11 September 2008

The Afghan death toll we should be most concerned about

This week, the death of yet another Canadian soldier occupied the front pages of our daily press. Meanwhile, the deaths that should be of most concern to us are relegated to the inner pages, if they are mentioned at all. I refer of course to the deaths of Afghan civilians. Almost 100 members of our military have died in this forlorn war. Nearly that many Afghan civilians, including 60 children, died in one attack in Herat province recently, an attack carried out by a combined American/Afghan force. Film of the aftermath showed rows of babies and children lined up in a makeshift morgue.

Canadian soldiers volunteer to kill or be killed. Afghan women and children don't. If you choose a vocation that involves shooting people, even "scumbags," you must expect them to shoot back.

In Afghanistan, the innocent are dying in ever increasing numbers. Over 1,000 civilians have been killed in U.S. and NATO attacks since the beginning of 2006, with the deaths from air strikes tripling over the past year. Many more civilians have lost their lives than U.S. and NATO soldiers, even by conservative estimates. Taliban attacks, including suicide bombings, have killed about twice as many as U.S. and NATO forces have; however, we are not entirely innocent of these deaths either. They are, after all, a response to our presence. So, for that matter, are the deaths of insurgents.

Deaths of civilians are often referred to as collateral damage, an unfortunate side effect in the greater cause. But in modern war, civilian deaths are unavoidable. Going to war is a conscious decision to kill innocents, and in making that decision one is hardly less guilty than a terrorist who decides to set off a bomb in a marketplace. The terrorist may be less specific but he is no more deadly. Our intentions in Afghanistan may be noble, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with. The American war in Vietnam, in the noble cause of saving the benighted Vietnamese from godless Communism, left three million dead in its wake. In the not-so-noble conquest of Iraq, the death toll is now estimated to be over a million. These are the kinds of numbers we should ponder first when we consider military adventures, not the deaths of soldiers.

Whereas our press publishes the name and picture of each Canadian soldier killed, the civilian victims are generally nameless, anonymous ... mere statistics. Perhaps we should publish the name and picture of each innocent Afghan victim on the front pages of our newspapers rather than those of soldiers. That would be much more revealing of the real nature of war.

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