The accidental killing of civilians is an unavoidable part of modern warfare. In spite of huge technological advances in weapon systems and weapons delivery, in any war civilians are going to be killed accidentally. The fact that the United States frets about the accidental deaths of civilians shows the difference between our soldiers and our enemies, who intentionally kill civilians as a central part of their strategy.
In World War II, targeting the civilian population of the enemy was a basic strategy for both sides. During the blitzkrieg of 1939 and 1940, German forces bombed refugee columns in order to sow panic and block roads to defending armies. Similarly, Japanese forces bombed residential areas in many Chinese cities. The British strategy of area bombing laid waste to numerous German cities, most famously Dresden, in which as many as 40,000 people may have died in a single night. The most heinous killing of civilians was by the Nazis in their death camps, which specifically targeted civilian Jews, gypsies, Slavs, and other " unter Menschen " for genocide.
In contrast, as American weapons technology has advanced, US strategy has increasingly focused on limiting civilian deaths as much as possible. The advent of the microchip in the 1960s brought precision guided munitions, smart bombs, into widespread use during the Vietnam War. Smart bombs had several advantages. First, they made it possible to destroy heavily defended targets with fewer missions and loss of life to American pilots. Second, they also meant fewer bombs landing off target in civilian areas and fewer civilian deaths.
Even before the use of smart bombs became widespread in Vietnam, restrictive rules of engagement for bombing the North Vietnamese limited the ability of US forces to prosecute the war and ultimately prolonged the fighting and led to an unfavorable conclusion. These rules of engagement were not specifically to prevent civilian deaths, but to prevent Soviet and Chinese intervention. The limits on our forces served only to damage morale and cost the lives of many American soldiers and airman, as well as many Vietnamese civilians through the prolonged fighting.
Today, smart bombs have led to illusion that we can fight a bloodless war. Visions of infrared camera from the Gulf War of a single bomb destroying a bridge just behind a truck driven by the "luckiest man in Iraq" have taught people that we can destroy the enemy's weapons and infrastructure without hurting anyone. To some extent, this may even be true. During the invasion of Iraq, Coalition forces never even shut down the Baghdad electrical grid.
The problem with this strategy is that our enemies have adapted to our surgical tactics. Instead of fighting a conventional army with tanks, trucks, and infantry, we are now faced with an enemy that hides among the civilian population. This strategy is similar to the pre -1968 Viet Cong strategy in Vietnam. The enemy idea is that by hiding among the people, they can intimidate them into resisting the Iraqi government, American and Coalition forces. When government forces make heavy-handed reprisals, civilians are killed and the populace becomes even more angry with the government. Thus, the enemy strategy holds little or no regard for the sanctity of civilian life and makes civilians little more than a commodity to be used against the government and the Americans.
The answer to this insidious enemy strategy can also be found in a history lesson from Vietnam. In the early years of Vietnam, our strategy was search and destroy. Very similar to our early Iraq strategy, US forces stayed in large fortified bases and only ventured out on short missions to attack the VC. When the US troops went back to their base, the VC would return to the countryside.
General Creighton Abrams, who succeeded General Westmoreland as head of US troops in Vietnam in 1968, changed the US strategy to one of "clear and hold." US and ARVN troops would clear areas of the Vietnamese countryside and then keep forces there instead of retreating back to their bases. This strategy was successful in eliminating the communist insurgency from most areas of Vietnam. The threat in the last few years was not from the Viet Cong, but from a conventional invasion by the North Vietnamese Army; a threat that the United States in the midst of the anti-war/peace movement was simply unwilling to face.
General David Petraeus has returned to the clear and hold strategy with his troop surge in Iraq. The strategy has proven successful over the last year with dramatic decreases in terror attacks and civilian deaths. A major goal of Iraqi government and Coalition forces has been to safeguard the civilian population.
In contrast, the strategy of al Qaeda and other insurgent groups has been to sow terror and indiscriminately kill as many civilians as possible. One of the most common methods of attack in Iraq has been the suicide bomber, which targets innocent civilians in restaurants, marketplaces, schools, places of worship, or at weddings or funerals. Coalition forces have discovered numerous terrorist torture rooms and manuals that detailed how to inflict misery on civilians. In areas of Iraq held by the terrorists, civilians were routinely killed for infractions as small as smoking or being alone with a member of the opposite sex.
The religiously motivated terrorists that we fight today may not share the secular and materialistic ideology of Saddam Hussein, but their bloodlust is no different from that of Iraq's former dictator. Since Saddam rose to power in the late 1960s, he is estimated to have killed approximately two million people including combat deaths from the Iran-Iraq War, Kuwaitis, and Kurdish and Shiite dissidents. There can be no comparison between the actions of al Qaeda and Saddam on one hand, and the United States on the other.
Civilian deaths are a horrible by product of war, but are often necessary for the long-term peace and stability of a country. A few accidental deaths from misplaced bombs or inaccurate or accidental small arms fire would certainly be preferable to having the whole country at the mercy of a terrorist regime. There is a difference between the forces of the United States, who occasionally kill civilians accidentally in order to get the wolves who hide among the sheep, and the terrorists who kill as a matter of policy and strategy to intimidate. The difference should not be ignored.