JUST BEFORE meeting the press to discuss the beginning of the American and British air assault on Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he had heard television commentators compare the bombing runs to those of World War II.
''There is no comparison,'' Rumsfeld said. ''The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a prior conflict -- they didn't exist.
''And it's not a handful of weapons; it's the overwhelming majority of weapons that have that precision. The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting to see that the precise targets are struck and that other targets are not struck is as impressive as anything anyone could see. The care that goes into it, the humanity that goes into it, to see that military targets are destroyed, to be sure, but that it's done in a way, and in a manner, and in a direction and with a weapon that is appropriate to that very particularized target . . . I think that the comparison is unfortunate and inaccurate.''
Later in the same briefing, a reporter pressed Rumsfeld on the possibility of civilian casualties. Rumsfeld said: ''We have analyzed -- every single target has been analyzed, and the weapon has been carefully selected and the direction in which the weapon is delivered has been carefully examined, and the time of day when there is greatest prospect of minimizing any innocent lives. It is an enormously impressive effort, a humane effort.''
Before Rumsfeld turns war into Woodstock, it is important to remember that we heard this at the opening of the 1991 Gulf War. Then Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and now Secretary of State Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf both said that 80 percent of air bombing missions were successful. ''We probably have a more accurate picture of what is going on in Operation Desert Storm than I have ever had toward the early hours of any other battle,'' Schwarzkopf said.
Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Horner smiled as he dazzled reporters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, with videos of so-called smart bombs zooming down air shafts and going through selected doors of Iraqi military buildings. Colonel Alton Whitley, commander of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, said: ''You can pick precisely the target you want. You can want the men's room, or you can want the women's room.'' After the first President Bush claimed that Patriot missiles knocked out 41 of 42 Iraq Scud missiles, he went to a Raytheon plant in Andover to proclaim, ''Thank God for the Patriot.''
The hype allowed the Cold War crowd to crow that the Reagan military buildup had all been worth it. It gave then Defense Secretary and now Vice President Dick Cheney the political capital to attempt to increase funding for the ''Star Wars'' space missile defense system from $1.7 billion to $4.6 billion. William Ward, a defense aide in the Nixon and Ford administrations, exclaimed, ''We paid all this money, and the stuff works!''
It was not until years later that Americans found out the truth. In a classified report in 1996 and an unclassified follow-up in 1997, the General Accounting Office found that many of the claims of precision by the Defense Department and ''smart bomb'' weapons manufacturers were ''overstated, misleading, inconsistent with the best available data, or unverifiable.''
Using the Defense Department's own data, the GAO found that the bomb ''hit rate'' from F117 Stealth fighter planes was only between 41 and 60 percent, well below the boasted 80 percent. The GAO said that the Gulf War, in terms of brevity and scant loss of American lives ''was perhaps the most successful war fought by the United States in the 20th century.'' But the GAO concluded in 1992 that the Patriot missile, contrary to Bush's claims of near perfection, may have destroyed no more than 9 percent of Scuds.
The exaggerations served in the end to cover up the carnage. Former Census analyst Beth Osborne Daponte estimated that 3,500 Iraqi civilians were directly killed in the Gulf War, a ''humane'' level of collateral damage to supporters of the war. But our bombs so effectively destroyed the nation's infrastructure that 111,000 civilians died of disease.
It is too soon to rush to claims that the United States and Britain are killing that many civilians again. It is also far too soon to be convinced that the United States, which shoved aside public education and health care to make the world's smartest and most bug-free weapons, is making a supreme effort to drop them with ''care'' and ''humanity.''
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