WASHINGTON -- By refusing to make public its estimates of civilian
casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has undercut international
support for the US campaigns in those countries and has made the postwar
stabilization of the two societies more difficult, according to an independent
report to be released today that accuses the Pentagon of appearing indifferent
to the civilian cost of war.
The analysis by the Project on Defense Alternatives, a nonpartisan think
tank in Washington, concludes that the Pentagon has not fully disclosed
in recent years accidental deaths and injuries inflicted upon civilian
populations by American military forces. Its failure to do so has made
it more difficult to predict how local populations will receive the United
States after a conflict, the report said.
According to the report -- "Disappearing the Dead: Iraq, Afghanistan,
and the Idea of a `New Warfare' " -- the Pentagon's stance has
also distorted the national debate over whether to go to war.
The report says the US military has wrongly given the impression that
its high-tech form of warfare is extremely low risk, creating unrealistic
expectations that war produces very low casualties.
Ignoring evidence to the contrary, the report says, the Pentagon has
also said that estimates of the number of war casualties cannot be known
and that such numbers nonetheless would not be meaningful in assessing
the overall success of a military operation.
"Distortion of the civilian casualty issue can only serve to impede
the sober assessment of US policy, policy options, and their consequences," states
a draft copy of the report, provided to the Globe. "It is antithetical
both to well-informed public debate and to sensible policy making."
Based on a review of thousands of news
articles and other publicly available materials, the report estimates
that 18,000 combatants and civilians were killed during the course
of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one-third -- 6,000
-- were civilians. A Pentagon official, who said
he had not yet read the full report, maintained that the Pentagon
is unable to tally civilian casualties and has no need to.
"Our efforts focus on defeating enemy forces, so we never target
civilians and have no reason to count such unintended deaths," said
the official, who asked not to be identified. "It is at best extremely
difficult to estimate casualty figures, and we cannot say with any
certainty how many civilians have been killed . . .
"Even one innocent death is a sad fact, and something
we sincerely regret."
As for Iraq, he added, "The responsibility for every
death in Iraq, be it soldier or civilian, Iraqi, American, British,
or others, lies with Saddam Hussein, who chose war over complying with
The 60-page report accuses the Pentagon of "spinning" the
casualty issue to the media so as to limit public discourse about a
subject that military leaders, still haunted by the Vietnam War, fear
will hurt support at home and abroad. One method has been to simply
not discuss civilian casualties and make no effort to tally them, even
when news reports make estimates possible.
The report terms it "casualty agnosticism."
"Rather than making positive claims about casualties, this approach
simply implied that no such claims were possible," according to
the report. "Casualty agnosticism aims to sink the whole issue
of war casualties in an impenetrable murk of skepticism."
When asked about civilian casualties, the analysis contends, Pentagon
representatives often repeat a common refrain: US forces take all precautions
to avoid harming civilians, and the nature of modern warfare has reduced
those numbers dramatically.
That may be true, but the report argues that the approach obscures a
crucial part of the debate about whether to go to war: what the civilian
cost might be. At the same time, it leaves the wrong impression about
how precise American forces can be -- both abroad and at home.
"In addition to distorting the national discourse on war, these
efforts may have damaged America's image abroad -- thus contributing
to the problem they were meant to mitigate," the report states. "These
efforts may have contributed to the perceptual divide that separates
America from much of the rest of the world, thus undermining international
understanding and cooperation."
Added Carl Conetta, codirector of the Project on Defense
cannot deduce from all this talk of cruise missiles sailing into buildings
how many civilians will die in a war. We need some general sense of
what people are dying in these wars, and that we can do."
The Pentagon's approach has also had repercussions on
the ground, Conetta believes. "Body counts are not a measure of victory but nonetheless
we need to know the facts of the matter," he said in an interview. "It
gives us some sense of the impact and how tough it is going to be postwar.
Some amount of the sympathy for the Iraqi insurgency has to do with
the damage that the war caused."
The report concludes: "Until US political and opinion
leaders disabuse themselves of the `new war' ideology, the nation will
be brought to war easily, but left unprepared for and perplexed by
the consequences that follow."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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