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Civilian Deaths and Official Apologies

It may reflect a purely humanitarian concern for civilian life, or perhaps a more calculated apprehension of what commentators have dubbed the “al-Jazeera effect” – the fact that images of civilian death and suffering in Iraq will further inflame an already angry Muslim world. Whether for altruistic or strategic reasons, or a combination of both, President George W. Bush has repeatedly promised that U.S. military forces will take all necessary steps to minimize the number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war.

“I want Americans and all the world to know,” Bush declared in a radio address on Saturday, that U.S. and allied forces “will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm.”

But President Bush and his top military brass have also acknowledged that civilian deaths are inevitable. Baghdad, currently under heavy bombardment, is a city of some five million people. Even with careful reliance on precision-guided weapons, any mistakes made during the on-going “shock and awe” bombing campaign could be horrifyingly lethal.

Questioned about possible civilian deaths not long before the start of hostilities in Iraq, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer explained that they are an inevitable consequence of war. But, he affirmed, “The President will regret any action that is taken that does lead to loss of innocent life.”

Fleischer’s note of sympathetic regret is worth examining, for it is a telling and accurate indicator of the U.S. government’s approach to civilian deaths during armed conflict. Unquestionably, the government would prefer to minimize the number of civilians killed during wartime. It has even instituted certain preventive measures to help achieve this end. But when civilian casualties do occur, the government rarely accepts responsibility for them in any meaningful way.

Judging by past practice, the families of civilians killed in Iraq should not expect official apologies, or compensation, or justice. Nor should they imagine that the U.S. government will expend significant effort investigating why and how their relatives died, or conducting a systematic assessment of how to prevent such deaths in the future.

The U.S. Record on Official Apologies

Official apologies can be understood as the first step on a more extended scale of assuming responsibility for American errors or wrongs. Beyond apologies lies the possibility of compensation for the damage caused and, in some instances, sanctioning of the perpetrator.

But the U.S. government is rarely willing to take even this first step. Indeed, in past incidents involving civilian deaths, even extremely high numbers of deaths, the government has been notably unapologetic.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the most glaring example. More than 50 years later, peace activists persist in their so far unheeded calls for an official apology and compensation. Nor has the government ever apologized for any of the atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Vietnam, including the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of innocent civilians were killed.

Just before he left office, President William J. Clinton did express regret about a massacre committed during the Korean War at the village of No Gun Ri, in which U.S. troops fired on civilians who were hiding under a railroad bridge, killing a large but unknown number. “I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri,” Clinton said.

But the wording of Clinton’s statement was telling. Expressions of regret, in international currency, are not entirely equivalent to apologies. While they indicate sorrow that an incident occurred, they lack the acceptance of responsibility implicit in a full apology. Unsurprisingly, South Korean groups have continued to press the U.S. government to assume responsibility and provide compensation for No Gun Ri and other wartime incidents.

Besides the precise wording of an apology, the form in which it is made is also viewed as meaningful. Formal written apologies, preferably hand-delivered by a personal envoy of the head of state, carry much more weight than informal, verbal expressions of repentance. Squabbles over such differences, in addition to intense attention to wording, have been much in evidence during the acrimonious debate over Japanese apologies for crimes committed against Koreans and Chinese during the Second World War.

Some Civilians Count More Than Others

Were one to judge by recent experience, one might conclude that, besides American deaths, the U.S. government only registers Chinese deaths as truly significant. By a clear margin, the government’s most openly apologetic response to civilian casualties was with the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which occurred in May 1999 during the <U.S.-led> war on Yugoslavia.

The embassy bombing, in which three Chinese civilians were killed, drew greater official attention than other far more deadly incidents. Although a total of about 500 civilians were killed during the conflict in Yugoslavia–indeed, 73 Kosovar Albanians died in a single incident in April 1999–none of these deaths merited a reaction remotely comparable to that of the embassy bombing.

