Friday, June 17, 2005

Shock & Awe, Civilian Casualties and Questionable Statistics

I'd like to touch briefly on the issue of casualties in the U.S.-Iraqi conflict and how they are referenced, first in relation to the U.S. "Shock & Awe" campaign; secondly in relation to certain statistics.

"Shock and Awe" - A Case of Indiscriminate Bombing?

Initiating the U.S. war with Iraq in 2003, the "Shock and Awe" campaign was designed to shatter the will of Saddam Hussein by strategically obliterating key military targets and infrastructure. Described as "a devastating premeditated attack on a civilian urban population," likened the Bush administration's plans for the campaign to "Hulagu Khan and Tamerlane, the Mongol warlords who laid bloody waste to Baghdad in 1258 and 1401" and predicted that "Baghdad could become the 21st century's Guernica," the Basque village carpet-bombed by the Nazis in 1937 ("Shock & Awe: Guernica Revisited"). Other anti-war critics compared the campaign to Dresden, even Hiroshima.

Granted, many of these comparisons were made prior to the launch of the campaign itself (if anything, a testament to the effectiveness of the Pentagon's propaganda campaign, who freely publicized their intentions so as to intimidate the Iraqi military), but even to this day you will find similer allegations. Michael Moore, for instance, made use of the imagery in his notirious propaganda film Fahrenheit 911, portraying Iraq as a peaceful nation with footage of care-free children flying kites, set against the thunderous explosions and falling bombs of March 22, 2003.

Writing for, Inside Shock & Awe), Bijal Trivedi provides a brief history of guided-bombing, noting that the weapons employed in the 2003 bombing campaign constituted significant advancements in targeting technology beyond anything used in the first Gulf War (during which only 7% of the bombs used were "smart").

But of all the bombs and weapons launched in Iraq in the first Gulf War, only about seven percent were "smart." And even these bombs had shortcomings. Laser-guided precision weapons were accurate, but bad weather or clouds of smoke from burning oil fields often made it impossible to find targets. Worse, pilots needed to fly relatively low and within range of enemy fire.

Just a decade later, 'Shock and Awe' used another advance in precision bombing—the Global Positioning System, or GPS. GPS guided bombs, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAM, can be dropped from more than twice the altitude of earlier guided bombs and from farther away, helping pilots avoid antiaircraft fire. Tomahawk missiles guided by terrain recognition software and digitized maps, or the newest models directed by the Global Positioning System satellites, can find their targets regardless of weather conditions or smoke. . . .

Curiously, it is a testament to the precision of the military's bombing that they ultimately failed to achieve the desired end of the campaign -- :

A bizarre testament to the precision of the weapons used during the first night of 'Shock and Awe' was that the streetlights still functioned. Electricity flowed to the city, including the Palestine Hotel where journalists frantically filed their reports. During the opening days of the war, even Iraqi government television was untouched and still broadcasting.

Civilian casualties did occur, but the strikes, for the most part, were surgical. Some buildings were completely demolished, while neighboring structures were untouched. Some buildings remained standing while their innards were gutted. In others still, only individual floors were erased.

The U.S. Shock & Awe campaign appears to validate James Turner Johnson's claims that in the U.S. armed forces of today "we find a state that has used its intellectual and economic capital to develop weapons, tactics, strategies, and training directed toward maximizing discrimination and proportionality in the use of armed force." ("Just War as it Was and Is" First Things 149 January 2005: 14-24).

Likewise, in a Frontline Investigate report on the Iraq war and civilian casualties, all the participants interviewed indicate that a priority for the military was the minimization of harm to civilians. This was admittedly easier said than done, difficulty rendered by the fact that U.S. troops found themselves attacked by Iraqi soldiers wearing civilian attire, driving taxicabs -- in the words of Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, "violating the laws of land warfare and putting its own people at risk."

Nevertheless, military historian Frederick W. Kagan reminds us:

When you're talking about civilian casualties in war, it's very important to understand that there will always be civilian casualties in war. You can look at any specific instance when there was civilian casualties and point to, frequently, errors of judgment, or misperceptions, or confusion, or lots of things that cause them. You can dissect any given incident and say, "Well, they shouldn't have done this and they shouldn't have done that." But it's almost certain that, in any large war, that there are going to be incidents, and there are going to be civilian casualties.

The U.S military took extraordinary pains to avoid civilian casualties in a campaign in which an incredible amount of ordinance was dropped all across a country, including in extremely densely inhabited areas. Overall, America's success in avoiding large numbers of civilian casualties was astonishing.

The problem is we're living in a world where the expected rate of success is 100 percent. We count up from zero how many civilian casualties there are, and every one is unacceptable. Of course, in principle, that's true. In war, reality doesn't actually work that way.

The Questionable Use of Statistics

100,000? 50,000? 37,000? 12,000? -- When the question of casualties is raised a number of statistics are bandied about. One blogger I've encountered is known for his persistent citation of "100,000" casualties. When he used the statistic in one of our many discussions I took him to task, inquiring where he obtained it (he neglected to respond).

The "100,000" of course comes from a controversial study by the British medical journal The Lancet, regarding which one need only point to the many criticisms of its methodology -- see "100,000 Dead - Or 8,000?", by Fred Kaplan. (Slate. Oct. 29, 2004), along with a thorough and sustained analysis by the blogging collective ChicagoBoyz. In fact, not even the Iraq Body Count (no friend of the Bush administration) will touch a statistic that high -- a website which in itself is notably flawed in its own gathering of numbers. The blogger in question has since taken to citing statistics in the range of 50-100,000 -- which leads me to believe he has taken no time to investigate the validity of the source.

This post is not to discount the loss of innocents. It is to the credit of our military that they undertake the measures they do to guard against civilian casualties. But of the statistics that are often cited by certain parties against the U.S. war in (and subsequent occupation of) Iraq, there is little/no recognition of causal factors except that of the United States military.

Which, in retrospect, is perhaps the point: If the U.S. hadn't invaded, there would be no occupation; no occupation, no beheadings and hostage takings and suicide bombings inflicted on the citizens of a new nation struggling to rise from the ashes and fashion a new democratic government.

If the U.S. never engaged Iraq, the only casualties would be the mass graves of 300,000 who perished for their opposition to Saddam Hussein.