Innocent deaths a ‘grievous norm of war’


While I admire the earnest humanism underlying Faisal Chaudhry’s exhortation to remember the thousands of Afghan civilians killed in the ongoing war, I strongly disagree with his description of U.S. efforts as “imperial depravity,” “military terror,” and “crimes.” More importantly, I cannot help but find his implied belief that American actions in Afghanistan are criminal erroneous and destructive to American security.

Mr. Chaudhry blasts the United States for killing thousands of Afghan civilians, but he must surely realize that even in the era of guided missiles, war simply cannot be waged without extinguishing a high level of souls. That some of those killed are innocents has been the grievous norm of war since its inception. To suggest that killing thousands of Afghans inadvertently is a crime is to suggest that the waging of the war itself is criminal, and is therefore illegitimate and illegal. While I would rather not have to support an enterprise that kills thousands, I cannot understand how the prosecution of the Afghan war is anything else but what the Economist called it upon its inception: a heart-rending but necessary war.

The concern over Afghan civilian deaths due to American efforts is honest and commendable in its humanity, but is chronically and fatally Americentric. On September 10th, there were approximately 2.5 million Afghan refugees, with hundreds more being killed daily either as part of Taliban policy or in the civil war that has raged for decades. Would it not have been “racial calculus” to simply ignore this suffering simply because America was not creating it?

Of course, we have not ignored such suffering — American might is contributing greatly to mitigating it. The safety of civilians cannot ever be guaranteed in a situation as turbulent and dire as the Afghan civil war. Even if the U.S-led war does inadvertently kill civilians, the potential for ending the decades-old conflict and returning stability to the millions of Afghans more than weighs in its favor. Additionally, can there be any doubt that the lives of civilians will be much improved with the removal of Al Queda and the Taliban regime as a whole? As a comparison, does anyone actually feel that the lives of civilians would be better off by refraining from warfare? To leave millions of refugees at the mercy of ongoing war, with the most likely end result the extension of fascist Taliban rule to all of Afghanistan cannot seriously be seen as better than the entry of American forces. The current war has raged for seven years, with no end in sight. Within just weeks of American entry into the war, the static nature was broken and a conclusion to the hostilities seems far closer than it has in 22 years. Moreover, a nascent civilian representative government appears to be germinating for the first time in modern Afghan history. More civilians will undoubtedly die before the conflict’s conclusion, but that conclusion will be light-years closer thanks to American intervention. In sum, one is willing to endure the pain of surgery in order to recover from the disease — the same logic applies in the context of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

America’s “crimes” have done what time and warlords could not — bring a light to the end of a bitter tunnel. We had no choice but to wage war in Afghanistan — to leave al Queda operational and unpunished would have signed the death warrants of thousands more Americans, and there was no way of peacefully securing these terrorists. In doing so, we have enhanced American security while providing hope to a beleaguered land — hardly the work of “military terror.” In decrying our efforts, I wonder if Mr. Chaudhry offers a better way for a just end to the conflagration of hatred brought down upon us.

Mr. Chaudhry also points out his belief that the Pentagon engages in “racial calculus,” and he is correct in asserting that Rumsfeld’s burden concentrates on Americans killed rather than Afghans. However, the claim that this is “racial” is simply unsupported. Once a nation has war thrust upon it, it asks young men and women to die in pursuit of that war. We simply cannot ask these brave military personnel to fight and die if we are not willing to make their survival paramount. The race of the enemy or third parties is simply irrelevant, as it always has been. The 8th Air Force bombing campaign in 1942-45 killed civilians of many predominantly white European nations without outcry — was racial calculus involved there? A nation’s military planning must be first and foremost, concerned with the successful pursuit of the mission and with the safety of its personnel. We of course must take care not to kill indiscriminately, and our record in doing so is quite good, as Mr. Chaudhry tacitly concedes by not pointing to any current American actions to the contrary; witness also the cancellation of all further Tomahawk strikes in 1991 after the Al Firdos bunker disaster, for example. The race of the Iraqis, both military and civilian, was as irrelevant then as it is now in Afghanistan. The correct term for the phenomenon of internalizing American deaths more strongly and personally might well be called “nationalist calculus,” and while this may be no more tasteful or politically correct, if our national security leaders will not place the survival of Americans above all else, then quite frankly, they simply should not be national security leaders.

It is a sad truth that innocents must die in the pursuit of security and justice, but a peaceful tomorrow often comes from sacrifice and war today. We may dislike such a truth, but we cannot flinch from it without abdicating our beliefs and ultimately, our lives. Mr. Chaudhry is undoubtedly correct in exhorting us to remember the Afghan dead; that being said, his criticism of our policies and motives is misplaced. Having offered no viable alternative, I fear acceptance of such a critique would leave America unacceptably open to further death and destruction.

Evan Belosa

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