Thursday, March 14, 2002

Body count
I just said that most errors in newspaper coverage are corrected promptly. I believe that's true. This isn't one of those errors.

Dr Mark Herold, of the University of New Hampshire, has published estimated figures of Afghan civilian casualties, and he'll tell you how he arrived at them: The count has been challenged by, among others, Iain Murray at Tech Central Station.

A lot of media outlets are picking up Dr Herold's numbers, either because they sympathize with the anti-war groups that are using those numbers to promote their cause, or perhaps because they simply don't know the numbers are contested. When a newspaper reports any ideologically-biased set of statistics as The Truth, it produces the most insidious kind of lie -- because the newspaper report becomes source material for dissertations, term papers, and subsequent reports for decades to come.

Newspapers have no greater responsibility than to Get It Right. I believe that corrections are the single most important thing any newspaper publishes, and if it were within my power to require it, they would always be placed on the front page. I don't expect 'em to be perfect, just open and honest.

It seems to me that a few truths are incontestible, and have not yet been mentioned in this context. Allow me.

When you're fighting an enemy that dresses like civilians, hides behind civilians, and intentionally targets civilians, you're going to get civilian casualties.

You're going to inflict some of those casualties yourself. Your enemies are going to inflate those numbers however they can, either by lying to the press or by killing more people and blaming you. They don't care: They know you do.

When a conflict exists between American and Afghan counts of civilian casualties, I can think of no reason to assume that the Afghan counts are right.

By the least friendly interpretation of the casualty numbers, America is still responsible for fewer civilian casualties than her enemies are -- far fewer, when viewed as a ratio of civilian-to-military casualties.

The only alternative is not to fight. That's the alternative we've been choosing for the last ten years. It hasn't worked.

LATER: Ethics question: Let us say, as seems likely, "noncombatants" helped Osama bin Laden escape from Afghanistan. If they had been killed in the attempt, would they be counted as civilians or military casualties?

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