Tragic Errors in U.S. Military Policy

Edward S. Herman 

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. 

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.” 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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

has continued in all these spheres, with each little war useful
for testing progress on the targeted states and peoples. In Iraq
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
, 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. 

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 [“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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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”). 

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.” 

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 coverup, 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. 

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). 

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
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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

the lid can’t be kept on the evidence, U.S. leaders 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.                                                       Z 

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).