There is a concerted effort underway among the war camp to make sure that the American people do not pay attention to civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Too much focus on such unpleasantness could cool the war fever. “Pay no attention to those bodies behind the curtains!” shout the keyboard bombardiers.
Rich Lowry pitches in to the effort with a recent article in NRO. Lowry complains about the “…current handwringing over collateral damage from the U.S. attacks in Afghanistan.” First of all, notice the verb chosen to describe the reaction of those who object to the killing of innocent people: “handwringing.” Such a concern is apparently akin to what is felt by an uptight hostess who worries about mismatched silverware. Then, Lowry employs the Orwellian “collateral damage,” and, in the next sentence, “casualties,” but never the obvious and truthful word “deaths.” This is the kind of language one might expect from sensitive guests talking around the fact that their host’s son has just come out of the closet and walked in the house with his partner: “Oh, I see Timmy Junior has a friend visiting?”
The Afghan civilian casualties which may be in the dozens or, if you believe the Taliban, in the hundreds are taken as an indictment of the U.S. campaign, a sign that we are no better than the terrorists (the Washington Post has a long front-page piece today detailing such nonsensical views from around the world).
Here, Lowry first off ignores the great likelihood that there will be thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of deaths this winter due to massive famine. Secondly, if Joe has killed someone and Bill has stolen a loaf of bread, to point out that Bill’s action is wrong does not mean you think he is “no better” than Joe. The fact that someone else has acted really badly doesn’t excuse my acting badly.
The idea behind this sort of thinking is that everything is our fault: We started the war, and therefore everything bad that comes from it is our responsibility. Of course, it’s the other way around: They started the war, and the inevitable unfortunate consequences such as civilian casualties are on the heads of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. But critics of the U.S. campaign have trouble grasping this, because they have trouble ever recognizing the perfidy of our enemies.
Here, one suspects that Lowry is trying to confuse the reader. Who is “they,” and what is “the war”? Let’s say that we accept both the (unproven, at least to the public) idea that bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks and the questionable use of terminology in calling a crime by private parties, who do not claim to represent any government, a war. Then we might say that bin Laden started a war on the U.S., and that we’re justified in fighting back. (Since it’s clear that bin Laden is behind other terrorist attacks, I’m all for fighting him and his organization, even if he wasn’t behind 9/11.) But the Taliban didn’t start a war with the U.S.! No one has contended that they aided in the attacks, or even knew that they were to occur. Is their asking for evidence before turning over bin Laden an act of war? No, it just won’t work: Osama bin Laden may have started a war on us, but we started a war on Afghanistan.
But let’s say, against all logic, that it turns out that the Taliban did plan the attacks. Then we’d have a case for war against them. But the question of how to conduct the war would still arise. It may be that a few civilian casualties are practically inevitable in any conflict, but it’s obvious that different ways of conducting war will result in different civilian “risk profiles.” For instance, carpet bombing from high altitude and dropping cluster bombs, both of which the U.S. is doing, are likely to result in far more civilian casualties than infantry action. The note at the end of the paragraph about the “perfidy of our enemies” is again an attempt to distract: it is the same fallacy mentioned above, where my acting badly is “defended” by pointing out that someone else acted really badly.
But back to Lowry:
To the extent this view holds in the West, it is essentially a suicidal impulse. Followed to its logical conclusion, it would make it impossible for us ever to defend ourselves and ever to fight for a flawed, but morally superior goal against an evil enemy because the evil of our enemy never actually registers with anyone. This is what happened in Vietnam, when Western outrage was focused on U.S. napalm runs rather than on the murderous and oppressive character of our enemy.
Well, no: Followed to its logical conclusion, it would make it impossible for us to ever defend ourselves using immoral means. And that, I think, is an eminently logical conclusion Lowry would like to avoid.
2001, Gene Callahan