Sunday, March 29, 2009

Trivializing the Killing of Civilians

by Peter Hart
March 23, 2009

The lead of an article in the New York Times today (3/23/09):

KABUL, Afghanistan — A predawn raid by United States Special Forces that killed five people on Sunday has produced sharply conflicting accounts from the American military and local Afghan officials as to whether the dead were civilians or militants, resurrecting a sore point that has troubled the American-led war here.

"Resurrecting a sore point?" For something to be resurrected, it has to have gone away, right? That's not the case with civilian deaths in Afghanistan--nor would most people belittle such suffering as a "sore point."

The day before, the Times had a Week in Review piece on drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan with the awkward headline "The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing." Reporter Mark Mazetti can't be held responsible for that headline, but the piece plays down the impact that such attacks have on civilians, which is treated as mostly an afterthought (the real question, of course, being what waging war by "joysticks" means for the United States):

Over the last six months, CIA operatives wielding joysticks have launched more than three dozen strikes by Predator and more heavily armed Reaper drones. Missiles fired from them have hit militants gathering in mountain redoubts, and they have hit truck convoys ferrying ammunition across the border into Afghanistan.

Some agency veterans draw comparisons to the Israeli policy of "targeted killings" of Hamas leaders--killings that claimed scores of the group’s top operatives in the Palestinian territories, but didn’t keep new recruits from attacking Israel.

Intelligence officials in Washington and Islamabad said it was nearly impossible to measure the impact of the strikes on the so-called "war of ideas." Even when precise, the drone strikes often kill women and children in militant compounds. When that happens, local Pashtun customs of "badal" obligate their survivors to seek revenge.

There's a lot going on here, but the upshot is that civilian deaths are treated as some sort of inexplicable fallout-- that "even when precise," such drone attacks kill women and children, or that somehow Israeli strikes on "Hamas leaders" don't prevent other Palestinians from seeking retribution. Mazetti writes of "local Pashtun customs" that "obligate" survivors to "seek revenge" against those who killed their families. Is that such a strange concept, meriting a special foreign term, for U.S. readers to fathom--in an article that is in part about the war in Afghanistan, after all?

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