Small News


Killing Other People's Children

You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality.
Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.

- Malcolm X

Gul Chin Alozai, 2, waits with her family to enter a refugee camp at the
Chaman border crossing in Pakistan.  Many families are desperate for food.

by Lawrence McGuire

The deep craters and pieces of shrapnel indicate that America's weapon of choice in Kabul was the Mark 82 500 pound bomb, which is designed to be guided to its target by the pilot, a nearby observation plane or a spotter on the ground.  But there was nothing accurate about the 500 pound bomb which fell on Bibi Mahru.  It killed Gul Ahmad, 40, a Hazara carpet weaver, his second wife Sima, 35, their 5 daughters and his son by his first wife.  Two children living next door were also killed.

Children killed because of war or terrorism is not a subject I like to contemplate.  I draw away from it instinctively, perhaps because the unnecessary death of a child represents the horror of our society and I can do so little about it.  I prefer to escape this horror by focusing on the enjoyable aspects of my place in modern life: my warm apartment, the food in my refrigerator, books, movies, music, hiking, travel, my work, and most importantly, the personal human relationships which give me love, friendship, security, and a feeling of belonging.

However, thousands of innocent people have died in Afghanistan, and are still dying, and every death is, after all, the death of somebody's child.  I know I am in some way related to their death, because first of all I am another human being sharing their world, participating in the creation of that world in my daily life.  I'm also connected because I grew up in the country, the USA, whose political system has organised the bombing: the bombs that killed were partially paid by my tax dollars, and the same political system also issued my passport, which gives me privileges most people in the world lack.  And in a small way I participate in that political system.  So I feel I have some small responsibility to face the fact of these dead children and to talk about them.

The children who died, and are dying, in Afghanistan because of US bombing do not merit much attention in our mass media.  They are small news, other people's children.  Perhaps this is even more of a reason for me to talk about them.  They seem to me to be an important part of the story.

Perhaps the reason that the mass media keep the story small news is to maintain wide support for this war, and the next one.  That is certainly a possibility.  But for the mass media the deaths of poor people are usually small news, throughout the year.  How many newspapers put this on the front page?

On 11 September, more than 35,000 of the world's children died of starvation.  A similar number have perished from hunger every day since then in developing countries, according to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Another reason for the lack of coverage is that we don't want to know about US bombs killing other people's children.  It threatens our sense of who we are.  We prefer to cast ourselves as the good guys, and good guys don't kill children.  This can be seen as proof of our humanity.  After all, if we were completely depraved the news of the deaths of children would not disturb us.

On the other hand, when we so willingly and easily allow ourselves to be ignorant of the results of US bombing we are also, perhaps, indicating our level of morality.  I'm not sure about this.  Measuring the level of morality is hard enough, if not impossible, for myself, so how can I hope to measure the level of my culture's morality?  Is morality something that can be measured?  If it cannot be, then how does George Bush know we are 'good' and they (Osama bin Laden, the Taleban, et cetera) are "evil"?

Perhaps my focus on the deaths of children is a result of morbidity.  If so, then at least I share some respectful company.  For example one of my favorite writers, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, also is contemplating the deaths of other people's children these days:

Here is the other question that I have been leading toward, one that the predicament of modern warfare forces upon us: How many deaths of other people's children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace?  To that question I answer: None.  Please, no children.  Don't kill any children for my benefit.

I wonder how many children actually died?  And what were their names?  And what has happened to their families?  This brings up another equally horrible fact to contemplate: what is happening right now to the children who have (so far) survived?  Some are freezing to death, others are starving:

Farough, an 11-year-old boy whose family of six arrived here from Chaghcharan a month ago, says he spends his days begging for a piece of bread or a sip of clean water or standing in line for hours in the cold in hope of getting a bag of rice.  "My mother is deaf and dumb and my father is very old," he explained.  A 2-year-old sister died from the cold a few days ago.  "We came because we had nothing to eat at home, but here sometimes I eat and other times nothing.  The ground is my mattress and the sky is my roof.  We are very miserable."

