Collateral Damage Denialism

Early this week, downtown Washington, D.C., played host to a nuclear-security summit that occasioned a lot of frustrating road closures for those of us who live here. On the stretch of New York Avenue right by my office, National Guard vehicles would sporadically move in to block traffic from entering the street, the better to facilitate the passage of motorcades. And Monday evening, one such multi-ton truck hit and killed Constance Holden, a 68-year-old Science magazine correspondent, as she was riding her bicycle. In a bizarre response, the National Guard assured a local TV station reporter that "we will look at the video to make sure the pedestrian didn't run into the truck as it was moving."

Separately on Monday came the news that American soldiers in Afghanistan shot at a civilian bus in an incident "which killed as many as five civilians and wounded 18." Disparate events, to be sure, but the former casts the latter in a different light, and both challenge the notion that the counterinsurgency-era American military is really engaged in a kinder, gentler form of warfare or, indeed, that such an approach is even plausible.

What makes the killings in Afghanistan so maddening is that the military chain of command keeps saying the right thing on this subject. Back in August of 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal helped introduce himself as the new commander in Afghanistan with guidance to soldiers that heavily emphasized the idea of protecting civilians and avoiding needless casualties. He included a parable about an ISAF patrol speeding quickly through a town when "a vehicle approached from the side into the traffic circle. The gunner fired a pen flare at it, which entered the vehicle and caught the interior on fire. As the ISAF patrol sped away, Afghans crowded around the car. How may insurgents did the patrol make that day?"

A good story, a good parable, and a good point. Yet a March 26 New York Times article quoted McChrystal as saying that "we have shot an amazing number of people" at checkpoints, "but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." In other words, his policy is failing.

To return to the Holden case, it becomes clear that the issue isn't a lack of emphasis on the importance of not killing innocent people -- it's the reality of impunity. National guardsmen operating on American soil know perfectly well that they're not supposed to kill commuters. Yet when someone does, nothing much seems to happen. And that's in the United States, right in view of other American citizens. Abroad it's very different. Last week, the Web site Wikileaks posted a disturbing video of a 2007 incident in Iraq where an American helicopter guns down a group of Iraqis, including two Reuters employees. When a van arrives to try to help those fired upon, it too becomes a target, and children are wounded. The official response to this incident was to do nothing. The military investigators deemed it a perhaps unfortunate misunderstanding with perhaps some compensation due to the families of a couple of the victims. And then the footage was classified away for no clear security reason, with the only plausible motives being a desire to keep it from public view and protect the military from criticism.

It's not that our troops are bad people. It's that war is dangerous. The consequences of not pulling the trigger when you think you see someone swinging a rocket launcher in the direction of your helicopter are extremely severe -- you die. Your friends die. On the flip side, the consequences of being a bit too trigger-happy are, of course, terrible for the people who wind up dead and bad for the mission but not so severe for you personally. Under the circumstances, it's clear that no matter how many pious speeches from generals imply otherwise, any military force composed of normal human beings is going to err on the side of killing too many innocent people. It's a little pat to just say that things like the bus incident are unavoidable in a war zone -- even "unavoidable" incidents can occur with frequency -- but the Wikileaks video and the arrival of "collateral damage" on the streets of Washington, D.C., are both powerful reminders that to a certain extent, the counterinsurgency era has been about shielding the public from the reality of what war is.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the children shown in the Wikileaks video were killed. The children were injured.

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