The first American war against Iraq, fought a dozen years ago, produced an overwhelming, if transitory, U.S. victory, while also popularizing several phrases that slipped almost lightheartedly into the world's lexicon. But if the U.S. military's new "smart bombs" helped make a mockery of Saddam Hussein's bluster about winning "the mother of all battles," there was nothing funny about "collateral damage," the Pentagon's time-honored euphemism for the killing and wounding of everyday Iraqi people with cruise missiles and airpower.
What Desert Storm revealed was that bombs, no matter how advanced, are neither smart nor stupid. And the experience of the past dozen years in the skies over Iraq, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan shows that even when ordnance is directed with the most advanced guidance systems and operated by highly skilled pilots, gunners, and spotters obsessed with preventing calamity, it still sometimes rains upon the innocent.
And as the United States readies for a second war in Iraq, one of the primary worries nagging at the world's conscience-perhaps the main worry-is that Iraq will inevitably pay a price in civilian deaths and injuries from American and British military strikes.
President Bush has cited various rationales for this war: Saddam Hussein's obsession with acquiring weapons of mass destruction; his use of them on Kurds and Iranians; his habit of invading his neighbors; his affinity for terrorists; his threats against the United States and Israel. Likewise, skeptics cite a litany of reasons for opposing the war: the lack of a clear U.N. mandate; the threat that the war will generate a backlash against Americans; a dearth of evidence that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks; the implausibility of the idea that Iraq poses a military threat to the United States.
But in their own fashion, Bush and his critics have come to a tacit agreement that the ultimate judgment of the war will depend heavily on its impact on Iraqi civilians. Bush proposes to bring freedom to them. The doubters wonder whether that will truly be the result of a U.S. invasion, and they point out that those killed by American bombs will never know the freedom that an American president wants them to have. "The media would be much more accurate if, instead of portraying a target on the forehead of Saddam Hussein, they showed that target on the forehead of a little Iraqi girl," liberal Pacifica Radio host Amy Goodman proclaimed at a Cleveland peace rally last month.
"This war is wrong," adds Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who has emerged as the Democrats' most ardent peace candidate in the 2004 presidential race. "This war will put the lives of millions of ... innocent people at risk."
That seems an exaggeration, but maybe it's not. And how many innocent deaths are too many?
Retribution and Revulsion
On the eve of what seems to be an inevitable war, Defense Department sources, whether in private interviews or in on-the-record briefings, agree on two things: First, they say, laser-guided bombs are far more accurate than anything that was in their arsenals a dozen years ago, when the U.S. Air Force dazzled the world by putting bombs down chimneys of targeted buildings in Baghdad. "If you thought that stuff was good, wait until you see what we have this time," one former top Navy pilot told National Journal. "It's much, much better. They're not going to know what hit them."
The second point of agreement is that regardless of the quality of the weaponry, civilian deaths in Iraq will result if a U.S. invasion takes place. In the past week, Pentagon officials outlined plans that entail launching 3,000 precision-guided bombs in the first 48 hours of the war. Divulging this fact was a way of preparing the American public for the eventuality that some of those bombs, perhaps as many as 10 percent, according to a recent Central Command briefing, will miss their targets. How many Iraqi civilians will be killed? No one in a position of authority wants to venture a guess. In a March 4 briefing with reporters, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to give estimates, saying only, "Large numbers of civilians, hopefully, will not die."
Judging what tally of deaths of innocents constitutes a "large" number is inherently subjective. But so are the other factors that will determine whether American public opinion-and world opinion-supports the U.S.- and British-led coalition or turns away in revulsion. The basic issues, present in every conflict since World War I, are the following: Is the war effort perceived as just? How many innocents will the war end up killing? Will the bombing ultimately save more lives than are lost?
"If the cause is not deemed important, one death will be considered too many, and that goes for American servicemen as well as Iraqi civilians," says retired Army Col. John A. Bonin, a military historian with the Army Heritage Center Foundation. Such was the case in Somalia in 1993, he said, when the American public judged the 18 dead U.S. Army Rangers-along with several hundred Somalis-to be far too many. "But if the stakes are high enough, if our cause is just, the nation will tolerate whatever it takes. Something like 140,000 Japanese civilians died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there was a lot of talk at the time-and subsequent scholarship bolsters it-that dropping the atomic bombs probably saved millions of lives, most of them Japanese."
The scale in the Afghanistan war has been much smaller, but Bonin believes this is also why there's been no greater outcry about last year's fearsome civilian death toll of upwards of 1,000 Afghans caused by American bombs. One military source told National Journal that while hunting the Taliban, a U.S. general showed pictures of the World Trade Center destruction to Afghan warlords, telling them, "We lost 3,000 of our clan. We want retribution. Where are these people?" For the general, this was an attempt to put 9/11 into a context that Afghan warriors understood-and they did understand. Yet that American retribution, as impressive and immediate as it was, came from the safe altitude of 15,000 feet, with all the imperfect results that such a distance implies.
"First they hit the men who were standing outside. Then they hit the house where all the women were gathered. The shrapnel was falling like rain. I dragged myself out by my hands, until my husband found me and carried me home on his back."-Shabibi, a wounded Afghan woman, attending a July 1, 2002, wedding in Kakarak, where villagers were celebrating Afghan-style: firing their Kalishnikov rifles into the sky while an American AC-130 gunship flew overhead
"The people that were killed, they were also my personal friends. The man whose family was killed was the man who actually defended me when the Taliban attacked me.... I was very angry. "-Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan
'Our Families Were Killed!'
Twelve years ago, during 16 straight nights of bombing that ushered in the Persian Gulf War, allied planes killed an estimated 2,500 Iraqi civilians. The number stood in contrast to the public assertions of American military commanders. Echoing previous statements of President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf said on January 18, 1991: "We are doing absolutely everything we possibly can in this campaign to avoid injuring or hurting or destroying innocent people. We have said all along that this is not a war against the Iraqi people."
But in a report on civilian deaths in the Persian Gulf War, the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch documented numerous discrepancies between this language and what later happened. It noted that many of the precision-guided bombs dropped on Iraqi cities were dropped in Baghdad, where a small number of journalists were based, but that in places such as the city of Basra, "dumb" bombs-with their crude accuracy rates.
On February 4, 1991, more than a hundred civilians were drowned, blown up, or maimed merely because they were crossing a bridge over the Euphrates River in the town of Nasiriya in southern Iraq. At 3 p.m. that day, several diving bombers appeared out of nowhere, headed for the bridge. The sirens were blaring, but most of the people were on foot, and they had nowhere to run. Human Rights Watch also criticized the U.S. military for its daytime bombing in Iraqi urban centers when civilians were out and about, and for its inventory of targets, which included water-treatment facilities, electrical-power generators, and, in isolated instances, a grain-storage facility and dairy and flour-milling plants.
The gap between the U.S. rhetoric and reality generated scant backlash in 1991, for numerous reasons. Iraq was the aggressor nation; Iraqi troops in occupied Kuwait committed numerous atrocities (some 600 kidnapped Kuwaitis remain missing to this day); in its pique, Iraq launched Scud missiles at Israel, a clear war crime; and Iraqi forces torched oil fields during their retreat. Also, Saddam himself was responsible for 10 or 20 times as many Iraqi civilian deaths-or more. This point complicates the discussion of possible civilian casualties. Saddam remains in power 12 years later, which raises the question of whether the number of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. bombs in an attack would be fewer than the number Saddam himself would kill in the coming months or years, were he allowed to remain in power. "The fact is, innocent Iraqi children and other civilians are right now dying every day at the hands of Saddam Hussein, who uses murder, torture, and rape as instruments of internal security," Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said recently.
Nonetheless, because of improved technology, the standard by which the United States and Britain will be judged on civilian casualties this time is probably stricter. In 1991, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak said that precision-guided bombs accounted for only 7,400-just under 9 percent-of the 84,200 tons of munitions dropped on Iraq. Today, according to one outside defense expert with close ties to White House national security officials, that ratio is reversed: 90 percent of the ordnance is said to be precision-guided.
But there are other, complicating factors. A dozen years ago, many of the military targets were spread across the countryside and into Kuwait. This time, the target list appears to be more concentrated-and more focused in Baghdad, a city of some 5 million souls.
The perils of operating in such an environment became clear on February 13, 1991, when two Air Force F-117 fighters swooped down from the pre-dawn sky at 4:30 and each loosed one 2,000-pound bomb on a target in southwest Baghdad known as the Al Firdos bunker. The crews executed the mission just as it had been planned. The laser-guided bombs hit their targets dead-on. The building was, indeed, what the CIA had said it was: a military intelligence compound ringed by a high barbed-wire fence. But what U.S. officials soon learned was that the bunker was also an underground bomb shelter. With network cameras rolling, courtesy of Saddam's alert propaganda officials, the whole world watched as bodies-many of them women and children-were pulled out of the burning rubble. The death count was 204 people.
