Bring Out Your Dead
As the seasons changed and the leaves started falling, Marc Herold gave up the outdoors and hunkered down with his computer. Since late October, Herold has been spending close to 12 hours a day methodically monitoring a number of Internet websites, tracking reports of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
Herold, a professor of economics and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire, told WorkingForChange that he was disturbed by the U.S. media's lack of interest in and its quick dismissal of reports of large number of civilian casualties. Herold also said "friends convinced me that since I have been putting together databases for more than thirty years, that I was the right person for the job,"
If the U.S. government refuses to count them, the mainstream media won't investigate or report on them, and if Americans aren't told or just don't care, does it mean that the thousands of civilian casualties caused by the bombing of Afghanistan haven't happened?
Herold's study, which systematically tracks civilian deaths in Afghanistan caused by U.S. bombing raids, is remarkable as an undertaking by one dedicated individual. That none of America's huge media organizations have bothered to take on this work is disgraceful.
Unveiled in early December, and updated regularly since then, Herold's study has been well-received by alternative media organizations, groups concerned about Bush's war on terrorism, a number of mainstream international media outlets in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and by thousands of Internet users around the world. The media of denial -- the U.S. media -- largely ignored the study at first.
Now that the report is garnering some attention, it has been criticized or labeled "controversial" in mainstream media reports. (Instead of completely trashing someone's work, you can cast a shadow over its veracity by calling it "controversial.") A mid-January San Francisco Chronicle editorial went one step beyond "controversial" -- calling Herold's report severely flawed because it "relied heavily on hearsay and second-hand reports from unreliable sources such as the Afghan Islamic Press, which is essentially a propaganda outlet for the Taliban, as well as pro-Taliban Pakistani newspapers."
No news is good news
The U.S. government has avoided the question of civilian casualties. It's a messy subject -- a diversion and a waste of time and energy. General Tommy Franks, the "architect" of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has said: "We decided early on that if we were to take each of the speculations that comes out and spend our time trying to describe the error of each speculation, we'd have little time to do anything else. And so all of us have opted to not do that."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld prefers to put a positive spin on the U.S.'s conduct in the war: "There probably has never in the history of the world been a conflict that has been done as carefully, and with such measure, and care, and with such minimal collateral damage to buildings and infrastructure, and with such small numbers of unintended civilian casualties."
Two questions are worth asking: Is the study an accurate accounting of civilian casualties? Does anyone in the U.S. care?
Tracking the data
Herold's "A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting," is a meticulous compilation of reports from dozens of sources. In his conclusion to the study he speaks directly to the accuracy question: "Naturally, some might seek to dismiss parts or all of the report by attacking the sources employed. But, to do so would mean having to accuse news agencies from many countries, reporters from many countries, and newspapers from many countries of lying. We have sought to cite whenever possible multiple sources. The specific, detailed stories provided by victims, on-lookers, and refugees lend credibility."
Among the sources Herold scours regularly are British, Canadian, Australian and Indian newspapers, including The Times of India; three Pakistani dailies; the Singapore News; Afghan Islamic Press; Agence France Press; Pakistan News Service; Reuters; BBC News Online; Al Jazeera; and a variety of other sources, including the United Nations and other relief agencies.
Herold reported that 3,767 civilians were killed from October 7 to December 6; the updated numbers now stand at 4,000 to 4,100 deaths. (For the full report, see " An Average Day: 65 Afghan Civilians Killed by U.S. Bombs on December 20th" -- and for a complete accounting of civilian casualties, see " Appendix 4: Daily Casualty Count of Afghan Civilians Killed in U.S. Bombing Attacks, October 7 Until Present Day.")
"I think this [the numbers] really flies in the face of the message directed to the American public, which was that we had these precision-guided munitions and there would be some collateral damage, but we shouldn't worry too much about it because we have these precision-guided weapons," Herold has said.
"In fact the figure I came up with is a very, very conservative estimate," he told a radio interviewer. "I think that a much more realistic figure would be around 5,000. You know for Afghanistan, 3,700 to 5,000 is a really substantial number." Herold told WorkingForChange that if anything, he errs on the side of being conservative about his estimates of the number killed.
Negligent and derelict
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, "Dr. Herold's report received extensive coverage in the European media but almost no mention in the American press, which has struggled with defining a role in this conflict that is patriotic but still objective. Recently, serious media have begun to look at the suffering of Afghan civilians, but the issue is so emotional that many media outlets have chosen silence."
If letters to the editor are any reflection of public opinion, it is clear that many people prefer not to think about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. And those pundits who do comment are often caught up in "war is hell" clichés. Michael Barone, longtime conservative commentator, columnist and Fox News pundit expressed this most clearly: "Civilian casualties are not news. The fact is that they accompany wars."
Why aren't Americans interested in hearing about civilian casualties? "I think that when the disaster happened there was shock, fear, confusion and anger," Herold said. "I think that there was an incredible confusion and fear and the administration played to those feelings very well in terms of galvanizing support for a revenge action. Revenge ends when the government perceives they have eliminated al Qaeda. And this will be a very long time."
What will it take for the American people to care about the number of Afghan civilian casualties? "If at some point the International Red Cross or the United Nations starts raising a fuss over the numbers of dead civilians, then things might change," Herold said. "A half-a-dozen more incidents might cause the administration trouble."
Herold says he will continue collecting and disseminating the data until the bombing of civilians ends: "I will keep adding to the site on a regular basis, and I hope that it does become a major story. There are such gross cases of the violation of the rules of war -- little villages are getting destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth. The U.S. is bombing places over and over again that might at one time have had al Qaeda camps, but are now completely destroyed.
"It is an extermination campaign aimed at eliminating al Qaeda and the Taliban. Unfortunately, it looks like the U.S. will be moving this war on to Sudan and Somalia."
And as the war on terrorism shifts to other countries, you can count on there being more civilian casualties.