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War And Other Peoples’ Children

girl-dead-parent.jpgAmericans were horrified this week when CBS News broke Lara Logan’s story of US soldiers uncovering an orphanage in Iraq in which the children were left naked, chained to their beds, malnourished and generally neglected. How could human beings treat other human beings, especially children, this way? The natural instinct was to pick up a child, and hold them, as CBS’ follow up stories showed our soldiers doing.

How then, can we account for this: This weekend, US warplanes working with Special Operations units bombed a set of buildings in Afghanistan in the belief that Taliban or al Qaeda fighters were hiding there. The initial AP report carried by MSNBC noted that when the smoke cleared, searchers found the bombs had killed seven children. The initial explanations from military spokesmen in the region assured us that this was a terrible mistake, a miscommunication, that military officials did not know the children were present, and that they honestly believed the buildings were hiding only suspected insurgents. Here’s the first explanation:

On Sunday in Paktika province, in an operation backed by Afghan troops, the warplanes targeted a compound that also contained a mosque and a madrassa, or Islamic school, resulting in the death of seven boys, ages 10 to 16.

Paktika Gov. Akram Akhpelwak said there normally is strong coordination between the government and the coalition and NATO, but that he was not made aware of the missile strike on the madrassa beforehand. . . .

Coalition troops had “surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building,” said Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman. He accused the militants of not letting the children leave the compound that was targeted.

“If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that airstrike would have occurred,” said Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, another coalition spokesman.

But like so many other events involving deaths of civilians, a different set of facts emerged later. In a second report by NBC military spokesmen revealed that when US forces bombed the buildings, commanders knew the children were there, but they ordered the planes to drop five guided bombs on the compound knowing there was a substantial risk the children would be killed. With this new set of facts revealed, the military framed the story this way:

U.S. special operations forces were targeting the leader of al-Qaida in Afghanistan — one of the organization’s top commanders — when they launched an attack against a compound that killed seven children Sunday in Paktika province of eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials tell NBC News.

According to several officials, and contrary to previous statements, the U.S. military knew there were children at the compound but considered the target of such high value it was worth the risk of potential collateral damage. Emphasis mine.

The rest of the article gives the military’s view of how important the intended al-Qaida target was. There’s nothing more about the children or their families. But NBC did try to grapple with the issue:

Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor winner and NBC News analyst, said that decisions to go ahead with an attack when civilians are believed present are among the most agonizing military commanders have to make.

“As a military officer, it is difficult to talk about the calculation involved, weighing the independent variables, whether it’s saving your country or achieving your objectives, while acknowledging that it requires the taking of innocent lives. . . .”

Really? Let’s admit that this despicable exchange proves that Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is simply beyond the pale, and instead have a Jack Bauer/Antonin Scalia moment. Suppose our forces tracked a suspected killer, a crazed religious zealot, someone we believe has killed a dozen people already, and he’s holed up in a madrassa/school. We know that there are seven children somewhere in the building, possibly being held hostage by the killer — “preventing them from escaping.” We have the ability to take out the suspected killer with an airstrike, but there is a substantial risk there will be “collateral damage.”

What do you think Jack Bauer should do, Antonin? Oh, I forgot to mention; the school is in Virginia, and the children belong to Republican families, or Democrats, or Pentagon officials, or German vistors, or the Albanian delegation, or. . . ____. You can fill in the blank. And if somehow that changes the answer, I’d like to understand why.

Update: 3:40 p.m. EDT: A military spokesman said today that the report asserting US military officials knew of the children’s presence was not correct. (h/t to commenter Jeff for this link).

Photo via Crooks and Liars

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley