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The Civilian Toll of War…

September 9, 2008

This story in the New York Times describes mounting evidence that a U.S. Airstrike in Afghanistan killed far more civilians than the United States Military has acknowledge. It is of course part of a steady stream of stories of the terrible toll that these wars are taking on those we aim to help, indeed part of a steady stream of horror issuing from all modern wars:

Evidence Points to Civilian Toll in Afghan Raid

The Afghan government, human rights and intelligence officials, independent witnesses and a United Nations investigation back up their account, pointing to dozens of freshly dug graves, lists of the dead, and cellphone videos and other images showing bodies of women and children laid out in the village mosque.

Cellphone images seen by this reporter show at least 11 dead children, some apparently with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque. Ten days after the airstrikes, villagers dug up the last victim from the rubble, a baby just a few months old. Their shock and grief is still palpable.

For two weeks, the United States military has insisted that only 5 to 7 civilians, and 30 to 35 militants, were killed in what it says was a successful operation against the Taliban: a Special Operations ground mission backed up by American air support. But on Sunday, Gen. David D. McKiernan, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, requested that a general be sent from Central Command to review the American military investigation in light of “emerging evidence.”


My point in posting this is not to denigrate the U.S. military. I believe that in general the U.S. military tries hard to avoid civilian casualties, but they are inevitable in modern war. Their inevitability should not be seen as an excuse or justification, but as grounds for questioning both the morality and the practicality of warfare. Can action that will inevitably take innocent life ever be moral? Can a war that inevitably wounds, kills and alienates those we aim to help, and whose allegiance we ultimately rely on to win, ever really succeed?

I believe we must move ultimately to abolish the institution or war, but I acknowledge that the world is so badly messed up, so bereft of the resources needed to peacefully settle differences, that the use of some level of military force may remain a tragic necessity for the foreseeable future.

But in this presidential election, we should look for a president with the courage to at least take a step in the right direction. A president who will not pander to the public with chest-thumping fantasies of military might and virtue, a president able to acknowledge the limitations of military force and never lose sight of the the terrible human costs of war, both for our soldiers, our enemies, and the innocent civilians in the lands we fight in.

Any nominees?


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