"Our families were killed! I can't find my daughter! [Rescue workers bring out another stretcher, and the distraught father is asked whether the dead child was his.] No. This is not her."-Unidentified Iraqi man
"If you are so accurate, if you really know what your weapons are doing, what destruction you're causing, who you are causing it to, what the hell are you doing bombing all these kids and-and all these women?"-Unidentified Iraqi woman
War From the Air
One high-ranking White House official told National Journal that George W. Bush has made it clear to his military planners that they are to minimize the chances for such horror shows this time. He has said the same thing publicly. "We will do everything we can to minimize the loss of life, not only American lives, but Iraqi civilian lives," Bush told a group of American regional reporters on March 3. In a formal East Room press conference three days later, Bush made the same point. "We care about the suffering of the Iraqi people," he said. "We will respect innocent life in Iraq."
But that is easier said than done. Twelve years ago, Bush's father expressed the same desires, to many of the same top national security officials working in this administration. "Every target was examined on how to approach it with minimum loss of life," recalled retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, the commander for coalition forces operating out of "the Black Hole," the command center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
A dozen years ago, Saddam Hussein vowed that he would spill so much American blood in the Arabian desert that the United States would quit the region forever. Today, on the verge of being ousted from power by a determined American president, Saddam's military strategy appears to consist mostly of stage-managing a macabre public-relations campaign to publicize-ahead of the fact-the unpleasant specter of civilians harmed by American bombs.
Hundreds of loosely organized peaceniks from the United States and Western Europe seized on the same tactic, arriving in busloads to serve as "human shields" at hospitals, schools, and power plants as a way of dissuading American and British forces from targeting facilities housing Iraqi civilians. Many of the would-be shields began drifting out of Baghdad and back toward the border last weekend, when ham-handed Iraqi officials kicked the group's leaders out of the country and began directing some of the human shields to protect sites that were possibly legitimate military targets.
"It's in the American interest to have as few casualties as possible among civilians, and even to demonstrate that we want to inconvenience civilians as little as possible-because we want the civilians to turn against Saddam Hussein," says conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. "We even want the army to turn against Saddam Hussein. Saddam's interest is in forcing up the number of civilian casualties by every means at his disposal in order to weaken us in the eyes of the world."
Nevertheless, mindful of how the sight of Muslim civilians dead in their own homes inflames public opinion, particularly in the Arab world, the Defense Department has plans to meet Saddam's expected public-relations campaign with one of its own. Last week, when Iraqi troops showed up on parade wearing new tan uniforms quite similar to those worn by the U.S. Army, Pentagon officials, in whispered interviews to American journalists, were quick to ascribe a reason: Saddam would order his troops to slaughter Kurds and other Iraqi citizens and try to pin the atrocities on the invaders.
One reason the Pentagon has "embedded" 500 American journalists with U.S. military units is to be able to rush these reporters to places where the Iraqi government has claimed large civilian casualties, so they can make their own assessments. The Pentagon plans to offer the reporters help in the form of "collateral damage mitigation teams" composed of pilots, intelligence analysts, and experts in international law who can help interpret the meaning-and death toll-at the various piles of urban rubble in Iraq.
At least one prominent American human-rights expert believes this is a misplaced effort. "The Pentagon looks at collateral damage as a public-relations issue to be managed," said Sarah B. Sewall, program director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. "They should look at it as a fundamental operational issue to be solved."
She is not alone. Human Rights Watch has taken no stance on whether military intervention in Iraq is justified, but it has urged the U.N. Security Council to use its leverage on how the war is waged. "If there's war in Iraq, civilians will bear the brunt of the suffering," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, warned last month in a letter to each of the Security Council nations. "Intense pressure from the Security Council may be the only hope for preventing a humanitarian disaster."
But well-intentioned specialists such as Sewall know how fleeting humanitarian concerns can be during combat, even in the best-intentioned wars. As assistant secretary of Defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance in the Clinton administration, she watched as American military power afforded protection for Bosnian Muslims and, later, as this same airpower bombed Belgrade until the Serbs quit their ethnic-cleansing efforts in Kosovo. Both missions were accomplished from the air, which spared U.S. ground troops and helped write a new chapter in the history of warfare. But during 77 days of bombing, these tactics also brought the deaths of hundreds of noncombatants in Serbia-including some of the very Kosovo Albanians the United States was trying to protect.
