is, or rather was, a tiny village in mountainous eastern Afghanistan
near the Al Qaeda hideout of Tora Bora. All 15 of its houses were
demolished by bombs dropped in the middle of the night Dec. 1,
killing an estimated 55 innocent people, according to American
surviving villager, Paira Gul, told Chicago Tribune correspondent
Paul Salopek that American soldiers showed up afterward and asked
if any Al Qaeda had lived there. "Is that an Al Qaeda?"
Gul said to the reporter, pointing to a child's severed foot
that he had recovered from a smashed house. "Tell me,"
he said, his voice choking with fury, "is that what an Al
Qaeda looks like?"
have, of course, been other reports by the American news media
about air strikes gone bad. The Pentagon has acknowledged some
and denied some, and then changed the subject. Overall, the issue
of civilian casualties has not been in the forefront of coverage
of the war.
studies on the subject have received minimal coverage by the media.
One, by Marc W. Herold, a University of New Hampshire professor,
claims more than 3,800 Afghani civilians have been killed by U.S.
bombs. The other, by the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Cambridge,
Mass., think tank, is much more conservative, estimating between
1,000 and 1,300 have died.
has compiled hundreds of reports from American and foreign news
organizations covering the war. His
results are laid out on the internet. The website provides
a day-by-day list since the bombing began Oct. 7, giving the location,
estimate of casualties and source for each incident. The great
majority of the entries rely on more than a single source.
obviously put a great deal of work into compiling the list, and
the sheer volume of the study is impressive. But it is not presented
on the website in a very professional manner, and Herold's
virulent anti-Bush rhetoric accompanying the list has undoubtedly
damaged his credibility with the media.
Project on Defense Alternatives relied solely on accounts from
Western news organizations in compiling its estimate of casualties
in "Operation Enduring Freedom" (the name given by the
Pentagon to the war in Afghanistan), discounting reports from
newspapers in India, Pakistan and other countries. The main focus
of its study
was the lack of precision in the bombing.
the adulation of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) as a 'finely
tuned' or 'bull's eye' war," writes project
co-director Carl Conetta, "the campaign failed to set a new
standard for precision in one important respect: the rate of civilians
killed per bomb dropped. In fact, this rate was far higher in
the Afghanistan conflict – perhaps four times higher – than
in the 1999 Balkans war."
looked at the period from Oct. 7 to Dec. 10. By that date, approximately
12,000 weapons (bombs and missiles) had been used in Afghanistan,
according to the Department of Defense, and at least 1,000 civilians
had been killed, according to his figures – 1 death for every
12 bombs/missiles. In the Kosovo war, 23,000 weapons were used
but no more than 528 civilians were killed (according to a study
by Human Rights Watch) – a ratio of 1 death for every 43 bombs/missiles.
high likelihood that 1,000-3,000 civilians were killed in the
OEF bombing campaign directly contradicts the notion that the
campaign was 'cleaner' than other, recent ones,"
Defense Department declined to comment on the Herold and Conetta
studies. "There is no official Department of Defense judgment
on these studies," said Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a public affairs
spokesman. "People should make their own judgments about
said there is no way for the department to determine accurately
the number of casualties. "Some casualties are inevitable,"
he said. "It's the nature of war. It's not a perfect
science. Obviously, we regret the loss of life, but the people
responsible are the people who started this war by attacking our
that seems to be the attitude of the American public, at least
as reflected in the polls. There has been a collective shrug of
the shoulders. We were attacked and we had to fight back. In the
process, innocent Afghanis died, but we had no alternative.
course, there really was an alternative. A much more effective
response to Sept. 11 would have been – and still is – to
put all our resources into a cooperative campaign with other nations
to gather intelligence and use police agencies to capture terrorists
in Afghanistan and the dozens of other countries where they hide,
and bring them to justice. But President Bush chose instead to
bomb a whole nation, and the American press and public cheered
the Pentagon hawks, flush with what they view as success in Afghanistan,
are said to be pushing to expand the anti-terrorism campaign to
any number of other countries. The President's tough talk
in the State of the Union address gave credence to those reports.
And I think to myself: Will they kill terrorism, or will they
just kill more and more innocent people, especially children?
September attack has given us a severe case of the willies. Most
of us are so scared that we have bought into this bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age
mentality, even if it means killing off hundreds or thousands
of innocent people. Some of us are simply saying: There's
a better way to do it. The life of the child in Madoo was just
as valuable as the lives of our tragic victims in America.
McManus is a Wilmette, Ill., attorney and former Chicago
Tribune reporter and editor.