The Problem of Commenting on Civilian Casualties

by Joshua Foust on 5/8/2009 · 6 comments

As I said the other day, we should expect between 30 and 50 non-combattant deaths from the latest mass civilian casualty incident in western Afghanistan. Today comes news that at least the first round of investigation indicates 50 total dead, with 30 civilians in the mix. Not bad on my part, though obviously something remains off if we’re still repeating Azizabad (where about 30 civilians died to get 20 Taliban—what should be an unacceptable ratio). But look at this:

The investigators have also found evidence that Taliban fighters prevented some families from evacuating their houses during the nearly 12-hour firefight, effectively assuring civilian casualties, the officials said.

This is important news to broadcast, as loudly as possible. Especially because some commentators—including those like Tim Lynch, who like and respect—continue to blame the civilians themselves for being caught in the middle. This, too, should be unacceptable, as unacceptable as declaring Gul Agha Sherzai a wonderful and responsible man (something Lynch does in that same post).

That’s the problem: even if they are in a technical sense offering sanctuary to the Taliban, that is our problem, not theirs, and we still do not have the right to kill 30 of them to get at 30 lightly-armed Taliban—not yet at least. Until we can address the fundamental perception imbalance in Afghan society, these strikes hurt us, however justified they may be tactically. The whole incident remains a failure, even if the handling of it is still immeasurably better.

And above all, people, please stop blaming unarmed civilians for not resisting gun-carrying insurgents so the U.S. can have an easier time bombing the bad guys.

Update: Please read Myra McDonald’s analysis of this issue.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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BD May 8, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Spot on observation! We are making the same mistakes, and breaking the same Geneva Conventions, here as we did in South East Asia 40 years ago. If we are to make headway we have to raise the priority of protecting civilians significantly.

Joshua Foust May 8, 2009 at 10:20 pm

I’m afraid I have to disagree with you. These air strikes don’t really violate the Geneva Conventions, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned. If the Taliban did indeed try to prevent innocent civilians from fleeing the bombs—that is, if they were using innocent people as human shields, then technically the moral, legal, and ethical burden is on THEM, since doing THAT is what violates the Conventions. SE Asia in the 1960s and 70s is not an appropriate analogy in that regard, since the U.S. never intentionally seeks to kill civilians.

The problem is that we don’t mean to, but do so anyway. That tells me that we need to try something different, not that we’re war criminals. Unless someone can produce some sort of evidence proving intent—like imposing collective punishment on an entire community for the actions of a few individuals within that community—then the U.S. is most certainly not committing war crimes. It’s just not fighting the war effectively. May 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Agreed on the use of airstrikes being within the rules of the game.

On the original communcations ideas, how’s this for another element of the equation: what do you do if the military does everything right comms-wise, but the critical information doesn’t end up in the story?

I’m reluctant to use the terms “bias” or “prejudice”, but the act of journalism is to take a lot of stuff and put it into a smaller space in a form that’s easier to understand. In this process, not all information makes it in. I leave it for others to speculate why decisions are made re: what information does and doesn’t make it in.

I think there’s a case to be made that government-supplied information doesn’t always make it in as prominently or as frequently as information by those considered, rightly or wrongly, the underdog. Note, for example, the coverage CNN gave to an incident some blamed on the Canadians:
(Here’s what CNN was too busy to mention:
versus their (what seems to me) pretty unquestioning coverage of a Taliban spokesperson:

An interesting experiment for anyone with internet access: check out the transcript of an interview or news conference with, say, a US military official (they’re available online pretty quickly after the talking’s done), then compare it to the stories that come out of said exchanges.

DB May 10, 2009 at 8:18 am

Broadcast it all you like, Josh, but the US army finding themselves excuses for their massacres (i.e. the good-old “human shields” line) isn’t going to convince anyone. Do you honestly think that US military investigators have any credibility when they come up with such tired alibis after a crime like this? Why should we even take their figures on Taliban deaths seriously? If you want to get into apologetics for war-crimes, I suggest you come up with something a little more persuasive. May 11, 2009 at 9:45 am

DB: I guess just because the Taliban denies using human shields,
it must automatically be true? If the Americans say it, it must automatically be false?

I suppose that also means groups like the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission

the United Nations

and Human Rights Watch

must all be wrong as well.


David M May 11, 2009 at 9:59 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/11/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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