Do Civilians Count? Vietnam and AfPak

05/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The latest twist in our dubious 'war on terror' is that we aren't killing enough civilians. This is the conclusion of several analyses that find restrictions on military operations hobbling our mission. In this vein, the august New York Times published a solicited, uncommonly long op-ed by some 'expert' last week making this case with brutal frankness. (She since has been revealed as a flack for a defense consulting outfit who just graduated from Georgetown).

In Vietnam, one tactic for dealing with the dilemma was to declare 'free fire zones.' These were large swaths of territory within which anything living was presumed the enemy. Anything dead was also presumed to be the enemy. Saturation bombing and random shelling therefore were acceptable. Back in those days, the inhabitants were given fair warning. Leaflet drops informed them that they should alert relatives in neighboring districts to expect guests who would welcome hospitality for an indefinite period.

A more selective, maverick approach to garnering actionable intelligence was to take two VC captives for a helicopter joy ride. After one of them had been kicked through the hatch at 500 feet, a gentle inquisition began of the suddenly loquacious other prisoner. At times, it was necessary to take up a threesome. Too many VC valued their cause more than their lives.

Today, we up-to-date post-moderns use more refined tactics. We identify 'the enemy' by means of sophisticated monitoring devices and computer data banks. Instead of clearing whole zones, we pinpoint compounds or small villages. That's progress. We give no advance warning, though. That is not progress. Of course, civilian casualties are inadvertent since we presume that Precision Guided Munitions are highly discriminating. So somebody in Florida or Nevada sets aside his Diet Coke, and 'clicks here' in full confidence that our drone can eliminate the suspect groom at a Pashtun wedding ceremony while leaving the bride more-or-less intact. Progress, if the system worked perfectly. Not progress in actuality, since it doesn't.

As for the acquisition of actionable intelligence, this too has become more systematic and sophisticated. We now use refined techniques based on the 'Chi-com' torture manuals of Korean War vintage to which we've added a few novel techniques of our own. A corps of psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, and medical doctors lend their specialized knowledge to the patriotic task. This is not progress. Especially so, since a very large fraction of those tortured are innocents swept up hither, thither and yon. Under Stanley McChrystal, there supposedly is greater awareness of the practical -- if not moral -- costs of our standard modus operandi. But nothing has changed on the ground -- one way or the other. There are three reasons why continuation of current practices and policies is inevitable.

Force protection trumps everything else. Commanders will never put at direct risk their soldiers just to reduce the risks of civilian casualties. That is one. Americans believe that we are engaged in a holy war against forces that are evil incarnate. Our cause has been hallowed by 9/11. A country that countenances torture ordered from on high (the Justice Department's legal advisers, after all, were "in a hurry" and moved by "anxious worries" -- according to the department's Inspector General who exculpated them), just doesn't care very much about collateral damage in places they knowing nothing of -- even if a small fraction can locate them on a map. That is two. Stanley McChrystal won a star as commandant of Camp Cropper on the outskirts of Baghdad where torture was institutionalized in May 2010. That's three. His visage appearing frequently on Afghan television offering apologies lacks something in credibility.

The killing -- of us and them -- will go on so long as our masters set the imperative national goal of liquidating the last would-be, or could-be terrorist -- or an enabler of a terrorist, e.g. the Taliban.