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Military Precision versus Moral Precision


Now that the long period of peace-seeking pretense has ended and George W. Bush has unleashed his dogs of war on Iraq, many of the questions that have occupied us during the past year have been dispatched by the fait accompli of the U.S. invasion. Even in the midst of war, however, certain questions remain relevant, and one of the most important pertains to precision — to hitting, so to speak, what one aims to hit.

Television viewers are being treated, if that is the right word, to much expert commentary by retired military officers and other experts on the conduct of war. A great deal of this commentary has to do with technology, and once again, as in 1991, the technology of modern warfare is receiving high praise. News people seem awe-struck by the accounts of bombs and missiles that not only hit, say, a targeted building, but enter the third window on the second floor and strike the handle of the hot-water faucet on the basin in the washroom. Golly, General Turgidson, that’s fantastic!

If the extreme accuracy being claimed for today’s bombs and missiles were being considered only in relation to the munitions’ purely military utility in demolishing the persons and property selected for destruction, we might let the matter pass without extended consideration, treating it as a topic of special interest only to those fascinated with the technology of death, but the people responsible for employing these instruments of war have themselves taken pains to connect their use with — of all things — morality.

Thus, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently remarked on “the care . . ., the humanity that goes into” the use of so-called smart bombs and similar munitions. No doubt we should take note when the minister of war expresses solicitude for those who otherwise might be written off as “collateral damage.” Still, amid the dazzling, often video-illustrated descriptions and accounts of the wonderful precision of these munitions, the reporters, the talking heads, and, one fears, the television viewers as well are losing sight of what, precisely, is going on.

To begin, one must distinguish between the precision with which a bomb or missile hits its intended point of impact — often claimed to be only a few meters most of the time — and the area within which lethal damage will be wreaked when the warhead explodes. In Iraq, for example, the much-used Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a 2,000-pound Mark-84 dumb bomb with a global-positioning-system (GPS) guidance kit attached to enhance its accuracy, is supposed to strike within 13 meters of its intended point of impact, as compared to an error range of some 60-70 meters for its dumb counterpart. Evidently, this difference is what elicited Rumsfeld’s remark about the humanity of the use of such weapons: whereas the dumb bomb places at risk innocent souls 70 meters away, the smart one spares everybody beyond, say, 15 meters. If only it were so.

Recalling the hugely exaggerated claims made for precision bombing in past wars, we are entitled to skepticism even with respect to the accuracy claims themselves. According to some authorities, perhaps 7-10 percent of the smart bombs fall beyond the claimed accuracy radius — some of them miles away — because of mechanical and electrical malfunctions. The potential harm caused by a 2,000-pound bomb hitting substantially off target in a city will be sufficiently obvious to anyone.

For purposes of the present discussion, however, let us concede that the bombs and missiles strike with all the accuracy claimed for them. What happens then? As described recently by Newhouse reporter David Wood, the 2000-pound JDAM “releases a crushing shock wave and showers jagged, white-hot metal fragments at supersonic speed, shattering concrete, shredding flesh, crushing cells, rupturing lungs, bursting sinus cavities and ripping away limbs in a maelstrom of destruction.” Hardly anyone survives within 120 meters of the blast, where pressures of several thousand pounds per square inch and 8,500-degree heat simply obliterate everything, human and material. Metal fragments are spewed nearly three-quarters of a mile, and bigger pieces may fly twice that far; no one within 365 meters can expect to remain unharmed, and persons up to 1000 meters or farther away from the point of impact may be harmed by flying fragments. Of course, the explosions also start fires over a wide area, which themselves may do vast damage, even to structures and people unharmed by the initial blast.

I am no munitions expert, but I am pretty good at basic math. Baghdad is a city of some 6,400,000 persons living in an area of approximately 734 square kilometers — roughly comparable to the urban areas of Boston or Detroit. If it were a perfect square it would be approximately 27 kilometers (17 miles) on a side, but the central, most densely populated part, where the prime military targets are concentrated, is a much smaller area. What are the odds that the damage wreaked by exploding 2000-pound JDAMs and other powerful munitions, such as the 1000-pound warheads on the Tomahawk missiles, will not touch the ordinary people of the city? Well, the odds are zero. Such powerful warheads, which the U.S. forces are expending by the thousands, cause explosions whose effects undoubtedly reach vast numbers of the city’s civilian inhabitants. To conclude otherwise, one would be obliged to deny either the well-advertised power of the weapons themselves or the axioms of geometry.

As Marc W. Herold has written, “along with the U.S. military planners’ decision to bomb perceived military targets in urban areas, the use of weapons with great destructive blast and fragmentation power necessarily results in heavy civilian casualties.” Which brings us back to the matter of morality.

Many people, unfortunately, will maintain that such “collateral damage” is simply an unfortunate side effect of modern warfare, and if we are satisfied that the war itself is justified, then we are obliged to swallow hard and accept, however regrettably, the deaths and destruction wreaked upon the innocent in the neighborhood of the selected military targets. Some, including President Bush, even go so far as to place the blame for such harms on Saddam Hussein, who stands accused of cynically employing his “own people” as shields and of exploiting their destruction for public relations purposes. This argument is a curious defense of the bombing — after all, no bombing, no such collateral damage — and the whole world knows that nothing required the President to go to war against Iraq: if ever a war was freely chosen, this war is the one.

In truth, aerial bombardment of urban areas using powerful munitions is inherently undiscriminating. The reporters, retired generals, and talking heads can huff and puff as much as they like, but the reality is that dropping 2,000-pound bombs in densely populated cities will certainly kill and wound many innocent people — men, women, and children.

How can those who choose to employ such weapons in such circumstances continue to argue against, say, the hijackers of September 11 on the grounds that those evil men chose to kill innocents? Killing innocents is killing innocents. To conduct warfare as the United States is now conducting it in Iraq is necessarily to indulge in immoral conduct. The imprecision with which this sort of warfare treats the guilty and the innocent, by simply disregarding their differences, cannot withstand moral scrutiny. It will not do to say that the United States could avoid harming the innocent only by refraining from carrying out the war and that the no-war option has been ruled out. Someone has ruled it out, and that person, George W. Bush, along with his subordinates carrying out his war of aerial bombardment all the way down the chain of command, has chosen to act immorally. We are not dealing with a gray area here. This kind of intrinsically indiscriminate killing is deeply, outrageously immoral.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

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