How many are orphans?  How many have wounds that will disfigure and affect them for the rest of their lives?  And, yet another addition to the horror, how many will die or be disfigured in the years to come from all the unexploded cluster bombs (the bomblets are yellow, and look very similar to the food packets that were dropped) which the US left behind?  The harmful effects of the US bombing will last for years, and we will never know the true human cost to the people of Afghanistan.

In Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam people are still dying from the land mines planted by the US military 30 years ago.  (Why did we plant these mines in the first place?  Anybody know?)  The US is one of the few countries in the world to refuse to sign an international treaty to ban land mines.

We do know that as a result of the bombing a country that was dependent upon international aid for survival before 11 September, has become an even more desperate place:

The US bombing campaign, while helping to defeat the oppressive Taliban regime, has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in two ways.  First, hundreds of thousands of people, terrified by the bombs, have fled their villages and swelled the ranks of the refugee population.  Second, before the 7 October air attack, millions of Afghans were receiving international assistance despite the difficulties of working with the Taliban.  But after the bombing began, humanitarian agencies pulled their staff from the country and closed, or severely curtailed, their operations.

The US is currently preventing aid from reaching people by refusing to support an international peacekeeping force to insure the aid gets to the people in need, though it's possible this will change soon:

All of the aid groups I talked to in Afghanistan say that unless an international force is sent in to secure the roads, Afghanistan will be the scene of a humanitarian crisis of horrific proportions.  The good news is that England, France, Turkey, Jordan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have all offered troops to carry out this mission.  The bad news is that the Pentagon and the Northern Alliance are resisting the introduction of such a force.

When the American terrorist and Gulf War hero Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City he also blew up a day care center.  The death of those children was big news in the US - they were not other people's children, they were our children.  McVeigh called it "collateral damage", a phrase he learned from the US officials who used it to describe the 200,000 civilians killed by the US bombing of Iraq.  Since our bombing of Iraq in 1991 over a million Iraqis have died because of US imposed trade sanctions.  The man who used to be in charge of this "program", Hans Von Sponeck, says this:

The fact that today, on average, according to UNICEF, 5,000 children are dying every month because of sanctions, is a violation of human rights.  The Convention of the Rights of the Child is violated.  The Covenant on Political and Civic Rights is violated.  The Hague Convention is violated.

Another UN official who resigned said this:

"We are in the process of destroying an entire society.  It is as simple and terrifying as that.  It is illegal and immoral." - Denis Halliday, after resigning as first UN Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, The Independent 15 October 1998

In addition many are dying in Iraq from cancer caused by the depleted uranium in the bombs that were dropped.  The US also dropped depleted uranium bombs on Kosovo and Serbia.  Here is a recent headline about that subject:

US Wins Defeat of Depleted Uranium Study

McVeigh said he blew up the building because the Federal Government killed a lot of adults and their children in Waco, Texas.  He was avenging those deaths, he said, and also he hoped to prevent more deaths in the future, by using terrorism against the Government.  From his point of view it seemed like a logical thing to do.  To me it seems insane.  Perhaps it was insane.  But the surviving members of families who lost children in Afghanistan due to US bombing might feel like doing the same thing.  It's not unlikely:

Rukia, 39, who like many Afghans uses only one name, lost her family 5 days ago when she says a US bomb hit her Kandahar neighbourhood.  Wounded in the stomach and with her left arm shattered, she had to flee before she could bury her children.  She was nearly bombed again, while a relative was driving her to a hospital in Pakistan.  "They're bombing anything that moves," she said.  "It's not true that they bomb civilians by accident.  They're targeting the innocent people instead of Osama bin Laden."

Rukia covered her face and started to cry when asked what she wanted to tell the Americans about the loss of her 5 children.  She thought a while before responding: "Destroy, finish, terminate America."

Why disturb ourselves with reading articles about civilian deaths?  Isn't it better to console ourselves with the idea that even though children died, it was worth it because the bombing prevented more children from dying in the future?  I think many people feel this way.  That is one reason they support what they call war and what I call state terrorism.  And maybe they are right.  The problem is this: however pleasant the idea that "bombing is good", there is no evidence that supports it, in reality.  How does bombing defenseless civilians prevent terrorism or promote peace?  The past two months of bombing have not made our world a safer, more peaceful place to live in.  It has helped certain politicians, certain arms manufacturers, and promoted the philosophy of "might makes right".

