The Iraqi dead

April 02, 2003

DONALD H. RUMSFELD and the top Pentagon brass are right when they say that civilian casualties are inevitable in war. When it happens, there can be no denying the grief, anguish and bitterness that are engendered. Monday's incident at a U.S. checkpoint, in which American soldiers opened fire on a speeding van and killed at least seven women and children, was especially heart-wrenching. But people who urge a nation into war are kidding themselves if they believe that incidents like that one can be avoided.

In an age of instant communication, the killing of civilians is an enormously difficult issue. Soldiers in the field have to protect themselves. Their commanders have to worry about public opinion at home and, more important, about the nature of the peace that will follow hostilities.

Finding the right balance can be impossible. Soldiers can be betrayed by politics; politics can be betrayed by an army too ready to pull the trigger.

The Iraqi government reports that about 600 civilians have been killed in the two weeks since the war began. Assume that that is true. Then consider that, in one night in Tokyo, in 1945, American bombers killed 100,000 men, women and children. Another 100,000 were made homeless.

Or consider this: Those 600 deaths in Iraq are roughly equal to the number of people murdered in the United States over the same two-week period.

American military planners have clearly gone to considerable lengths to avoid civilian casualties. American troops have in some cases gone even further: Witness the photograph published yesterday of two soldiers on a bridge over the Euphrates, going to the aid of a wounded Iraqi woman.

And yet images of mangled and bloody children are beamed around the world - and throughout Iraq. The numbers count, but only in real terms. In propaganda terms, the numbers hardly mean anything. A dozen or a thousand - only the images matter.

This is the world as it is today. There's no getting around it.

An ideal war - if such a thing could be said to exist - would take place between two uniformed armies, maneuvering in a barren desert. This war isn't shaping up that way. And when armies pursue their foes into towns and cities, the inevitable happens - and the world quickly knows about it.

The Army said yesterday it would not change its security procedures, and in fact the driver of a car was shot dead in another incident. The longer the war continues, the more civilians will be killed. Nothing can change that. It will be up to the politicians to repair the damage afterward.

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