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 Minimizing Civilian Casualties 

April 8, 2003

Ali, 12, is a sixth-grader whose favorite subject is geography. He likes sports, especially volleyball and soccer. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he says, “An officer.”

Right now, though, Ali is in a hospital bed, naked, most of his body charred, a catheter and tube attached to his penis. Both his forearms have had to be amputated; they are now bandaged stumps. His doctor, Osama Saleh, thinks he will die within three weeks. Yet he is conscious and talking a little in his soft child’s voice.

His aunt, who is present, tousles his wavy brown hair gently. He doesn’t know yet that his father, his mother, and his six brothers and sisters all died in the rocket attack. Jon Lee Anderson, writing in the April 14 New Yorker, describes pictures of them, starting with Ali’s mother:

“Her face had been cut in half, as if by a giant cleaver, and her mouth was yawning open. In other pictures, which Dr. Saleh said were of Ali’s father and a younger sister, all I could see was a macabre collection of charred body parts and some red flesh. The body of his brother was all there, it seemed, but from the nose up his head was gone, simply sheared off, like the head of a rubber doll. His mouth, like that of his mother, was open, as if he were screaming.”

Dr. Saleh can’t give all his time to caring for Ali. There are 300 other new patients in his hospital and he is working long hours these days. Anderson describes a few of these other patients too.

This must be what is meant by “minimizing civilian casualties” — not avoiding them, which could be done by refraining from warfare, but keeping them down to what the war planners feel is a “reasonable” number. Nobody targeted Ali and his family, of course, and whoever fired the rocket probably has no idea what happened.

[Breaker quote: One dot out of millions]But it can hardly be called a freak accident. This is, after all, “a war of choice.” And when you choose war, you choose things like this.

Some people find it an easy choice to make. I suppose most of those Americans who wanted this war are too human to want to see what it is actually doing and would prefer not to visit Ali’s hospital room, or other rooms where men are missing arms and legs and a baby sleeps with shrapnel in her skull.

For months we have been told of the marvelous precision of the high-tech U.S. arsenal, far improved even over the one that fought the 1991 Gulf War. This war would be confined to strictly military targets, “minimizing civilian casualties.” Combat would be refined, as far as possible, to a duel between Good and Evil. And Good, with its huge moral and material superiority, would prevail. Innocent victims would be negligible.

In that calculus, Ali and his family were considered negligible. Their fate is a by-product of Operation Iraqi Freedom, of liberation, of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Nobody is personally responsible for it. Nobody actually intended it. It just happened. This is the way we live now. Mourning is optional.

Everyone knew things like this were going to happen. That is what the debate over the war was about. One side thought it would be worth it. The other side thought nothing — nothing — could be worth it. Between two sides with such opposing views, maybe there was nothing to debate. It’s like abortion. Either it horrifies you or it doesn’t. Argue, shout, march all you want. You aren’t going to change many minds.

You certainly aren’t going to change the ones that count. They had decided on this war before the events of 9/11. Maybe Ali’s fate was sealed then. It was just a matter of where the high-tech rockets would land when the time came.

Well, it has come. One family’s number just happened to come up. Nothing personal; nothing is personal anymore. We are all, as Mr. Lime puts it in the famous movie, “those little dots moving around down there.” The question for states, as he adds, is figuring “how many of those dots you can afford to spare.”

When you think of it that way, “minimizing civilian casualties” is as cold-blooded a policy as any other.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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