But I don't really believe that people support the bombing because they think it will prevent children's deaths in the future.  I think, instead, that people support it because they are able to ignore the deaths of other people's children, and they are afraid.  Perhaps I'm wrong.  But there is definitely a strong correlation between refusing to acknowledge the suffering our bombing is causing other people, and support for the bombing.  Most people who support the bombing of Afghanistan have no idea how many civilians were killed by the bombing of Iraq, or the bombing of Viet Nam.  A Viet Nam war memorial showing the names of every civilian killed by the US in that war would be at least 40 times longer than the one in Washington.  But we don't want to know that, it's old small news.  That makes it easier for us to support bombing Afghanistan.

There is also an element of moral cowardice.  This is a dangerous subject to broach because maybe it represents my own version of self-righteousness.  It probably does.  However it seems true to me, so I'll say it.  I think many people support the bombing because they are afraid to speak out against it.  I think it takes moral courage to oppose the government during a war, and to speak out to your friends, family, co-workers, and daily acquaintances.  Instead it is so much easier to identify with the government leaders, to allow ourselves to be guided in our opinions by the mass media, and to pretend that we are being brave by supporting the bombing.

Our culture tells us all our lives that the heroes are the men who kill for the good cause.  But it takes no heroism to support war, absolutely none.  But men in particular like to think of themselves as possible heroes, that if necessary they will also have "the stomach" to kill.  It pleases their self-image to support the war, and to see themselves as "protecting" someone by killing others.  They can easily dismiss those who disagree as "peaceniks" who just do not understand.  A real man, in their view, must not get emotional and worry about the deaths of other people's children.  He must be mature and be willing to follow the leader and kill, and support killing with pious logic about "just war".  This is one way many men conform and support mass murder and pretend to themselves they are being brave by doing so.

I think most women who support the bombing do so because they are able to ignore the deaths it causes, and because they think "since politics are controlled by men, it's their responsibility."  Women seem to be less inclined to heroic fantasies about the necessity of war, perhaps because women and children are always the one who suffer the most in modern war.

However I think a lot of people, men and women, agree with me, but like me have little clue as to what to do about it.  Many people say we should, as citizens, act to restrain the military capacity of our government.  Our government wants to militarise space in order to have complete military hegemony over every other government in the world.  That is the plan according to the government document Vision 2020 published during the Clinton Administration.  On the front cover it says:

Dominating the Space Dimension of Military Operations to Protect US Interests and Investment

This is the meaning of the Missile Shield plan.  This is why President Bush is going to tear up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  Most governments do not want to militarise space.  They have voted against it in numerous United Nations resolutions.  But the US wants to do it, and probably will.

This brings me back to my question about measuring the moral level of our culture.  If we begin with a moral rule as old as humanity, common to all cultures and religions, '"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", we can ask ourselves to what degree we are following that moral rule.  But how can we follow this rule (supposing that we even want to) if we refuse to learn just what we are "doing" unto others?  We can first of all ignore the fact that our bombs are killing other people's children.  We can also rationalise it by repeating what our leaders say, who describe the deaths as "unintended consequences" of our bombing.  We can also refuse to name it what it is: state terrorism, mass murder.  If we ignore that we are "doing death" unto others, we will surely do nothing to prevent further deaths in the future.

Just how many deaths of other people's children are we willing to ignore, or to rationalise with words like "unintended consequences"?  One million?  Two million?  If the government tells us it is necessary, and the mass media makes the deaths small news, could we perhaps ignore the deaths of 10 million children?  Why not?  It's certainly possible, given our recent history.

Since WW II the United States has been regularly dropping bombs on civilians, killing lots of people and their children, in Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Panama, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, and many other places.  The US directed and supported Contras killed thousands of other people's children in Nicaraugua:

In 1989 the US invaded Panama to overthrow the former CIA agent, General Manuel Noriega - a man who had now become an enemy; 5,000 civilians were killed by American forces and buried in mass graves.  And in 1982 the US began funding the Contra war against the Sandinista government.  Corinto harbour was mined in 1984 and the court of world opinion recognised that the policy of the United States was that of a war criminal.