"I work my way back up to the road, and I see another house that has just been set ablaze. And I spot a three-vehicle convoy moving southeast. I make several passes over these vehicles to ensure that they are, in fact, military vehicles. I make a decision at that point that these are the people responsible for burning down the villages that I've seen so far. I roll in, put my system on the lead vehicle, and execute a laser-guided bomb attack on that vehicle. "-NATO F-16 pilot, who mistakenly opened fire on Albanian refugees on April 14, 1999, in Kosovo while patrolling from 15,000 feet
"We were walking behind the convoy. When we arrived near the bridge, I saw pieces of human flesh all over, like legs, hands, and people without heads. I think at least 10 people were killed."-Male refugee from the convoy
"Suddenly, there was a big blast, and I started running. All I could think of was, `My God, NATO is bombing us!' "-A second Albanian man, who lost his entire family in the attack
Serb government officials swiftly used the gruesome accident as propaganda, just as Iraqi officials had done in 1991. The outrage against the United States was muted because Albanian leaders themselves excused the tragedy as a lamentable but understandable error. After all, they explained, what Serbs had in mind for Kosovo's Albanians was far worse.
That, however, was hardly the only misfortune in the air war over Yugoslavia. China made an international incident over an errant U.S. bomb that struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999, killing three journalists. But such disasters were happening to innocent Serbs on a regular basis. The same day, in fact, a cluster bomb intended for an airfield in the southern Serb town of Nis landed on a market instead, killing 18 civilians and wounding another 80. By the time Serbia capitulated, American, British, and Dutch bombs had killed at least 500 noncombatants.
NATO was scarcely criticized for these deaths, because a widespread view had developed (although it wasn't unanimous) that the coalition was fighting for a just cause. Just-war theory is a doctrine with a long written tradition. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century in a section called "On War" in his Summa Theologica, proposed that a just war would meet three criteria. Those fighting the war should have 1) sovereign authority (only nations may make war, not warlords); 2) just cause; and 3) right intentions. Dutch philosopher and statesman Hugo Grotius, often called the father of international law, expounded on these principles in a 1625 treatise, On the Law of War and Peace. Grotius's concepts, not only in terms of what justifies going to war, but in how war is to be conducted, live on today in the form of the Geneva Conventions.
Grotius's formulation is that women, children, clergymen, farmers, and males who are not contributing directly to the war effort are not to be harmed. But early in the 20th century, the notion of "just war" gave way to a deadly concept that resulted more from technological advances than from moral teachings: a horror that came to be known as "total war."
"The endless blood, gore, and suffering of war on the Western front in World War I were the major factors driving the strategic air theory and doctrine of the 1920s and 1930s," observed American military historian David R. Mets in his 1999 book, The Air Campaign. "In the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties in the first hour of battle. Of these, 21,000 were killed. This situation was the worst agony in the consciousness of mankind-nothing at the time could have been perceived that would have been worse than another try at war in the trenches."
The antidote to war in the trenches was war from the air, which became possible in time for World War II. But this advance proved just as deadly for soldiers, and far more so for civilians. Air attack was hardly the only tactic that killed innocents in that war, but it helped set a tone. From September 1940 until May 1941, the Germans bombed London and other cities in Great Britain for no other reason than to terrorize and demoralize the English people. By the time the war ended, some 60,000 British civilians had been killed in the Blitz, or by the German V-1 and V-2 rockets that followed. The Royal Air Force, along with American pilots, repaid this carnage "with interest," to use Franklin Roosevelt's phrase, when they bombed Hamburg to rubble and reduced Dresden to a fireball, killing an estimated 100,000 Germans in that one city alone.
"It was February 13, 1945. I lived with my mother and sisters in Dresden ... and about 9:30 p.m., the alarm was given. We children knew that sound and got up and dressed quickly, to hurry downstairs into our cellar, which we used as an air raid shelter. My older sister and I carried my baby twin sisters; my mother carried a little suitcase and the bottles with milk for our babies. On the radio, we heard with great horror the news: `Attention, a great air raid will come over our town!' "
"Our cellar was filled with fire and smoke and was damaged, the lights went out, and wounded people shouted dreadfully. In great fear, we struggled to leave this cellar. My mother and my older sister carried the big basket in which the twins were lain. With one hand, I grasped my younger sister and with the other, I grasped the coat of my mother. We did not recognize our street anymore. Fire, only fire, wherever we looked. Our fourth floor did not exist anymore. The broken remains of our house were burning. On the streets, there were burning vehicles and carts with refugees, people, horses, all of them screaming and shouting in fear of death. I saw hurt women, children, old people searching a way through ruins and flames...."-Lothar Metzger, recounting how, three days before his 10th birthday, his 5-month-old sisters perished
The American and British pilots who bombed Dresden-and the Americans who bombed Tokyo-received medals. Of the German and Japanese civilian and military leaders who launched the world into such madness, fewer than 20 were hanged when World War II ended, a number that seems profoundly unsatisfying when stacked up against the 25 million civilians they killed (along with nearly 20 million soldiers) in their pursuit of total war. "The unfinished business of the Second World War," British historian Sir Martin Gilbert once wrote, "is human pain."
