Accidents Can Happen

Dead Civilians and Other Minor Risks of War

If there was one piece of propaganda I found hard to swallow, it was the claim that these strikes would not kill any civilians. Tony Blair had stressed the point, and Dan Rather reported dutifully that the attack was "designed with care and precision to avoid civilian casualties." But as the day wore on, it became clear that we had hit Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Kabul—an airport here, an oil depot there—and it was still impossible to know exactly where the bombs fell.

By 4:30 or so, CNN's Judy Woodruff was on air, perfectly coiffed and ready for battle. When she asked CNN's resident generals Wesley Clark and Don Shepperd to explain how a strategy of "carpet bombing" could be expected to spare innocent lives, the hype began to unravel. "I am confident" that we are not targeting civilian areas, said Clark, and Shepperd agreed: "In no case will the U.S. attack civilians intentionally." When Woodruff pressed, Clark finally caved, saying, "Accidents can happen."

Around the same time, CNN was broadcasting footage that appeared to show return attacks by the Taliban, and an interview with a Taliban spokesman who claimed that his troops had shot down one of our planes. The Pentagon denied any U.S. lives had been lost, but the next day, the Taliban claimed that about 20 civilians had died—a small number, but blood on our hands nonetheless. And that, as MSNBC's Brian Williams explained Sunday night, is to be expected during wartime, until they invent a missile that hurts only buildings and leaves people standing.

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