Nicaragua, now the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, has never recovered from that war.  There were 40,000 Nicaraguan dead, the innocent who were categorised as "soft targets".

That's part of the Nicaragua story.  The Afghanistan story goes something like this: in 1979 Jimmy Carter's Secretary of State Zbignew Brezinski authorised the training of foreign terrorists to fight in Afghanistan, to draw the Soviet Union into a "trap".  This was before the Soviet Union invaded the country.  After the invasion the CIA continued the massive financial aid and training for these Islamic extremists, most of whom came from Middle East.  Among those who answered the CIA's call was Osama bin Laden.  This CIA operation was the biggest in its long history of covert operations.  The Soviet Union was successfully driven out of Afghanistan but the country was devastated and the US, goal accomplished, did nothing to help rebuild the country.  Out of this devastation arose the warlords of the current Northern Alliance and also the Taleban.  The Taleban was supported by US allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and the US itself.  The US oil company Unocal negotiated with the Taleban, asking them to assist in the building of pipelines through the country.

However Osama bin Laden returned, after being driven from Sudan, and his new battle was directed against the US, apparently because of the US military bases in Saudi Arabia, his homeland.

So what is the justification for killing over 3,600 civilians, and putting hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation?  This was the news on 9 December:

More than seven million people out of an estimated population of 22 million are classified by aid organisations as being at "very high risk".

And from another source, on the same day:

Every night as the temperature dips well below zero, as many as 40 people die from cold and starvation.  In the six cemeteries scattered through the camp, many of the piles of stones marking graves are so tiny that it is clear most victims are children and babies.

Fifteen out of 19 of the September 11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia.  Not a single one was from Afghanistan.  Not a single one was a Taleban.  The 11 September terrorists have not even been proven to have visited Afghanistan.  The Taleban had agreed to negotiate an extradition of bin Laden, but the US government refused.  Perhaps the Taleban were lying, but we will never know.  Certainly they were a terrible government, but our government helped create them and helped create the foreign terrorists who were living in Afghanistan, and then it kills innocent civilians trying to destroy what they created, justifying this with the "war on terrorism".  And now there is no real government in Afghanistan, just a loose assortment of warlords.  And the Taleban are still there, they've just switched sides.

All this death, sadness and suffering.  President Bush says again and again we are "good".  He is confident that he knows our level of morality.  I'm not so sure.

We are killing other people's children and ignoring their deaths.

In fact we get upset if people bring up the subject.  We condemn people who call it "US terrorism".  For some reason when we kill other people's children it's not terrorism.  It's the "unintended consequences of a just cause."  When "they" do it, it's "evil."  If we are willing to do this what is our level of morality?  As I said at the beginning, this is a difficult question to answer, and I think it can be only answered as individuals, talking to ourselves.

The US government is currently taking the steps that greatly increase the possibility of nuclear war in the future.  The US government wants to be able to wage war on any country on the planet without the risk of counterattack, just like we now can bomb Afghanistan for months with little risk to our aircraft and almost no risk to our own people and territory.

It's very possible that the US Government will soon be able to kill every child on the planet who is not a US citizen, without any reprisal.  Many people in the US advocated using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan.  What is our level of morality?  Are we truly "good"?  How will we use our military power?  If we were willing to ignore the deaths of civilians in the past, and if we are willing to ignore the deaths of civilians now, what do you think our behaviour will be in the future?

Will civilian deaths in the future also be small news: other people's children?

