Counting the Cost

John Howard Yoder often asserted that a fundamental challenge in the application of just war thinking is simply that we be honest.

John Howard Yoder often asserted that a fundamental challenge in the application of just war thinking is simply that we be honest.

Since the start of the Iraq war, we in the United States have failed to speak openly and honestly regarding civilian casualties. Why can’t we investigate and articulate what we know is happening in Iraq: that innocent civilians - already indiscriminately targeted by insurgents, jihadists, and thugs - are now dying in larger numbers at the hands of U.S. forces, most notably from aerial bombing and our use of heavy attack weapons?

At the war’s outset the Pentagon announced that it had no obligation to provide information on the number of Iraqi soldiers killed or wounded. The policy adopted regarding civilians mirrored that of the first Gulf war: "We don’t do body counts," as Gen. Tommy Franks put it. The government has made this policy stick. The practice is followed by embedded journalists.

But civilian casualties are not the only ones obfuscated. This fall, the European edition of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes claimed that nearly 21,000 wounded U.S. soldiers had been treated at Landstuhl Medical Centre in Germany. On November 24, the Pentagon’s official injury count claimed that 9,300 U.S. troops have been wounded in Iraq. What accounts for an 11,000+ discrepancy? (Reported injuries in Afghanistan represent about 15 percent of the difference.)

This follows an earlier November controversy when the British medical journal The Lancet released a study of 988 Iraqi household interviews that projected as many as 100,000 "excess" civilians may have died since the war began. Other groups using different methods have estimated Iraqi civilian deaths at 16,000 to 60,000.

The complexity of our moral blind-spot intensifies when we recognize that in single cases, as in the recent indictment of a U.S. military man for murdering an Iraqi prisoner, the United States does follow moral and legal dictates. Yet the U.S. government remains stubbornly opposed to its obligation to report the number of civilians killed in this war.

RESISTANCE TO FULL and honest accounting rests in two claims. First, the U.S. military insists that it takes all possible precautions - especially using smart, targeted weapon strikes - to avoid civilian casualties. Second, the military asserts that terrorists and insurgents are the culprits here: They hide among the civilians, using them as "shields," and then kill civilians as they choose for their own ends.

But recent evidence undermines the effectiveness - despite the best intentions - of the former claim. And while the "make no moral equivalence" assertion evokes sympathy, it would be more persuasive if, in fact, our moral high ground was constructed on acknowledging what actually happened when civilians are killed.

The character of November’s Fallujah assault should make us more nervous about the slippery slope on which we now sit. The first strategic target captured in the city was the main hospital. U.S. command announced it did this to guard against the use of the hospital as a propaganda tool by the insurgents.

In what is considered a significant humanitarian gesture, U.S. commanders now have available to them thousands of dollars in order to make on-the-spot cash compensation to the families of those civilians accidentally killed.

In an interview about the "mop-up" activities in Fallujah, a marine commander said that he was unaware of any civilians in the city being killed, as there were so few there. His remarks came as U.S. command detained some 1,800 "suspects" in the city for questioning. The vast majority of these were soon released as "civilians who had remained in the city during the assault." We will never know how many other civilians died in the air attacks on the city.

Civilian casualties have become the elephant in the living room in this war. We must find a way for church people, as well as professionals of conscience - in the military and elsewhere, to speak clearly about this concern, honestly and openly.

George A. Lopez is a senior fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace at the University of Notre Dame.

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