Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Killing the Innocent

The realization that innocent people have been sentenced to die and, in some cases, actually executed has been a key factor in prompting some states to impose a moratorium on capital punishment. In warfare, the killing of innocents sometimes leads to inquests and courts martial--if the killings occur in the context of ground combat. But, as Simon Jenkins points out in a column in tomorrow's Guardian, killing innocent people from the air hardly rates any concern at all. Jenkins writes:

When bombing from the air kills non-combatants, as it does to an appalling degree, there should at least be a military inquiry into why. . . . Massacres committed by infantrymen are subject to courts martial. If soldiers enter a house by the front door and kill civilians inside, then they are hauled before world opinion and condemned. If a dropped bomb enters the same house through the roof and has the same effect, it is dismissed as collateral damage. In Iraq it is not even recorded.

That military strategy is so casual about bomb inaccuracy is largely due to the technological glamour attached to air forces as against ground troops. The latter are always worse equipped and worse protected. Air commanders have long oversold the efficacy of strategic bombing and ignore the degree to which, in counter-insurgency war, such bombardment can be wildly counter-productive. The destruction of non-military targets and the incidental killing of civilians is far more damaging to the cause of victory than friendly-fire casualties that attract so much publicity and inquiry.

In the United States, attitudes toward aerial bombardment were shaped by World War II and the indiscriminate bombing campaign led by General Curtis LeMay. LeMay summed up his own attitude toward war in these words: "I'll tell you what war is about. You've got to kill people, and when you've killed enough they stop fighting."

Until the United States comes to terms with the LeMay legacy, it may be impossible to understand "collateral damage" for what it is: killing the innocent.