Lawrence McGuire lives in France.  He can be reached at

Source of quotes in text:

  1. Published on Saturday 1 December 2001 in the Guardian of London:

US Planes Rain Death on the Innocent

"Precision" Raids Kill Residents in Capital City
by Rory McCarthy in Kabul

  1. Published on 10 December 2001 at

A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting

by Professor Marc W Herold PhD, MBA, BSc

  1. Published on Wednesday 28 November 2001 in the Christian Science Monitor:

Injustice Seen as Fertile Soil for Terrorists

by Peter Ford

  1. Published in the Winter 2001/2002 issue of YES! Magazine:

The Failure of War

by Wendell Berry

  1. Published in the 30 November 2001 Newark Star-Ledger:

For Many, Home Is a Blanket and the Food Is Weeds

by Farnaz Fassini

  1. Published on Sunday 16 December 2001 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Feeding the Hungry May Be the Prime Task of Peacekeepers

by Medea Benjamin

  1. Same as 6.
  2. Published on 6 December 2001 at

Opposing Sanctions on Iraq: An Interview with Hans von Sponeck

by Larry Everest

  1. Published on Friday 30 November 2001 by Reuters:

Going Backwards: US Wins Defeat of Depleted Uranium Study

by Irwin Arieff

  1. Published on Saturday 8 December 2001 in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Terminate America: Message From an Afghani Mother in Mourning

by Tasgola Karla Bruner in Quetta, Pakistan

  1. Published on Saturday 8 December 2001 in the Guardian of London:

Selective Justice: The US Has Been Sponsoring Terror in My Native Latin America for Decades

by Bianca Jagger

  1. Published 8 December 2001 in The Independent on Sunday (London):

Humanitarian Crisis: "Anarchy" Leaves 1,000,000 without Food

Conditions are worst in areas firmly under Northern Alliance control
by Imre Karacs

  1. Published 9 December 2001 in The Sunday Telegraph (UK):

They Call This "The Slaughterhouse"

by Christina Lamb

More Quotes:

Published on Tuesday 4 December 2001 in The Independent (London):

The River of Victims Runs through Another War

by Robert Fisk in Chaman

"From all over the countryside, there come stories of villages crushed by American bombs; an entire hamlet destroyed by B-52s at Kili Sarnad, 50 dead near Tora Bora, eight civilians killed in cars bombed by US jets on the road to Kandahar, another 46 in Lashkargah, 12 more in Bibi Mahru."

Published on Monday 3 December 2001 in the Independent (UK):

US Bombs Hit Wrong Target for Second Time in Two Days

by Richard Lloyd Parry in Jalalaba

"The American hunt for Osama bin Laden appeared to have gone tragically wrong for the second time in two days yesterday, when US bombers were reported to have killed scores of civilians in eastern Afghanistan as well as friendly mujahedin fighters supporting their battle against al-Qa'ida.  A senior mujahedin commander said US strikes killed more than 100 civilians around Agam, 25 miles south of Jalalabad, on top of at least 70 killed in air raids on Saturday night."

Published on Sunday 2 December 2001 by Agence France Presse:

15 Killed as US Mistakes Private Jeep for Military Vehicle: Victim

"Fifteen villagers, including nine children, were killed in a bombing raid on a hamlet in which US forces appeared to have mistaken an ageing jeep for a military vehicle, the owner said.  Mohammed Khan, who arrived here from Kandahar for hospital treatment to his wounded arms and legs, said that 5 of his children were killed when the hamlet was attacked on Tuesday.

All five houses which made up the hamlet between Kandahar airport and the city were demolished in the raid.  A neighbour lost four children in the attack, Khan said."

Published in December 2001 in The Nation:

The Loyal Opposition: Denying the Dead

In Pentagon Reports of Afghan Dead, Truth is the First Casualty
by David Corn, Washington editor

"But as he [Donald Rumsfeld] was talking, Washington Post reporter Susan Glasser was filing a piece based on a visit to Jalalabad's Public Hospital Number 1.  In the previous four days, the hospital had taken in 36 patients who said they were victims of the US bombing strikes targeting villages southwest of Jalalabad, in an area where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda remnants are thought to be hiding in cave compounds.  The hospital had also received 35 dead.  One of the injured was Noor Mohammed, who had lost both eyes and both arms.  Noor, who is somewhere between 10 and 12 years old, told his uncle he heard the sound of an airplane overhead, ran from his room, and did not know what happened next.  Asked how he felt, the boy whispered, "I feel cold and I cannot talk."  Glasser found other wounded children from families who claimed they had been struck by bombs while in their mud houses."

