Civilian casualties in Afghanistan: the limits of Marc Herold's 'comprehensive accounting'

About the author
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy and Public Life at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent book is Democracy in Dark Times (Cornell, 1998).
Marc Herold’s report on the civilian victims of US bombing in Afghanistan has gained wide circulation. But are his own methods and conclusions reliable?On 10 December 2001 Marc W. Herold, a professor in the departments of economics and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire, publicly released A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting. Herold claims that (up to that date) over 3,500 Afghan civilians had been killed by American bombs. He criticizes the Pentagon, and the US media, for misleading the public about civilian casualties, and asserts that these casualties are ‘unacceptable’ and ‘criminal’ and the war itself ‘unjust’. Herold’s paper has been embraced by opponents of the war, who see it as providing them with powerful empirical support.

The scepticism Herold displays towards official and mainstream media representations is indispensable in a democratic society. Herold shows that the US media has failed to report many stories that reputable news outlets elsewhere have considered newsworthy, and that these reports call into question many official US claims. Yet his paper seems deeply flawed. It is characterized by biases and unwarranted inferences that should cause any reader to be sceptical about its arguments. It employs a questionable methodology. And it draws conclusions that far exceed what might reasonably be concluded from its ‘comprehensive accounting’ even if one assumes – against the evidence – that this accounting is accurate. It thus fails to support the strong case against the war that its author intends.

Opinions before facts

While it would be absurd to expect that any argument about the war could be free of preconceptions and value commitments, it is nevertheless reasonable for readers to expect that a ‘comprehensive accounting’ will avoid hyperbole and rest upon empirical evidence. Yet even before he has begun to document his civilian death count, Herold asserts – in the manner of a premise rather than a conclusion – that the war is ‘unjust’, and that the unintentional killing of civilians is ‘simply unacceptable’ and ‘criminal’.

Indeed he goes further. He states at the outset that there is “no difference between the attacks on the WTC whose primary goal was the destruction of a symbol, and the US-UK revenge coalition bombing of military targets located in populated urban areas. Both are criminal. Slaughter is slaughter.”

Herold’s eagerness to assert his opinions prior to establishing the facts is revealing, as are his comments about why the US has bombed military targets in populated urban areas. One of his hypotheses is: “race enters the calculation. The sacrificed Afghan civilians are not ‘white’ whereas the overwhelming number of US pilots and elite ground troops are white.” This claim is completely unsubstantiated, and it flies in the face of two pieces of evidence noted by Herold himself.

First, that the US was no more concerned about ‘collateral casualties’ during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. Herold’s way of saving his hypothesis here is that: “the Serbs were in the view of US policymakers and the corporate media tainted (‘darkened’) by their prior Communist experience.” Herold is here playing an absurd semantic game with the concept of ‘race.’

Second, that key military-related facilities have long been located near or in populated urban areas. Perhaps the reason why the US has bombed these areas is simply because that is where the targeted facilities are. But Herold strangely chooses to ignore this possibility. That he does so does not invalidate the factual claims he makes elsewhere. But his inclination to play such disingenuous games must give readers pause.

Weaknesses of method

Herold establishes his figure of 3,500 civilian deaths through an exhaustive review of media reports and first-hand testimonies. His ambition in reviewing these sources is admirable. Yet his methodology suffers from two serious weaknesses. The first is that he employs the principle of maximum credulity in evaluating his sources. As he puts it: “I have eschewed making judgments about the relative reliability of one nation’s news agencies and reporters versus another’s.” He assumes that if an editor of any newspaper or outlet considered an account to be accurate, then it is accurate.

This strange assumption leads Herold to treat reports in the (UK) Guardian as being on par with reports from The Frontier Post of Peshawar. He cites, for example, an eyewitness account of the bombing of a commercial truck reported in Albalagh. This, it turns out, is an ‘Islamic E-Journal,’ whose motto is ‘Our Duty is to Deliver Only the Message’ (the message of Mohammed). Among the texts featured on its web page of 10 January 2002 are an article entitled ‘Islam is the Solution,’ and an essay on ‘Religious Toleration’ defending the destruction of Buddhist temples by Islamic fundamentalists. Hardly an unimpeachable media source.

Herold’s second failing is more serious – the misleading use of citations. He cites a web article by a Harvard researcher, claiming that it ‘confirmed that civilians had been killed in Jalalabad and elsewhere.’ But the cited web address turns up an op-ed piece that confirms nothing. Similarly, Herold writes that ‘the US alternative media noted that during the first week of bombing, 400 Afghan civilians had been slaughtered.’ The cited source is an opinion piece written by an American environmental and labor activist with no evident expertise on Afghanistan. There are a number of similar citations in the article.

