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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Afghan civilian deaths: more than, the same as, or less than Sept. 11 is beside the point

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 26th, 2002

I have to say I disagree with Matt Welch’s piece late last week (Afghan civilian deaths: More than Sept. 11?) about the importance of the relative casualty counts, other than in the kind of propaganda game that seems to be sweeping the world press these days.

In the end, we are weighing not “just” the thousands who died at WTC, at the Pentagon, and on the four planes, but the lives and safety of the millions of Americans who survive them, against unintended and minimized (I’m willing to assume) civilian casualties abroad. Absolutely, we should do our best to hold such casualties as low as possible and get the job done. But the point is to get the job done, be civilian casualties lower, the same, or many times higher than those we suffered.

Back in late September when I started this blog, I was thinking to myself that we were going to have to stick with this even if thousands of Americans came home in body bags, and thousands of civilians over there died in the crossfire and bombing. I’m deeply, deeply relieved that didn’t come to pass, that our armed forces adapted so excellently to the task, and with such low civilian casualties, as best as can be estimated.*

But all that, including and especially the civilian casualty count, was in a way just a lucky accident of history and/or military procurement. Imagine everything about the attack and the geopolitical situation was the same, but in 1980; if that seems too hypothetical, imagine instead that the 1980 “Bin Laden” was holed up in some other third country with a lackey regime and an oppressed population. We didn’t have the smart munitions then we have now, we didn’t have the armed forces we have now, yet we would have had the same absolute right and faced the same absolute necessity to go after the guy and his organization, come what may. Even at the cost of disproportionate civilian casualties, not to mention those of our own troops.

In 1941, we lost 2403 men at Pearl Harbor. It would have been absurd to plan fighting Japan based on holding their civilian casualties under that figure. Given the arms of the time (and the opponents), massive civilian casualties were inevitable if we seriously intended to win the war that had been thrust on us. Those casualties were regrettable and tragic. And I’m aware that reasonable people differ on how many of them were inevitable and necessary in some awful sense, and how many were not. But their safety and their deaths were not ultimately our responsibility, and the horribly necessary civilian deaths – as opposed to the horribly unnecessary ones — do not cast a shadow on the war we waged. The party that starts an unjust war has the ultimate blame for all the casualties: not just his foe’s, but his own, at least those of his own who were victims of weapons that missed their true targets. Four hundred, a thousand, four thousand, or twice that many Afghan civilian dead: assuming reasonable precautions — aiming at targets that mattered, using weapons and ordnance calibrated to those targets — they’re on Al Qaeda and Taliban consciences, not on American ones.

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* Project on Defense Alternatives (Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties) estimates around 1000 Afghan civilian lives were lost. Via Matt Welch, 1/20: More on civilian Afghan deaths.

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