Recent and not-so-recent incidents in which U.S. troops killed Afghani civilians riding a bus and Blackwater personnel killed Iraqi civilians on a street have prompted heated outcries and heated charges that these events indicate a systematic pattern tantamount to war crimes. I address these emotional responses because they reflect and reinforce biased, mainly far-left, political positions on Middle East issues.
My cooler but I hope not callous response is that these incidents, though deplorable, are not indicative, much less determinative, of a pattern. My general response: although it sometimes fails, the U.S. tries to avoid civilian casualties and damage; the “other” side never, ever, tries.
First, no such pattern exists, because, if it did, we would know about it. Enough journalists serve in these countries to report systematic efforts to kill civilians, not isolated episodes of civilian casualties. These episodes, however regrettable, are random and rare. Inferring a pattern over-generalizes.
Second, U.S. policy and training, in base camps and in country, are to prevent or minimize civilian casualties. No one has to believe that the U.S. has such policy and training only because of high moral principles; one has only to believe that commanders from the Commander-in-Chief to every 2nd Lt. and NCO knows that killing civilians is just plain dumb, tactically and strategically. This policy and training deserves credit.
Third, although commanders issue orders to avoid civilian casualties and minimize damage, orders do not ensure compliance. They work most, not all, of the time. So commanders and orders are not everything and ever-effective. The U.S. is not so good as, say, Israel, in investigating episodes in which civilians are killed and in holding perpetrators accountable, but it tries to investigate and hold accountable those involved. Absent reason to suspect them, orders before and investigations after episodes in which civilians become casualties deserve credit; and accused troops, the presumption of innocence.
Although the U.S. record is not one of perfection, it is one which reflects efforts, as matters of policy, training, and command, to distinguish between civilian and military spheres, and to minimize civilian casualties in asymmetric warfare with guerilla forces.
Because the charges made against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are also made about Israel and Israeli forces, I consider the tactics of “the other side,” sub-national terrorists groups: Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
First, these groups make no attempt to distinguished between civilians and military personnel, or between civilian facilities and military ones—unless it is to attack civilians or civilian facilities. These groups have declared and act on policies, training, and commands to kill Americans and Jews regardless of their status. Thus, the World Trade Center or markets in Tel Aviv are civilian-only targets, and attacks on them intended to kill American and Jewish civilians.
Second, in their policies, training, or operations, these groups do not even make an attempt to distinguish between Arab or Muslim civilians and military personnel, or between civilian and military facilities. They conceal their personnel and military equipment and supplies in residential areas or educational, medical, or religious facilities; they deploy their personnel or discharge their weapons from such areas or facilities; and they use civilians and civilian facilities as shields against retaliatory attack.
These strategic and tactical deployments prove my point. Terrorist groups have developed these deployments in reliance on and in exploitation of this U.S. and Israeli distinction. They rely on it to provide some protection to their personnel, supplies, and operations. They exploit for political purposes the unintended or unavoidable civilian casualties or collateral damage of counter-terrorist operations which their terrorist deployments make likely. Their hypocrisy tacitly gives the U.S. and Israel credit for conduct morally superior to theirs.
These considerations have nothing to do with the many policies debatable and debated in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. They have nothing to do with the plight of the Palestinians, the creation of a Palestinian state, the drawing of boundaries, the locations of capitals, any reparations for lost homes and lands, the right of return, etc.
However, these considerations have everything to do with a double standard applied to military operations—Americans and Israelis bad; their opponents good—as if verdicts on military operations support judgments on political issues. In its customary form, the double standard denies American or Israeli troops extenuations for accidents or mishaps, but allows the other side excuses for deliberate civilian casualties. In discussions about the American-versus-Taliban-or-Al-Qaeda, or the Israeli-versus-Palestinian-or-Hezbollah-or-Hamas, conflict, this double standard is proof—conclusive proof, as I see it—of anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism, respectively.
Anyone has the right to interpret American and Israeli military superiority or economic hegemony as imperialism and to oppose it. Anyone has the right to identify with the downtrodden or oppressed and their causes. But no one has the right to dodge facts or defy fairness to advance positions reflecting a dubious political morality and a despicable religious prejudice. The issues are too important for such distortions.