Collateral Damage: Two Venues, One Logic

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Timothy McVeigh,
it is fair to say, will go down in history as a terrorist. He set
off a bomb that killed innocent men, women, and children along with
the government agents against whom he had decided to retaliate for
their assaults on Americans at Waco and elsewhere. In a letter sent
to Gore Vidal, dated April 4, 2001, McVeigh described the reasons
for his action:

When an aggressor
force continually launches attacks from a particular base of operations,
it is sound military strategy to take the fight to the enemy.
Additionally, borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided
to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly
hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees
within that building who represent that government. Bombing the
Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent
to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or
other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own
government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From
this perspective what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different
than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time,
and, subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment.
(reproduced in Gore Vidal, "The
Meaning of Timothy McVeigh
," Vanity Fair, September
2001, p. 410)

Last fall,
in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon, the U.S. government launched its so-called war
on terrorism, aiming first to destroy the al-Qaida and that organization’s
Taliban enablers in Afghanistan. Much of the U.S. military action
in Afghanistan has taken the form of bombing and other aerial attacks
on supposed enemy personnel, structures, and equipment. The situation
on the ground, however, has proven to be less than transparent:
it has been difficult to distinguish friend from foe, innocuous
civilian from armed fighter.

Army Special
Forces Team 555, among others, undertook the task of identifying
enemy personnel and property and directing aerial attacks on them.
When U.S. military pilots expressed misgivings about attacking particular
targets, the team’s leader, Chief Warrant Officer Dave Diaz, opted
to "play this terminology game." He told his men: "Yes,
it is a civilian village, mud hut, like everything else in this
country. But don’t say that. Say it’s a military compound. It’s
a built-up area, barracks, command and control. Just like with the
convoys: If it really was a convoy with civilian vehicles they were
using for transport, we would just say hey, military convoy, troop
transport" (qtd. in Dana Priest, "U.S. had difficulty
identifying targets," New Orleans Times-Picayune, February
20, 2002, p. A-3, reprinted from the Washington Post).
The pilots came to accept the judgments of the fire controller on
the ground and directed their ordnance accordingly. Although Warrant
Officer Diaz claims that his group attempted to avoid killing civilians,
on certain occasions Team 555 members found women and children intermingled
with persons they took to be Taliban fighters "they needed
to strike at that moment." In those instances, "the guidance
I gave my team, and the guidance from higher (headquarters), is
that they are combatants" (ibid.).

Elsewhere in
Afghanistan, after an air strike in early March caused the death
of a woman and the wounding of a child, a U.S. commander at Bagram
Air Base said he had not known that the woman and the child were
in the vehicle on which he had ordered the attack, but he also said
that, had he known, he would not have changed his orders: "we
would have gone ahead and attacked anyway" (qtd. in David Wood,
"Status of women, children questioned after airstrike,"
New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 14, 2002, p. A-7). Some
U.S. military officers questioned whether killing civilians was
the best way to win the support of the local populace, but others
expressed the view that the actions taken by the al-Qaida had removed
the need for moral niceties: "In a war to the bone like this
one, where the enemy’s immorality is publicly proven, if they involve
their noncombatants then they become legitimate targets, no matter
how regrettably" (ibid.).

After U.S.
ground troops had mistakenly attacked a group of Afghanis who were
not affiliated with the Taliban or the al-Qaida, killing sixteen
of them and taking twenty-seven others captive for a time and roughing
them up before releasing them, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
declined to apologize: "Let’s not call them ‘innocents,’"
he told reporters. "We don’t know quite what they were. They
were people who fired on our forces" (Thom Shanker, "Attack
victims not Taliban or al-Qaida," New Orleans Times-Picayune,
February 22, 2002, p. A-13, reprinted from the New York Times).
Self-defense, it would appear, is not a valid excuse for firing
on attacking U.S. troops. Rumsfeld declined to blame his forces
for their actions and indicated that no disciplinary action would
be taken against those responsible for carrying out the attack:
"Why would there be? I can’t imagine why there would be any"

11, 2002

Higgs [send him mail] is
senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute
and editor of The
Independent Review
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