can't just forget about dead Afghan civilians
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
fax: (512) 471-7979
copyright Robert Jensen and Rahul Mahajan 2001
Houston Chronicle, December 21, 2001.
alsoposted on Common
Dreams web site.
by Robert Jensen and Rahul Mahajan
How many civilians have died in the United States’ attack on Afghanistan?
Military officials assert that high-tech weapons and precision bombing have
kept that number low. Reports of civilian casualties -- whether coming from
the Taliban or independent observers -- are routinely dismissed by the Pentagon
as fabrications or exaggerations. U.S. journalists sometimes offer estimates
of civilian deaths after a particular bombing raid, always cautioning that
the reports can’t be confirmed.
In the foreign press, however, the question is more prominent, and regular
reports of heavy civilian casualties as a result of the U.S. bombing have
fueled anti-American sentiment around the world.
Given these conflicting accounts, one might think a carefully documented
study by an independent American researcher might be of great interest. One
might expect U.S. reporters to be clamoring for a copy and requesting interviews
with the study’s author.
But in terms of mainstream news interest, it was a quiet week in Durham,
NH, Marc Herold’s hometown.
On Dec.10, the University of New Hampshire professor released his finding
that at least 3,767 Afghan civilians had died in the first 8 ½ weeks
of the war. With some help from media activists, a news release was faxed
to the major print and broadcast media. Follow-up calls were made to journalists.
Herold’s report was posted on the Internet, along with the database
he had compiled, for easy access.
One week later, readers could find coverage of Herold’s studies on
a few independent web sites and an Internet radio program. But a search of
the two major databases for U.S. newspapers and television news programs
turned up no mention of his work.
Why does this matter? Herold, a professor of economics and women’s
studies, said the lack of coverage of “the carnage on the ground”
has shaped the public’s perception of the fighting.
“The war has been presented to the American people as a techno-video
war in which smart bombs always hit their targets. In other words, the bad
guys die and none of the good guys do,” said Herold, whose research
and teaching focuses on third-world economic and social development. “But
there have been a significant number of civilian casualties.”
Herold is a critic of the war with progressive politics, but his estimate
of civilian deaths is, if anything, overly conservative. Aware that his methodology
would be scrutinized, he relied on reports from official news agencies, major
newspapers around the world, and first-hand accounts, seeking cross-corroboration
whenever possible. When precise figures weren’t available, he did not
arbitrarily plug in numbers, and he also did not use estimates of the indirect
deaths that result when, for example, bombing shuts down a hospital. As a
result, Herold’s number likely is an undercount; he estimates 5,000
civilian deaths in those weeks is probably closer to the truth.
By the conventional standards of newsworthiness listed (such as timeliness,
relevance to audience, impact), Herold’s study is not only news but
reasonably big news. It sheds light on a subject of great moral, political,
and strategic importance that has been undercovered in the mainstream U.S.
Even if one takes issue with his final count, at the very least Herold’s
report could jump start a conversation that should have been front and center
from the beginning: Was a war necessary? Were there more effective ways to
try to end terrorism than a war that has killed a large number of civilians
-- now as least as many innocents as died in the Sept. 11 attacks?
Herold’s data should lead us to a fuller discussion of a number of
questions: How precise are our precision weapons, which account for about
60 percent of the bombs being dropped? What about the effects of the conventional
“dumb” bombs that make up the other 40 percent? What are the
effects on civilians of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs, which
Human Rights Watch has argued should be banned? Are the military’s
methods an indication that U.S. planners simply don’t value the lives
of Third World people?
Administration officials and military officers no doubt want to downplay
civilian casualties to avoid undermining support for the war. But it is disappointing
that journalists -- who claim to be the watchdogs of government -- have not
covered Herold’s study and the crucial issues it raises.
For a copy of Herold’s report and supporting data, go to http://www.media-alliance.org.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and
Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Analysis from the Margins to the Mainstream
." Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action and is author
of the forthcoming The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism. Both
are members of the Nowar Collective
. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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