Arriving at Baghdad's Saddam Hussein airport in the days just before the war began, I was given a press packet. Among other things, it contained a pamphlet entitled "How Bush Kills Iraqi Children." In 25 pages, it detailed the toll sanctions were allegedly taking. It said nothing, of course, about what had happened to children in Kuwait.
Now we have additional and compelling evidence that Iraqi civilians are being killed. American F-117A "stealth" fighters bombed a building that, whatever else its purpose, was being used as a bomb shelter by civilians. On television we saw the consequences: charred bodies of women and children and, outside, grief-stricken men. The pamphlet had come to life.
After 67,000 sorties, something like this was bound to happen. The Pentagon can call a bomb "smart," but it's not so clever as to tell whether a military installation is being used by civilians. Moreover, the people who drop it and select targets are just human beings, susceptible to panic and hardly immune to error. The killing of civilians is a tragedy that is not diminished by saying it's an unavoidable part of modern warfare. The United States has to do better.
Of course a mistake, even the absence of caution, is not really a policy. But having said that, there are two policies that ought to be kept in mind. The first is Iraq's. This war is one it brought on itself by the invasion of Kuwait -- yet another example of the Baghdad regime's policy of using violence to get its way. A leader who cares about his people, who cited with such specificity the number of children who died as a result of economic sanctions and listed them by province (51 in Babylon), would not have gone to war in the first place.
More to the point, this is the very same regime that in 1988 used poison gas against its Kurdish population -- not armed rebels, mind you, but civilians. Women and children died by the score, and villages were leveled. This was typical. In 1982, Saddam Hussein retaliated for an attack on his life by dropping napalm on the village where it occurred. It was destroyed and turned into farmland. And Iraq is the very same country that has lobbed Scud after Scud into populated areas of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The hypocrisy of Saddam Hussein's regime is epic, but it is matched by the ineptness of the Pentagon. I am not referring here to the targeting of military sites that are too close to civilian centers (in some cases, they have been placed there by the Iraqis), but instead to a heavy-handed attempt to both censor and manage news of the war. The military has both a right and a duty to withhold information that could imperil the lives of allied soldiers. But it has gone farther than that. Its censors have interfered in routine news gathering, even on occasion changing a word here or there to give a story a different slant.
In Saudi Arabia, journalists are assigned to so-called pools and cannot go out into the field without an escort officer. Many of the pools have not been allowed out at all (only three of 15 on a recent day), and those that were have had their reporting crimped by the intimidating presence of a dour chaperon. The ordinary gripes of ordinary soldiers, the very stuff of war, are oddly missing from this one. The sardonic, cynical (but no less patriotic) GI of previous American wars has been replaced by earnest pilots blathering football metaphors.
Public opinion surveys tell us that the American people approve of such censorship. But the real damage is being done by Pentagon policy, not Iraq's clumsy and obvious attempt to win propaganda points. The American military has become the dispenser of mostly good news, leaving the so-called other side of the story to Iraq. Bit by bit, the administration buttresses the case of those who say we are not being told the truth -- either about our own casualties or those of the enemy, especially civilian.
Iraq is a barbaric state, and a reading of its human rights record -- the torture of children, for instance -- is a sickening exercise. But America cannot rely on the obvious contrast between it and Saddam Hussein's regime either to slough off the killing of civilians or to condone a heavy-handed policy toward the press. In the long run, such a policy will do two things: enhance Iraq's credibility and diminish our own.