How Should Civilian Deaths Affect the Politics of War?


The innocents killed in Afghanistan and elsewhere often go unmentioned in domestic debate about America's conflicts abroad 

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Reacting to recent news that "six children were among seven civilians killed in a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan," Glenn Greenwald writes, "the U.S. devastated these families forever and ended these children's lives in a region where even U.S. officials say that there is a grand total of two Al Qaeda leaders and the group is 'operationally ineffective.'" It's a tragedy, whatever you think of the war there.

Here's what Greenwald thinks:

We're trained simply to accept these incidents as though they carry no meaning: we're just supposed to chalk them up to regrettable accidents (oops), agree that they don't compel a cessation to the war, and then get back to the glorious fighting. Every time that happens, this just becomes more normalized, less worthy of notice. It's just like background noise: two families of children wiped out by an American missile (yawn: at least we don't target them on purpose like those evil Terrorists: we just keep killing them year after year after year without meaning to).

It's acceptable to make arguments that American wars should end because they're costing too much money or American lives or otherwise harming American strategic interests, but piles of corpses of innocent children are something only the shrill, shallow and unSerious -- pacifists! -- point to as though they have any meaning in terms of what should be done.

Is he right?

If you're someone who favors the war in Afghanistan, is there any number of civilian deaths that would persuade you that it's a moral imperative to bring American troops home? If so, what is that number? My intuition is that this would factor into the moral calculus of the average American. At the same time, I must admit that civilian casualty figures from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan aren't often invoked as a reason to change our policies toward those countries.

It seems fair to presume that every war will result in inadvertent civilian casualties. So unless  you're a pacifist who rejects all wars, I'm curious: When politicians are arguing that we should launch a war, or continue to wage one, what weight do you assign to the innocent lives that will end?

With regard to Afghanistan, it's a hard hypothetical to tackle. Like Jon Huntsman, I'm sure that the future of American foreign policy isn't in Afghanistan. Like Newt Gingrich, I think that among Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the last country is least important to American interests. Like Gary Johnson, I see no reason to believe that staying in Afghanistan for one or five or 10 more years will improve the outcome for us or the Afghan people when we leave. Like Ron Paul, I think we can't afford all that we're spending on foreign occupations, given our huge deficit and struggling economy. So I'd want to end the war in Afghanistan even if innocent women and children weren't being inadvertently but regularly killed. Among people who think the war in Afghanistan is generally a good idea, how do you factor in the dead civilians? Do you pay attention to them? How do you think America ought to factor them into our war-making?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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