President Clinton personally apologized for the embassy bombing just days after it happened, and this time, for once, his wording was unequivocal: “I want to say to the Chinese people and to the leaders of China, I apologize.” Members of Congress, too, immediately introduced a concurrent resolution expressing Congress’s “regret and apologies” for the bombing, and extending its “deepest sympathies and condolences to the Chinese Government, citizens, and families of the bombing’s victims.”

A U.S. spy plane’s collision with a Chinese plane, although it did not happen during a military hostilities, provides a more recent example of U.S. willingness to apologize when good relations with China are at risk. In April 2001, after a U.S. aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter plane, resulting in the pilot’s death, the U.S. Ambassador to China delivered a personal letter of apology to the Chinese authorities.

“Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft,” the letter said. “Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss …. We are very sorry the entering of China’s airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance.”

No Chinese were killed during the <U.S.-led> war in Afghanistan, but plenty of Afghans were. According to a survey carried out by Global Exchange, an international human rights group, at least 824 Afghan civilians were killed during the <U.S.-led> bombing campaign between October 7, 2001, and the end of January 2002. (The researchers emphasized that their survey is far from comprehensive – it covered only ten of Afghanistan’s thirty-two provinces – and that the actual number of deaths is higher.)

One of the bloodiest single incidents of the war, in fact, may have occurred in mid-2002, after the study ended, and as U.S. military operations in the country were winding down. On July 1, approximately 48 civilians, including a number of children, were killed an air assault on a wedding party in the southern province of Kakarak. Nor have civilian deaths in Afghanistan come to an end. Most recently, in February 2003, Afghan authorities reported that at least seventeen civilians were killed in American bombing raids in the Baghran valley, a remote area of southern Afghanistan.

None of these incidents resulted in a full presidential apology, although President Bush did say that he called Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the telephone after the mistaken attack in July. His statement of remorse, if you can call it that, was studiously bland. “Any time innocent life is lost,” Bush told Karzai, “we’re sad.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s stab at apologizing was equally feeble. While stating that he regretted the loss of civilian life, he added that “bad things happen in combat zones,” and the United States had “no regrets about going after bad guys.”

Compensation and Prosecution

With apologies for the killing of civilians being scarce, it is unsurprising that compensation for such killings is even scarcer, and the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators is scarce still.

The 1999 Chinese embassy bombing, always the exception, resulted in substantial U.S. compensation both for the damage to the building and the loss of life. But other than this incident, compensation has been extremely rare.

While it is believed that the CIA gave $1,000 cash to family members of Afghans killed in a mistaken attack that took place in January 2002, the war’s other mistaken killings went uncompensated. Global Exchange, the organization that conducted the study of Afghan civilian deaths, has been pressing the U.S. government to compensate Afghans in the amount of $10,000 per family, but so far its appeal has been unsuccessful.

Even the most negligent killings almost never lead to the successful criminal prosecution of responsible members of the military. A review of incidents that resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths shows that charges rarely reach the court-martial stage. When they do, moreover, the defendants are nearly always acquitted.

Lessons Not Learned

While civilian casualties may be an inescapable fact of war, it is apparently not one that the Pentagon has any real interest in examining. As former deputy assistant secretary of defense Sarah Sewall pointed out in an Op Ed recently published in The New York Times, the Department of Defense has never undertaken a systemic evaluation of its record in preventing civilian casualties. Indeed, the military does not even officially tabulate the numbers of civilians killed in each war.

This studied official ignorance belies official expressions of concern. And the government’s failure to take responsibility for the damage it wreaks on civilian lives is equally disappointing.

Consider the words of an Afghan man who lost much of his family to American bombs. As he told The Los Angeles Times last year: “We thought the Americans were good people. But they just drop their bombs and leave. They don’t explain. They don’t apologize. They don’t even offer to pay for what they did.”

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer based in New York. An earlier version of this article appeared in FindLaw’s Writ. She can be reached at: mariner@counterpunch.org.

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JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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