The War in Context
     Iraq - war on terrorism - Middle East conflict : critical perspectives

Freedom from guilt doesn't imply freedom from blame
Paul Woodward, The War in Context, December 8, 2003

"We can do no wrong" is an idea that seems to be deeply embedded in the American psyche. This vanity of purity cleans many a conscience that would otherwise be heavily burdened with guilt.

More than a jealous regard for American freedom having poisoned any foreigner's mind, those who witness this professed American innocence used as a cloak to conceal barbarity are being driven into a righteous anger that no expression of regret can extinguish.

As was widely reported (New York Times, BBC) around the world this weekend, an American airstrike ripped apart an Afghan village and slaughtered nine children. Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, who traveled to the village after the attack was later reported as saying that the surviving villagers had been "understanding" and that "they've been through years of war. They're not happy, but I think it meant a great deal to them that my commander, Gen. [Lloyd] Austin, came out and personally expressed his condolences."

CNN reported this under the headline "Afghans understand deaths - U.S." and referred to "the apparent deaths of nine children in an American airstrike". While the US military is never quick to accept its mistakes, and while it may express regrets but rarely assumes responsibility, CNN is not duty bound to march in lockstep with the Pentagon line. By inserting the qualification "apparent", CNN hesitated from simply reporting that the children were killed by the bombing. This, when two hours earlier the BBC had already reported that "US forces have admitted mistakenly killing nine children."

CNN neglected to report that the declared target of the attack, Mullah Wazir, a former low-ranking member of the Taliban, was neither present in the village, nor was his house hit. The claim that Wazir had left ten days earlier came from the villagers and had been reported by the BBC. CNN might regard the Pentagon as a more reliable source of information, but in this case neither CNN, the Pentagon or anyone else, can claim that the airstrike was based on reliable and accurate intelligence. (That the military spokesman described their intelligence as "clear and actionable" appears to simply be an attempt to create the latitude for concluding that this was an honest mistake for which no one can be held culpable.)

CNN showed a picture of Afghan men viewing the children's graves, though the photo carried a caption saying "Afghan men walk past the children's graves at a cemetery" (emphasis added). Since we had been told that the villagers were "understanding", was the photo meant to suggest that, philosophical about their loss, the war-weary Afghans were already moving on?

CNN's follow-up report 3 hours 40 minutes later, reiterated the Pentagon's doubts by reporting that "nine children have been found dead near the site of an airstrike on a suspected terrorist's position in Afghanistan." Does CNN share the Pentagon's doubt about the cause of death?

CNN has subsequently failed to report that the UN has called for an inquiry into the attack.

As a footnote to today's report on Operation Avalanche (described as "the largest ground operation yet in Afghanistan"), CNN now quotes Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty as saying "we accept blame" for the deaths of the children. The report continues:

"We offer our condolences to the village, but I will tell you the surveillance video shows no children there. But we're not trying to avoid blame in this."

He said an investigation will clarify what happened to the children.

"The biggest thing is we want to express our condolences no matter what happened," Hilferty said.

Additionally, he said witness accounts from villagers indicated that the man who was killed was not the intended target, but DNA tests on the body have not been concluded.

"It could be a different person but still be a very bad person, so we can't come to any conclusion yet until the investigation," Hilferty said.


That's what I call a mixed message.

We're to blame - but we didn't see the children...

"...no matter what happened" - perhaps we weren't to blame after all...

We might have killed the wrong guy, but what's it matter if he happened to be a bad guy...

The bottom line: If an American bomb falls on your house, be assured, it was dropped with the best of intentions.

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2003 Paul Woodward