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Already One Smart Bomb Has Proved Dumb


10 October 2001

Until yesterday all was antiseptic in the temper tantrum against terrorism. Based on the cheering at football stadiums and auto races upon President Bush's announcement of air strikes in Afghanistan, Americans were successfully fed the illusion that our tantrum would break only the glass and china of the Taliban and punch a hole in the wall protecting Osama bin Laden.

An Associated Press story about the American weaponry being used in Afghanistan said, “evidence suggests that the Pentagon's new generation of satellite-guided bombs has succeeded in hitting targets with a high degree of precision.”

Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has bragged about new bombs that use GPS (Ground Positioning System) to hit within 50 feet of the targets. Our smart bombs of the Gulf War a decade ago have supposedly earned their PhDs - Pummeling with Humanitarian Discrimination.

Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, has so bought into our “new and improved” accuracy that the man who normally leads the Democratic opposition to the Republican Party said, “We've got the right tone. We've got the right understanding of the complexity and the seriousness of this challenge. We're going about it in a concerted and a very successful way.”

In human history, there are few cases of tantrums that take time to understand complexity. This one is no exception. After all the righteousness from our political leaders and our military brass, it appears that one of our million dollar missiles has already hit the wrong proverbial $10 tent.

During the US attacks this week, an office in Kabul funded by the United Nations to clear Afghanistan of land mines was destroyed by what local UN officials said had to have been a cruise missile. Four guards in the building were killed. The building was 900 feet from a Taliban radio transmission tower and antiaircraft batteries, but not so near that UN officials were deeply concerned. After all our smart bombs are supposed to be able to hit under 50 feet.

“It was assumed they were safe where they were,” said UN spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker. “Otherwise, they would have relocated for sure. I think Afghans in general are aware of what's where.”

In reading from a statement by UN Afghanistan coordinator Mike Sackett, Bunker said, “People need to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms.”

A resident who came to observe the cleanup at the site of the bombing said, “We are already in a big mess. What else does the world want from us? Drop one atom bomb and annihilate us all instead of killing us gradually and justifying that with an operation against terrorists.”

Back home in America, such incidents are irrelevant. Senator John McCain said, “It's inevitable there will be mistakes that take place in a situation where the lines remain unclear.”

It is ironic that the first confirmed civilian casualties of our attacks were affiliated with the United Nations. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced later this week, and Reuters has reported that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is the favorite to win for his part in getting nations to unite against terrorism.

How long the global coalition will hold together will depend in part on how smart or dumb our bombardiers are. The United States cannot boast how precise we are, then shrug its shoulders when the GPS fails. A senior military officer told reporters, “We're not going to spend a lot of our treasure and time blowing up things that aren't of value.” It seems like we just spent a little bit blowing up a piece of our credibility. Given the 87 percent approval rating of the strikes in a CBS poll, it is clear how short our memory is. Despite the efforts a decade ago by the military to turn Gulf War press conferences into video games, the General Accounting Office found in 1997 that the efficiency of “smart bombs” was significantly overstated by the Pentagon and weapons contractors. At least 2,500 Iraqi civilians died in our “smart bombing”. Human rights groups said that at least 70,000 Iraqi civilians died from the resulting squalor of Operation Desert Storm.

None of that mattered to Americans back when we thought that “collateral damage” was a concept reserved only for poverty-stricken desert people. It has to matter now that we know the enemy can kill more than 5,000 of us here at home.

An America that wants to avoid more “collateral damage” in New York had better lead by example in Kabul. It does not matter how smart your bombs are if they are dropped in a tantrum.

Derrick Z Jackson.
Published in the Boston Globe.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.



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