The NYT’s story on a military report about errant air strikes in Afghanistan is my must read of the day.
A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official.
And then later in the story:
The inquiry into the May 4 strikes in the western province of Farah illustrated the difficult, split-second decisions facing young officers in the heat of combat as they balance using lethal force to protect their troops under fire with detailed rules restricting the use of firepower to prevent civilian deaths.
I’m of two minds with this kind of thing. If I’m a G.I. in a seven hour firefight, I’m wanting my air support to be aggressive. It’s not that I don’t care about civilian deaths, per se, but I do care more about killing the guys who are trying to kill me, and keeping my guys alive. (I probably have some suspicions too about just how “civilian” some of these folks are.) And we know–like every guerrilla army in history–that the Taliban are going to be hiding among the population. So logic says that if this is the kind of fight we want, then civilian casualties are unavoidable. Putting the ole’ kevlar on, my inner-platoon leader is thinking: You want to tie my hands some more? Don’t mess with my air strikes! (Unpleasant reality is that civilian casualties are unavoidable in all wars, so the real question becomes: can we stomach it? Or, perhaps, is it worth stomaching?)
My other mind says that it’s good that the military is trying to get better at this, I guess. Though what is noticeably absent is that no one is getting punished for the “errors.” Or at least the story doesn’t mention anything about punishment. Mistakes were made, shit happens, we’ll do better the next time, killing Afghan civilians doesn’t help our cause, yadda yadda. That seems to be the line. But without punishment, what’s going to stop “errors” from being made again? (Assignment desk: Has any U.S. personnel been brought up on any kind of charges for misguided air strikes in the past eight years? Any pilots? In our military history? We know the grunts get in trouble (very rarely) for killing civilians. It’s only in the most eregious cases–My Lai, Haditha, etc. But where are the bombing incidents? Our morality seems to have a different relationship with air power.)
Lastly, and this riffs off the Twitterstan post yesterday, it’s noble and all that the military has released this report, but is it really going to give us credibility in Afghanistan? We can’t even agree on how many civilians were killed: 20 or 30 or 120… Are Afghans going to believe that from now on the Americans are going to be more careful when we blow up their villages? If you’re an Afghan, what’s the acceptable number of civilians that we(the foreigners) can accidentally kill? The answer is probably zero, right?