their approach to covering the war in Afghanistan, the media seem
intent on reviving the infamous "body count" of Vietnam
fame. This new emphasis on the body count manifests itself in two
ways: First, the assertion that we have killed a disproportionate
number of Afghan civilians during the war; and second, that we can't
prove we killed many al Qaeda or Taliban during Operation Anaconda
and the recent battle around Shah-i-Kot.
that the United States has been responsible for civilian deaths
is a hoary staple of the antiwar Left. The late Harry Summers once
recounted how after the so-called "Christmas bombing"
of North Vietnam (Linebacker II), a delegation of American antiwar
protesters pressed Hanoi to claim a civilian death toll of 10,000.
However, it turned out that our enemies on the battlefield were
more honest than the protesters. Hanoi claimed about 1,600 civilian
A similar event
occurred after the Gulf War when the odious Ramsey Clark dispatched
a researcher to Iraq to document American "war crimes."
Again, honesty apparently trumped ideology. In an article for The
Nation, Erika Munk, the researcher, acknowledged that claims
of civilian deaths by the Iraqi government and U.S. antiwar protesters
were highly inflated. She concluded that most of the precision weapons
had preformed pretty much as U.S. spokesmen had claimed. Collateral
damage occurred but it was far less extensive than she had expected.
There was little evidence to suggest that civilians had been attacked
The same dynamic
is now at work in Afghanistan. Critics of the war, both here and
abroad, argue that the war cannot be legitimate if it endangers
civilians. Apparently based on the assumption that if the number
of Afghan civilians killed by U.S. military action exceeds the number
of Americans killed on September 11, the war is unjust or illegitimate,
the press had been trumpeting a study by Marc Herold, a professor
at the University of New Hampshire, claiming that as of December
2001, some 5,000 civilians had been killed by U.S. military action
(he subsequently revised the figures downward to between 3,100 and
Walzer has written in a
piece in the spring issue of Dissent, such numbers are
propaganda derived largely from Taliban sources. Indeed, an intensive
Associated Press investigation indicates that the real number is
much lower 500 to 600 through February 2002. But even if
Herold's numbers were accurate, so what? As Walzer observes,
that the numbers matter in just this way, that the 3120th death
[in Afghanistan] determines the injustice of the war, is in any
case wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best understood
moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended
killing. And the denial isn't accidental, as if the people making
it just forgot about, or didn't know about, the everyday moral
world. The denial is willful: unintended killing by Americans
in Afghanistan counts as murder.
While it is
clear that the United States has gone out of its way to avoid civilian
casualties in Afghanistan, accidents happen. Friction and the fog
of uncertainty in war make it unlikely that collateral damage can
ever be completely eliminated.
is the attempt by the press to revive the old debate over enemy
body counts, suggesting that, as in Vietnam, the U.S. is exaggerating
the number of enemy dead. A recent report by Reuters "US
Military on Defensive Over Afghan Body Count" (March 19, 2002)
is a case in point. The return of the body count in assessing
U.S. military operations is an ironic development, especially given
the criticism the United States military received during the Vietnam
war for using the number of enemy dead as a measure of effectiveness.
What is the
motive for reviving the debate? A cynic might suggest that it has
to do with the press's vested interest in reviving the "quagmire"
charge. Once again, the U.S. is bogged down in an open-ended conflict
in which the American brass exaggerates the number of dead enemy
soldiers. But Afghanistan and Vietnam are two different cases.
approach in Vietnam was based on the judgment of General William
Westmoreland, the American commander until after the Tet Offensive
of 1968, that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would not be able
to continue the struggle once the war reached the "crossover
point," the point at which the U.S. was killing the enemy faster
than the latter could replace his losses. Attrition of the enemy
was a means of coercing the enemy to give up his objective of conquering
the body-count approach in Vietnam were generally correct. A reliance
on the body count was the result of an overall lack of strategy
for fighting the war. It was also the logical consequence of a flawed
operational approach a war of attrition. And it certainly
did create an incentive for commanders to inflate body counts. (However,
the fact that Hanoi admits to suffering 1.1 million soldiers killed
in the war and 300,000 missing and presumed dead indicates that
perhaps U.S. claims were not so exaggerated after all. Nonetheless,
it is undeniable that totalitarian North Vietnam was able to absorb
1.4 million battle deaths in a contest of attrition more easily
than a democratic United States was able to absorb 58,000).
Lack of credibility
all too often associated with inflated body counts in Vietnam was
a major reason the U.S. refused to get drawn into discussions about
the number of enemy killed during the Gulf War. But while credibility
must remain a concern for the U.S. military in its dealings with
the media, there is an argument to be made that killing al Qaeda
and Taliban fighters has a purpose in and of itself that was not
present in either Vietnam or the Gulf War.
of the current war is to destroy terrorist networks. The best way
to accomplish this objective is to kill as many of the al Qaeda
fighters as possible. If al Qaeda fighters choose to concentrate,
as they did recently at Shah-i-Kot, they make it easier for U.S.
forces to fix and destroy them.
said this, it is important for the military to steer clear of a
debate over enemy casualties. As a friend once remarked, such a
debate is like wrestling a pig. Both you and the pig get dirty,
but the pig loves it. The best way to avoid such an outcome is to
refuse the gambit in the first place. As one allied officer remarked
about the battle of Shah-i-Kot, "gauging the success of any
mission is more than just the number of enemy killed."
a threat to allied forces or to the Afghan government, al Qaeda
and the Taliban must concentrate as they did near Shah-i-Kot. Operation
Anaconda has made it clear that such a concentration of forces can
be very costly. The incentive to concentrate again has been reduced
considerably. Although the war in Afghanistan is far from over,
that's not a bad outcome for the near term.