"Collateral" Casualties Are Escalating the Cost of the War

By Helena Cobban. Helena Cobban is scholar-in-residence . | The Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

"Collateral" Casualties Are Escalating the Cost of the War


Helena Cobban. Helena Cobban is scholar-in-residence ., The Christian Science Monitor


"SORRY, mister, I didn't mean to break your window; the ball just came off the bat that way." "Sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean to kill your baby, but you live very near that weapons factory."

One broken window. What number of civilians killed in Iraq? These are what the military likes to call "collateral" casualties.

Theologians are right when they make an issue of whether civilians become casualties in war intentionally or not. There is something grotesque about Saddam Hussein's explicit targeting of civilians in Israel and Saudi Arabia. But short of clear-cut intent, there is a whole further spectrum of relative attention or inattention to collateral casualties in wartime.

Judged from this point of view, many of the facilities targeted during the first weeks of the war were ill-chosen. Consider those video images that our military proudly gave us during those first days - our tax dollars at work, blowing up Iraqi power plants. Those plants, we were told, were part of the Iraqi war machine. Well yes, a proportion of their output doubtless did fuel Saddam's weapons factories. But a further portion played an essential part in Iraq's civilian life, including pumping Baghdad's water system. Inevitably, blowing up the plants caused damage to the civilian economy and threatened Baghdad's public health.

Were the human and political costs of this action weighed against its possible military benefits?

And how about this: The world's largest nuclear-weapons power attacks research reactors whose safeguards were recently verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Did anyone consider the damage to the integrity of the global non-proliferation regime that might result from that action, which had no relationship at all to the military situation in and around Kuwait?

We cannot yet begin to quantify much of the "collateral" damage caused by the way the administration chose to wage this war. We still have no good numbers for Iraq's civilian casualties. We have no idea what the war will cost the world, in political terms, over the months and years to come. Baltic independence? Democratization in China? America's relations with Arab and other third-world nations? Hopes for balanced relations between the world's northern "haves" and its largely southern "have-nots? …

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