? How would she know that there hadn’t once upon a time been weapons stored in that mosque and hospital? And given that 2,000-pound bombs leave behind more body parts than bodies, how would she even know how many people were killed in the raid?
Complexities like these force purely outside investigators to rely too much on anecdotes and weakly sourced prior press accounts. For instance, last December, economist and women’s studies professor Marc Herold published a widely quoted study that came up with between 3,000 and 5,000 dead Afghan civilians—based exclusively on press reports. And the Associated Press says that some Afghan journalists have now admitted that Taliban officials doctored their field reports to push Afghanistan’s early estimate of civilian deaths to that oft-cited 1,500. Clearly then, settling this issue requires technical, intelligence, and forensic assets that lie beyond the resources of any organization but the U.S. government.
But that doesn’t mean questions about civilian deaths are unanswerable. The New York Times recently characterized a Central Command admiral as saying that “most investigations would be unreliable because of the amount of time that has passed,” because “some of the damage has been repaired,” and “many of the witnesses have moved away.” Puhhleeeze—a scant five months after the war started and already all leads are too cold to pursue? That’s odd—it took decades before anyone in the Pentagon gave up on the possibility of finding out what happened to our MIAs in Southeast Asia. And many MIA investigations indeed proved conclusive long after they were initiated.
The solution is to make U.S. government resources available to a fully independent investigative body. President Bush should immediately announce the formation of an expert-staffed let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may commission that will get to the bottom of all credible claims of U.S.-caused Afghan casualties. This commission should have not only the U.S. government’s total technical support, but also complete walking-around privileges both in Afghanistan and in the Pentagon. And I have a suggestion for commission chairman, someone respected at the United Nations and other international humanitarian organizations, who will not be seen as an administration yes-man, and who knows something about combat bombing missions, having commanded 35 of them: George McGovern.
The McGovern Commission report should be completely unclassified and made readily available to the general public. My guess is that this investigation would produce a tally of civilian deaths much lower than most of the figures being bandied about and would lend credibility to the administration’s claim that in Afghanistan it has made unprecedented efforts to avoid civilian suffering. If the commission uncovers cases of improper conduct by U.S. military members, it should recommend that they be turned over to the International Criminal Court, which will probably come into existence next year. (An institution obviously called for in such circumstances, so the Bush administration should stop sandbagging it.) Since presidential commission findings aren’t binding, President Bush could refuse to pursue any he disagreed with. But at least the whole matter would then be in the public record instead of under a Pentagon rug.