The lasting legacy of the Vietnam War, it is often said, is Americans' demolished
tolerance for body bags filled with U.S. men and women.
True enough. But Vietnam also demolished faith in the top brass, who misled
the American people about the mayhem happening half a world away. In the end,
it was the acid of deception, not defeat, that dissolved the public's trust.
Today the battleground is Afghanistan, not Vietnam, and the motives are nothing
like those that led millions of U.S. soldiers into Southeast Asia. Today's is
a different cause, a different enemy, a different military, a different time,
a different public. Yet America is still America -- a democracy -- and thus the
need for truth is the same today as it was 30 years ago.
So let's have the truth about U.S. military actions that have killed hundreds
of Afghan civilians in the war against terrorists.
A New York Times
report Sunday raised questions about the targeting intelligence and methods
used in U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan, suggesting that flaws in military policy
are contributing to the civilian deaths.
What's troubling about the report is not simply the occurrence of civilian
fatalities; they are a fact of war. What's disturbing is the sense, from the report,
that innocent Afghan villagers, alive or dead, have been insufficiently acknowledged
by the U.S. military.
"American commanders say they have not kept track of civilian deaths in Afghanistan,"
the Times noted. Worse, the report said, military commanders have often denied
the civilian casualties "despite evidence on the ground."
The humanitarian conventions of the civilized world insist that warring nations
at least try to distinguish the innocent from the enemy. It is not always possible
to do so, but the attempt must be made.
Is the U.S. military making an adequate attempt? Are the fatalities in the
Afghan villages unavoidable? Are they militarily necessary? Have the deadly attacks
achieved any headway against Osama bid Laden or his minions?
The American public deserves the truth, because in a democracy it is ultimately
the people who direct military policy. As a nation, we cannot divorce ourselves
from our military's successes or failures, because in the end they are our own.
That's another lesson from the Vietnam experience -- gone but not, we hope, forgotten.
© 2002 Sarasota Herald-Tribune