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Old 03-31-2003, 08:15 PM   #1
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Sparing Civilians, Buildings and Even the Enemy

Sparing Civilians, Buildings and Even the Enemy

By Max Boot

New York Times, March 30, 2003

WATCHING images of the bombing of Baghdad brought to mind another American bombing campaign 58 years ago. On March 9, 1945, more than 300 B-29 Superfortresses attacked Tokyo. Their napalm bombs and magnesium incendiaries turned 16 densely packed square miles into an inferno. An estimated 84,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed, making this one of the deadliest days of warfare ever.

The enormity of the destruction is almost impossible to comprehend today, because the American armed forces fight so differently now. The new way of war emphasizes precision and aims for minimal casualties on both sides. This approach represents a considerable advance, but it also brings its own set of problems.

Although air strikes on Baghdad have intensified, leading to what Iraqi officials claim are more than 70 civilian casualties, the city is hardly being pounded into rubble. Electricity and other services remain. In the war's early days, Baghdad residents even stood on their balconies to watch bombs and missiles pummel their city -- secure in the knowledge that only a handful of government buildings would be hit.

This is a bit reminiscent of the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, which drew as spectators the creme de la creme of Washington society. It is almost as if the United States has left behind the total war of the 20th century and returned to an earlier time of more limited combat, when columns of professional soldiers marched toward each other across open fields and civilians were hurt only by accident.

Actually, in some ways the United States has gone beyond the chivalrous warfare of the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays the military tries to spare not only civilians, but enemy combatants as well. During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, images of the devastation along the road leading from Kuwait to Basra -- the so-called Highway of Death -- helped persuade the first Bush administration to stop the ground war after just 100 hours, even though it later turned out that few Iraqi soldiers had been killed.

Today, American forces are still not bombing some Iraqi regular army formations in the hope that they will defect en masse and spare themselves a beating, which the administration fears would make America unpopular.

What accounts for the change? Is it that the United States has grown more moral in the last 50 years -- or, depending on your point of view, more squeamish? Perhaps. But, more likely, moral standards have changed because technology has changed.

John Warden, a retired Air Force colonel who helped plan the air campaign for the first gulf war, explained: "During World War II, an average B-17 bomb during a bombing run missed its target by some 2,300 feet. Therefore, if you wanted a 90 percent probability of having hit a particular target, you had to drop some 9,000 bombs." Most of those 9,000 bombs, of course, would have ended up landing on a nearby civilian neighborhood, not on the target of the raid.

The inaccuracy of such campaigns led World War II generals to make what they saw as a virtue out of necessity: They would engage in "area" bombing, like the 1945 raids on Tokyo or Dresden, ostensibly intended to cripple enemy industry but really aimed at breaking enemy morale. This was accepted with hardly a peep of protest from both the British and the American public.

Luckily, the military no longer has to employ such blunt tactics. Precision-guided weapons make it possible to obliterate a target with one carefully aimed bomb. But even "smart" bombs miss their target 7 percent to 10 percent of the time. And costly mistakes inevitably occur. During the first gulf war, United States planners bombed a shelter that housed Iraqi commanders; unknown to them, it also housed hundreds of civilians, who died. During the Kosovo war the United States flattened the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. During the Afghanistan war, the military blew up a wedding party and a group of Canadian soldiers. Just last week, a missile hit a Syrian bus near the Iraqi border, and Iraqi officials claim air strikes hit two crowded Baghdad markets.

Such accidents once would have been unremarkable; today they are a scandal, because 100 percent accuracy is assumed to be the norm. Some human-rights campaigners want to charge American airmen with war crimes because their bombs killed Serb civilians during the Kosovo campaign. Nothing has happened so far, but the two pilots who killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were arraigned before a military tribunal on manslaughter charges. The hearing officer recommended against court-martial; no final decision has been made.

To avoid such accidents, American planners are extraordinarily careful. Almost all decisions on targets are vetted by lawyers, who decide if the expected benefits outweigh the risks of civilian casualties. Such careful consideration can get in the way of swift action. In the early days of the Afghan war, a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles spotted a convoy believed to contain Mullah Muhammad Omar. But the military took so long to process this information that a possible opportunity to kill the Taliban leader was lost.

During the current war, dozens of important targets were placed off limits because of fears of "high collateral damage." Pentagon planners hoped instead to rely on a "shock and awe" bombing campaign to topple the regime, but that bloodless victory did not materialize.

Iraq is well aware of the United States' sensitivity to civilian casualties and tries to exploit it. When not showing pictures of dead American soldiers, Iraqi television broadcasts images of wounded or dead civilians. Saddam Hussein has tried to increase the chances of civilian casualties by placing military installations near hospitals, mosques and schools. In addition, the Saddam Fedayeen, a militia commanded by Saddam's son Uday, have attacked coalition soldiers while hiding behind "human shields." In all these cases, an inhumane regime is using our humanity against us.

This problem could become more severe when allied troops enter Baghdad. Because commanders will probably not be willing to flatten whole blocks, they may expose their soldiers to the extreme perils of close-quarters combat.

The military must struggle with the deadly calculus of how many casualties it is willing to incur among its own forces to save civilian lives. In this regard, the words of Gen. Curtis LeMay, who led the American bombing campaign against Japan in 1945, are worth remembering: "Actually I think it's more immoral to use less force than necessary, than it is to use more. If you use less force, you kill off more of humanity in the long run because you are merely protracting the struggle."

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Old 03-31-2003, 08:16 PM   #2
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War was and still is ugly.

Can you imagine what would happen if we had 84,000 casualties in one day today?


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Old 03-31-2003, 08:48 PM   #3
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Originally posted by Dreadsox
War was and still is ugly.

Can you imagine what would happen if we had 84,000 casualties in one day today?


Damn. It's horrible. This is truly ugly. These people are going to need help.
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Old 04-01-2003, 03:14 PM   #4
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Originally posted by verte76

Damn. It's horrible. This is truly ugly. These people are going to need help.
I am amazed at how quickly people claim that we are targeting civilians, when clearly this is not the case.
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Old 04-01-2003, 03:21 PM   #5
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Dreadsox: i was really surprised that there were such few deads on both sides yet (US soldiers, Iraqi soldiers/civilians) i guess the reason why people are upset about the dead civilians is that they trusted propaganda of a clean war, US troops taking cities which are welcomed with flowers Now they are surprised that war is not like a videogame and no "adventure" it's about killing people.

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Old 04-01-2003, 03:23 PM   #6
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There are always two sides of the story.

The NY Times article i.m.o. evokes the sensation that everythings all right, sure there are victims, but its all good.

On the other hand, Al Jazeera news from 25 March are speaking of Basra, where electricity and water are out of service, of 3000 bombs going down in 48 hours (which doesn┤t mean targeting civilians, but is quite likely to kill more than a few).

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