At least nine hundred people, maybe half of them civilians, have been killed in Gaza so far, the overwhelming majority presumably killed by Israel (some people, more than we probably know right now, have been killed by Hamas, mainly Fatah activists in revenge killings). This number, nine hundred, is large, and it brought to mind another conflict between a Western army and a Muslim insurgency, the one portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." Roughly one thousand Somalis were killed by American forces over the twenty hours or so of the First Battle of Mogadishu (eighteen American soldiers, of course, were also killed).
I couldn't get an accurate read on how many of those Somalis were civilians, so I called my colleague, Mark Bowden, who wrote the book. He said that eighty percent of the Somali deaths were of civilian. Eighty percent! Roughly eight hundred people. I asked Bowden if he thought this meant that American forces in Somalia had committed war crimes. Andrew has been leading an interesting discussion about whether or not Israeli actions in Gaza constitute war crimes, and I've been trying to place Israeli actions in a broader context. Bowden agreed to help me by providing his own understanding of civilian deaths in asymmetric warfare. Here's some of what he had to say:
"If you feel the need to go to war against an enemy that is not as powerful as you are, one of the tactics of the weaker party is to hide among civilians, and use the global media to advertise the horror of the onslaught. People on the receiving end of the bombs greatly exaggerate the casualties and get photographers to take the most gruesome of pictures, and at the same time, the people in charge of the stronger power try to minimize the number of casualties. If you live in a democracy, then public opinion really matters, and reports of dead children swells the criticism of the war. If you live in a dictatorship, then you don't care what the people think. Israel is a democracy and it cares about the way the rest of the world feels. It gets hurt by killing civilians, so for moral and practical reasons, they're trying very hard to avoid it."
"I believe that culpability for these casualties is very much with Hamas. Take this leader, Nizar Rayyan, who was killed with many of his children. He knew he was a target. If I knew that I was a target, I sure as hell wouldn't have my children near me. It's a horrible and cynical choice he made. But if your enemy is a sophisticated manipulator of public opinion, then this is one of the many downsides of choosing to go to war. Israel knows that."
"The parallel with Mogadishu is that gunmen in that battle hid behind walls of civilians and were aware of the restraint of the (Army) Rangers. These gunmen literally shot over the heads of civilians, or between their legs. They used women and children for this. It's mind-boggling. Some of the Rangers shot civilians, some of them inadvertently and some of them advertently. They made the choice to shoot at crowds. When a ten-year-old is running at your vehicle with an AK-47, do you shoot the kid? Yes, you shoot the kid. You have to survive. When push comes to shove, faced with the horrible dilemma with a gunman facing you, yes, you shoot. It's not just a choice about your own life. If you don't shoot, you're saying that your mission isn't important, and the lives of your fellow soldiers aren't important."