"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why what words mean matters

In the neatest bit of spin since some PR hack coined the term "collateral damage" for dead and wounded civilian bystanders, NATO now appears to be trying to convince us that murdering civilians is something for which no one is responsible - and most in the press seem to lazy to call them on it.

Exhibit A from AFP (emphasis mine):

Five Afghan civilians accidentally killed in airstrike: NATO
(AFP) – 20 hours ago
KABUL — Five Afghan civilians were accidentally killed and two others injured in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan, NATO said Monday, in an incident unrelated to a major US-led anti-Taliban operation.
The deaths were accidental, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said, adding that the victims had been mistaken for insurgents planting improvised bombs.
"An ISAF airstrike against suspected insurgents accidentally killed five and wounded two civilians in the Zhari district of Kandahar province today," ISAF said in a statement.

An accident - as in "whoops, clumsy me, sorry about that! Could have happened to anyone. Completely unintentional, I assure you."


This was not an accident. The bombs and missiles used didn't just happen to fall off the jets due to a loose bolt and happen to fall on this group of people by random chance. The pilot didn't unknowingly lean on the trigger of his guns while trying to find a dropped map or something like that. These people were targeted and killed by professional military pilots under orders to attack them. It was not an accident. If it had happened to a group of civilian workers on military firing range in the United States or Canada, the pilot would be facing murder charges.

An accident is an error involving random chance that occurs without any intent to do harm to the people involved. People don't get held responsible for accidents, because they are no one's fault and malicious intent is not a factor.

I'm not saying accidents don't happen on the battlefield, they do. Twelve people were accidently killed in an airstrike the previous day when U.S. pilots fire a pair of missiles into a house full of civilians. In this case, the pilots were trying to kill some Taliban, but missed the target. Now, admittedly they missed the target by 600m, but they didn't mean to blow up the house they hit. It was an understandable, if extremely unfortunate, accident. Oopsy!

A Canadian soldier died in a training accident just the other day on the firing range. It doesn't make his death any less horrible for his family, but he wasn't targeted for death by anyone in this case.

The aforemention airstrike was not an accident, it was a mistake. Whoever identified the target and called in the airstrike made a mistake, either through negligence or incompetence or garbled communication. Someone thought the people killed were Taliban planting a IED. They were not, and the airstrike was called in on bad information.

Mistakes happen on the battlefield, just as they do everywhere. Soldiers, despite what you may see on American television and conservative blogs, are no closer to perfection than anyone else. Friendly fire incidents have cost lives in every war and people make mistakes. Depending on the size of the mistake, sometimes people have to be held responsible. When it is a matter of people losing their lives, someone needs to be called to account - not only to figure out how the mistake occurred so that it can be prevented in the future, but to show that mistakes are taken seriously and carelessness will not be tolerated.

This applies whether you are talking about typos in a newspaper, filing errors in a medical clinic or hockey player who not playing to his potential. A minor typo in the paper isn't worth firing someone over, but if they consistently get the facts wrong or libel someone out of carelessness or negligence, they are going to cost the newspaper a lot of money and damage its credibility. A lost file in a medical clinic has the potential to be a very serious problem and a clerk who regularly loses files is not going to kept on the job for long. A hockey player who is constantly caught out of position or who takes stupid penalties or fails to execute plays properly is going to be benched at best or cut from the team.

This airstrike was not an accident, it was another in a long series of deadly mistakes that are turning the population of Afghanistan against the West. It is understandable that the military would do their best to protect their own and try to remove the blame by calling this an accident. It is unforgivable for the press to do so.

Update: Lousy intelligence, errors by forward observers or just a pilot who thought his job was to stop anything moving on the roads account for another 27 to 33 civilian lives in Afghanistan, but it's okay, because Gen. McChrystal feels really bad about it and stuff, so there is no need to do anything like halt the use of airstrikes without visual confirmation of an enemy target.


Our Man in Abiko said...

Yep. Methinks a more apt word would be "fuckup".

As in "the whole Afghan fuckup is a complete and utter fuckup which anyone who had ever typed 'history of Afghanistan' into google would have known instantly." But then, you rarely see that level of accuracy in the papers.

BTW, Our Man nicked your rather nifty revolving map for himself, but accidently didn't say thanks.


Sorry for the mistake.

Unknown said...

Ourman, that is more in the way of an oversight. And in six weeks I will be joining you in ex-hackdom.

Our Man in Abiko said...

Congratulations. What gives?