Questionable conclusions

A careful reading of Herold’s ‘comprehensive accounting’ suggests that its claim that over 3,500 Afghan civilians have been killed by US bombing cannot be considered substantiated. Yet clearly many – too many – Afghan civilians have been killed, and this has been downplayed by US officials and media. It is important to know this, and to draw the appropriate conclusions. But what are the appropriate conclusions?

Herold concludes that the victims of US bombing are no different than the victims of the 11 September attacks, and that the war is murderous and unjust. But these claims don’t follow from factual arguments of the kind that Herold purports to make. As Richard Falk has argued in the Nation, there is a long and powerful tradition of thinking about the conditions of a just war. According to this tradition a war against Al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts is justifiable on the grounds of defense and retributive justice. Unless one is a pacifist one cannot claim, as Herold does, that ‘slaughter is slaughter. Killing civilians even if unintentional is criminal.’ For as soon as one admits that war can be just, then one must admit that – as morally terrible as it is – there can be no war in which only ‘military targets’ are hit.

When wars are fought then people are killed, combatants but also civilians. This is unavoidable. Of course a just war must be fought justly. The magnitude of civilian death matters; civilians cannot be the intentional object of attacks, and civilian casualties must be minimized. Here Herold’s inclination is correct. If thousands of civilians are being killed, even if as a result of ‘collateral damage’, this must be taken into account. But would even 3,500 civilian casualties be proof of the war’s injustice?

‘Collateral benefits’?

The answer must be no. There are two reasons for this. Neither is categorical, and both require intelligent and responsible judgment. The first is that a moral assessment of the war must consider not simply the costs of the war – including civilians killed – but also the human and moral costs of avoiding the war. The war was a response to a real assault on the lives of Americans and civilians of many other countries who stand in the way of Al-Qaida’s murderous worldview (many non-Americans, and ‘people of color,’ perished in the 11 September attacks). The costs of failing to seek to destroy this network and to bring its leaders to justice would be substantial.

This does not mean, of course, that Afghan lives have less moral worth than American lives. But the failure to suppress Al-Qaida may well have jeopardized many more thousands of lives, of people living in Los Angeles and Paris, London and Hamburg, including Caucasians but also the Turks, Arabs, and Africans who live in these places. This must be factored into any intelligent evaluation of the war.

The second reason, then, involves a necessary assessment of the benefits of the war. One benefit is the destruction of Al-Qaida, a benefit not only to Americans, though Americans have every reason to seek this advantage. Another benefit is distinctively relevant to the people about whom Herold purports to care most – Afghan civilians. The war has destroyed the Taliban regime, which for over six years had persecuted and ravaged the people, particularly the women, of Afghanistan. This, surely, has not been the principal goal of the war. It is what we might call the ‘collateral benefit’ of the war. But, if we are to assess ‘collateral damages’, then we must assess ‘collateral benefits’ as well. It is undeniable that a large number of Afghans are celebrating the liberation of Afghanistan, a large number were willing to fight and die for this and in fact did fight and die for this. What preceded the Taliban was no doubt terrible. There are other oppressive forces in play, some allied with the US. The war has not brought deliverance to Afghanistan. But the defeat of the Taliban has created the possibility of something approximating freedom for Afghans.

This is ignored by Herold, as it is ignored by many who have denounced the war. Is it worth 3,500 civilian lives? To even ask the question is to enter a tragic but unavoidable domain. If we want to act as citizens, take public positions, and participate in public debate, then we must ask ourselves painful questions. If we are honest, and if we care about human rights, then we will acknowledge the costs of even the most justifiable policies. We will neither gloat nor deceive ourselves, nor will we celebrate what is a vast human tragedy. But decide we must.

Herold denounces the war. But he says nothing about how to protect the world from terrorism or secure the freedom of Afghans. He voices concern for innocent civilians. But the alternative to the war is not the peaceful enjoyment of human rights by the Afghans. It is allowing a terror network to operate with impunity and ignoring Taliban oppression. In such a scenario many people will be murdered and many more will be terrorized and forced to live their lives in fear. This is neither peace or justice. This war, like all wars, is bloody and horrible. But it is less bad than the alternatives. That is not saying much. But right now it seems to be enough.