Dealing With It
Today I found a link to a report on civilian casualties of America’s bombardment of Afghanistan. The author of the report attempts to determine how many civilians have died due to US bombing, and comes up with a number around 3,800. The report is well sourced, and is probably about as accurate as you can be analyzing the incomplete information that’s available from Afghanistan. The author makes no attempt to hide his political agenda — he’s as strongly opposed to America’s involvement in Afghanistan as one can possibly be. I, for one, strongly disagree with the author’s opposition to the war in Afghanistan and believe that we are fighting a just war there. I don’t have any desire to argue with the author of the paper, he’s entitled to his opinions whether I agree with them or not.

What haunts me as I read the paper is the number of casualties that we’ve inflicted on the Afghans. Ignore the fact that the numbers are certainly incorrect — whether the actual number of casualties is half what the author calculated or twice what he calculated, the bottom line is the US military has killed a lot of innocent men, women, and children in our war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The natural reaction to reading accounts of civilian accounts, I think, is simply denial. The forces of cognitive dissonance attempt to massage the facts so that my brain can get past the thousands of individual human tragedies and accept that our war in Afghanistan is necessary and just.

On a purely human level, there’s no rationalization for the deaths of these civilians. You can’t explain to someone that all of their family members were killed because “we missed” or “they were in the wrong place at the wrong time” or “it was a legitimate military target.” I certainly couldn’t accept those explanations if my family had been blown up, any more than I could accept that they were killed because the United States stations troops in Saudi Arabia or whatever.

However, when it comes to war (and it hurts me to say this), I try to look past that. The truth is that nothing exists in a vacuum, not even the horrific deaths of innocent civilians. The context of the civilian deaths caused by American bombing is pretty grim indeed.

If there were no American bombing in Afghanistan, the civil war there would have gone on, taking the lives of civilians all the way. Unlike the United States, which has clearly attempted to avoid (if not eliminate) civilian casualties, the Afghans have shown little interest in the past in sparing the lives of noncombatants. Furthermore, it’s clear that due in large part to US bombing, the Taliban forces have retreated from every major town in Afghanistan or surrendered. If we had opted not to bomb the country, how many civilian lives would have been lost in the retaking of those towns? It’s hard to say, but considering the number of civilian casualties around Kunduz, Kandahar, and Tora Bora (as compared to the numbers from around Kabul, the largest city in Afghanistan), it seems pretty clear that increased resistance lead to increased civilian casualties. How many civilians would have died if Kabul had been placed under seige for weeks or months?

Despite the fact that we haven’t succeeded in eliminating civilian casualties, it’s clear that we tried to minimize them. Had we not attempted to do so, the death toll would be enormous. When you look at World War II acts like the firebombing of Dresden, or dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you see what sort of casualties the intentional targetting of civilians can inflict. When you read about the sort of munitions we’ve used, 2,000 pound bombs and 15,000 pound fuel-air munitions, it’s amazing that we didn’t kill more civilians. Despite the fact that we have only a handful of US troops in Afghanistan, we’ve managed to bomb them twice. We’re hardly immune to our own imprecision. That makes it hard for me to believe that we’ve willfully killed Afghan civilians. Clearly the military has accepted the fact that civilians will be killed when in war, but that’s not the same thing as intentionally attacking civilians.

The final question I ask myself is what would the outcome have been if we had simply opted out of any sort of conflict in Afghanistan. Despite the deaths of many Afghan civilians, I have a hard time believing that the Afghan people would have been better off had we stayed out. As I said before, Afghan civilians were dying for all sorts of reasons thanks to the ongoing civil war. There was also much suffering at the hands of the Taliban and the foreign occupiers who propped up their regime. The country was marked by brutal executions, and aid workers were often denied access to masses of suffering people who are certainly dying of starvation and preventable disease. The Afghans were also relegated to joyless lives without many of the most basic freedoms that we take for granted. Despite the fact that liberating the Afghans from the Taliban was not high on our list of objectives for this war, it’s been the best and most fulfilling outcome. The scenes of Afghans cheering in the streets are impossible to ignore.

The other issue that hits closer to home is how we could have eliminated the threat to the United States (and, really, the rest of the world) from Al Qaeda without going to war with the Taliban. Perhaps other people believe that we could have coerced the Taliban to expel Al Qaeda from Afghanistan using means other than force, I’m not one of them.

It’s important for me to confront the fact of civilian casualties head on when deciding whether or not I support a war. And it’s a tough call to make. My gut feeling is that various pundits and columnists who I would describe as warmongers are able to callously thrust the fact of civilian casualties out of their minds. Certainly anyone who frames our conflict in Afghanistan in terms of retribution willfully disregards the fact that the victims of war are most often the innocents on both sides.