Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

by Bob Schwartz

In the vocabulary of war, no term is darker or more chilling than “collateral damage.”

There was last week collateral damage in our war in Afghanistan, where a Doctors Without Borders hospital was the target of aggressive American airstrikes. A number were killed and injured, including children, and the hospital was destroyed.

The few facts, besides the destruction, are these.

Collateral damage is unavoidable, though it can and should be minimized.

The Taliban has overtaken the area, though not the hospital.

We are engaged in supporting the Afghan fight against the Taliban, by, for example, air strikes.

Hospital personnel contacted the U.S. military after the barrage began, but it continued anyway.

Now for the rest of the story, which the Pentagon tried to correct this morning.

Early reports were that the U.S. itself called for the air strikes.

Not so, says the Pentagon. It was the Afghans who identified the target as a Taliban position, and then we conducted the airstrikes.

Don’t you see the difference? The difference, of course, being some sort of operational and moral distinction, being entirely responsible for a tragic and avoidable error versus being only mostly responsible for a tragic and avoidable error. Now we see.

It isn’t really about the particulars anyway. It’s about the need for unceasing realization that if you choose war, you choose its worst impacts. The calculus can’t just include the big win and big benefits—assuming there are any—so that those cancel out the ill you do. It doesn’t work that way. So when and if we choose war, it is never illegitimate to keep the costs constantly in mind. In fact, it is always immoral and ill-advised not to.

Otherwise, you might end up with millions of underserved and nearly abandoned veterans. Or a badly damaged economy. Or a dispirited and skeptical nation. Or some of the world’s most selfless health workers in one of the world’s most needy countries watching as their patients and their hospital die and burn.

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