Published on Sunday 9 December 2001 in The Sunday Telegraph (UK):

They call this "The Slaughterhouse"

by Christina Lamb

"A dirty grey blanket on the hard desert ground is all that is home for Bibi Gul and her family in the new Afghanistan.  "The sky is my roof and the earth is my floor," she said, gesturing across the dust-swept plains toward the minarets of the ancient city of Herat.  But the words from her chapped swollen lips are of bitterness rather than romance.  It is more than a week since she and her five children had their last meal - a begged bowl of rice - and on Friday she woke to find her two-year-old son Tahir stiff and cold, frozen to death in the rain.

While the West celebrates the surrender of Kandahar and the collapse of the Taliban, here in Maslakh camp in western Afghanistan there is no celebratory slaughtering of goats or distribution of sweets, but only weeping and funerals.  It is a place that has been largely ignored by Western governments and aid agencies; harrowing images of the starving and dying have not been seen in the world's newspapers or on television because journalists and camera crews have been elsewhere in Afghanistan, concentrating on the war.  But because it hasn't been seen in its vivid awfulness doesn't lessen the terrible suffering that goes on here.

Every night as the temperature dips well below zero, as many as 40 people die from cold and starvation.  In the six cemeteries scattered through the camp, many of the piles of stones marking graves are so tiny that it is clear most victims are children and babies.

Source: 20 December 2001 photo credit Associated Press

When the Body Doesn't Count

Scott MacLeod

The call of nature drew Khalil Rahman from his home just after the B-52 bombers started their pass over his village.  In the early morning darkness of the remote area, 50km southwest of Jalalabad, Mr Rahman could not see the bellies of the mighty United States aircraft split open and release 25 bombs into the cold air.  But he did hear one of the 450kg bombs slam into his home, killing 12 relatives.  He also heard the other bombs as they cut a swathe through the other houses, killing more than 100 of the village's 300 residents.

It was December 1 last year when the US-led war on terrorism came to Kama Ado.  Fifteen hours later, when accusations of the latest civilian deaths filtered back to the West, Marine Corps spokesman Major Brad Lowell said simply: "It just did not happen."  But journalists who visited the village and found huge bomb craters, smashed houses, scattered children's shoes, dead cows and sheep and graves swear it did.  Which raises the questions - how many civilians really have died in the US bombing of Afghanistan and why have we heard so little about them?

A study by New Hampshire professor Marc Herold says 3,767 civilians died in the first nine weeks of bombing.  The toll, he says, is now well over 4,000.  If his figures are correct, the civilian death toll in Afghanistan has passed the 2,996 killed in the September 11 attacks that started the war in the first place.  US defence officials dispute the study's findings, but Professor Herold says his figures are conservative and has accused the military and US media of under-reporting the civilian death toll.

His report, A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting, is essentially a count of deaths reported in news stories.  The first civilian casualties are given as 20 - killed on the night of October 7-8 when at least two cruise missiles hit Kabul suburbs.  The sources are seven newspapers, including the India Express, Irish Times and Guardian.

The worst bombing raid is given in a list titled "Seven Days of Ignominy".  The farming village of Karam, west of Jalalabad, was bombed until 45 of 60 mud huts were destroyed and at least 160 civilians killed.

Are Professor Herold's estimates accurate?  It is hard to tell.  The Herald checked sources he gave for the Kama Ado massacre, in which he estimated 100 people died.  Some minor discrepancies exist between Professor Herold's account and some newspaper reports.  But the most convincing story - by Independent reporter Richard Lloyd Parry, who visited the scene - put the death toll at 115.  In the Kama Ado case, Professor Herold's claim that his estimates are "conservative" may be correct.

Professor Herold admits to having an agenda.  He opposes the bombing, accuses the government of cover-up tactics, and claims the military uses "differential values" for human life - it would rather kill many Afghans than lose one American.  But some of his strongest criticism is levelled at the mainstream media in the US, which he says bowed to official pressure to under-report the casualties, and at media in other countries that run copies of the US stories without questioning them.  "In the aftermath of September 11th in this country, people were angry, scared and confused," he told the Herald by e-mail.  "To sound any note of questioning or discord was regrettably branded as unpatriotic.  The mainstream media gave up its role of being a critical, investigative and independent source of information."