The last of the noncombatants to perish were the defenseless Japanese who were going about their business in August of 1945 in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Golda Meir once said that she could perhaps forgive Arab terrorists for what they did to Israeli children, but she could never forgive them for what they made Israelis do to Palestinian children. Such is the agonizing-some would say the rationalizing-that people with consciences go through when innocents are about to die.
"We are on our way to bomb the mainland of Japan. Our flying contingent consists of three specially designed B-29 Superforts, and two of these carry no bombs. But our lead plane is on its way with another atomic bomb, the second in three days.... We have several chosen targets. One of these is the great industrial and shipping center of Nagasaki....
"At this moment, no one yet knows which one of the several cities chosen as targets is to be annihilated. The final choice lies with destiny. The winds over Japan will make the decision. If they carry heavy clouds over our primary target, that city will be saved, at least for the time being. None of its inhabitants will ever know that the wind of a benevolent destiny had passed over their heads. But that same wind will doom another city.
"Our weather planes ahead of us are on their way to find out where the wind blows. Half an hour before target time, we will know what the winds have decided. Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the Death March of Bataan."-New York Times science writer William L. Laurence, who watched as the atom bomb was built in New Mexico and as it was dropped over Japan
Historical memories can be selective, however. Six decades after the fact, much of the world has forgotten the atrocities Japan committed in World War II. But no one has forgotten Hiroshima or Nagasaki; in a 1996 interview, Osama bin Laden specifically invoked the fate of those two cities as a way of deflecting American complaints about his terrorist activities. Perhaps U.S. officials should have listened to his ravings a bit more closely. They are certainly listening now. President Bush suggested in his most recent press conference that the killing of 3,000 Americans on 9/11-mostly civilians-was a crime of such reprehensible proportions that it changed all of the rules.
The president may be right, but Bush's critics insist that the more rational and empathetic response to 9/11 would be for Americans to make quite sure they aren't guilty of perpetrating the same kind of evil. Defenders of Bush counter that the very people in the American political arena who complain the loudest about civilian casualties have actually helped set the stage for them by being the first to invoke Vietnam while hollering "quagmire" and "body bags" whenever the question of U.S. military intervention has arisen. "Certainly that was true in 1991," says Victor Davis Hanson, a Fresno State University classics scholar and war historian. "The Pentagon did all that [pre-invasion bombing] in Iraq in direct response to the people who would go crazy if we'd lose 3,000 Americans."
This was one of the legacies of the Vietnam War, that lost American cause where not all the "collateral damage" was done from the air-or accidentally.
"Capt. [Ernest] Medina didn't give an order to go in and kill women or children. Nobody told us about handling civilians, because at the time I don't think any of us were aware of the fact that we'd run into civilians. I think what we heard put fear into a lot of our hearts. We thought we'd run into heavy resistance. He was telling us that here was the enemy, the enemy that had been killing our partners. This was going to be our first real live battle, and we had made up our minds we were going to go in and, with whatever means possible, wipe them out."-Sgt. Charles West of Company C, 1st Army Battalion, 20th Infantry, which entered My Lai village on March 16, 1968, and killed most of its civilian population.
Military sources say that the U.S. arsenal now includes a new "e-bomb," which unleashes an electromagnetic pulse powerful enough to disable electronics, specifically communications devices. Designed for use in urban areas, this weapon is truly a humane alternative to the devastating "daisy-cutter" cluster bombs being readied for use against recalcitrant Iraqi army units. But the e-bomb also harks back to an earlier concept, one that incidentally brought about the first use of the phrase "collateral damage."
The term cropped up in the late 1970s, when the Pentagon renewed plans from the 1950s to build a so-called neutron bomb, which was widely portrayed in the press as a nuclear device that would kill people with radiation while preserving buildings. This was always a misnomer-after all, the neutron device was a 1-kiloton hydrogen bomb-but its appeal was that it could presumably kill or disable Soviet tank crews without making a moonscape of the pastoral German countryside NATO was trying to protect.
Thus, the "collateral damage" to be avoided was, originally, not people at all, but terrain. Jimmy Carter recoiled from the very idea of the neutron bomb. But Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, with a single withering gibe delivered in 1961, had probably doomed it to obsolescence before it ever was built. The Americans "are acting," he said, "on the principle of robbers wanting to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit."
Carl M. Cannon National Journal