Not surprisingly, Professor Herold's Afghanistan death toll has been challenged by the Pentagon.  A major at the US defence headquarters, who would identify himself only as "a spokesman", said the American military went to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian deaths.  He said it was hard to work out how many people were dying and pointed out that the number of people killed in the New York attack was initially thought to be 10,000 before dropping below 3,000.  "Many reports out of the region have been highly suspect, with some merely repeating the Taleban's lies," he said.  "Historically, we do not track our enemy or civilian deaths.  It is breathtaking that anyone at this point could claim to have done so with any accuracy."

Professor Herold's claim that the American media have deliberately underplayed civilian casualties in the war is supported by several other sources, including the Poynter Institute, a US journalism school and think-tank.  It recounts on its website one of the most celebrated journalism cover-ups of the war to date - a memo to staff at Florida's Panama City News Herald last October.  "DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U S war on Afghanistan," it read.  "Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening emails."  The memo also warns staff against highlighting the civilian death toll.  "DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan.  They should be mentioned further down in the story.  If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT.  The only exception is if the US hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children."

While the News Herald is an extreme example, other more prominent American media have expressed the same reservations about fully reporting the war carnage.  A top news host on Fox News, a channel attacked by many liberals for its willingness to back the Bush Administration, has questioned whether the media should give much weight to the death toll in Afghanistan.  "Civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really," said Brit Hume.  "Should they be as big news as they've been?"  And the head of CNN, Walter Isaacson, has said that it would be "perverse" to give too much coverage to civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

A Washington Post story cited by Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch programme mentioned censorship and double-standards in some reporting.  The story said the US often used Arab station Al-Jazeera to communicate with the Muslim world - but Osama bin Laden's video statements were "all but blacked out on American television".

In Slate magazine, Timothy Noah said one result was that George W Bush had escaped much criticism over his call for a "crusade" against bin Laden (which accidentally conjured up historical images of Christians slaughtering Muslims) because few Americans realised bin Laden was exploiting it in his video broadcasts.

Professor Herold praised media from some "neutral" countries for exposing much of the truth of the bombing but said other neutral media should play a bigger role.  He said the Sydney Morning Herald, which was one source for his civilian death count, did an "admirable" job, but said New Zealand could have made more of an effort to send reporters.

The head of journalism at New Plymouth's Western Institute of Technology, Jim Tucker, said US media tended to "toe the party line" when reporting wars.  It was hard for them to report properly because military spin-doctors were experts at orchestrating coverage to the point that "you don't know what the hell is going on".  Mr Tucker, a former editor of the Auckland Star, said it often took years for the truth to emerge from a war.

Canterbury University's head of mass communications and journalism, Jim Tully, said it was natural for US media to report the war from their own nation's point of view.  "I think one of the problems in New Zealand is that we rely on a narrow range of sources for our news," he said.  "We don't invest in sending journalists there, but it's very expensive and the New Zealand involvement is small with our SAS troops."  Mr Tully said New Zealand journalists would be much more involved if the war was happening closer to home.  Both he and Mr Tucker questioned whether Professor Herold could guarantee his figures were more accurate than anybody else's.

But despite claims by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he could imagine no other conflict in history when there had been less "collateral damage", there remains little doubt that many innocent people are dying in Afghanistan, just as thousands died in New York in September.  Professor Herold's report includes a section titled "Voices From Afghanistan", which conveys some of the everyday human toll.  It quotes a Kandahar hospital worker, who says: "Bombs were hitting people's houses and they injured or killed lots of innocent people.  I saw about 50 people who died.  Everyone is looking to the sky and waiting and thinking when will the American aircraft come and start killing them."

Despite US radio broadcasts, many Afghans seem to have little idea why they are being bombed.  An ironmonger from the small town of Hojibahodin says: "Bin Laden killed many donkeys and many people and animals, and they killed [Northern Alliance leader] Masood.  That's why they're attacking."  For some the legacy of the bombing is simply fear.  One Kabul resident says: "I have a baby child, one-and-a-half years old.  Even she is afraid of the plane sounds and bombing, and runs towards me and hugs me when the planes come over."

Source: 17 January 2002

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