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Report says military distorts war deaths

WASHINGTON -- By refusing to make public its estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has undercut international support for the US campaigns in those countries and has made the postwar stabilization of the two societies more difficult, according to an independent report to be released today that accuses the Pentagon of appearing indifferent to the civilian cost of war.

The analysis by the Project on Defense Alternatives, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, concludes that the Pentagon has not fully disclosed in recent years accidental deaths and injuries inflicted upon civilian populations by American military forces. Its failure to do so has made it more difficult to predict how local populations will receive the United States after a conflict, the report said.

According to the report -- "Disappearing the Dead: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Idea of a `New Warfare' " -- the Pentagon's stance has also distorted the national debate over whether to go to war.

The report says the US military has wrongly given the impression that its high-tech form of warfare is extremely low risk, creating unrealistic expectations that war produces very low casualties.

Ignoring evidence to the contrary, the report says, the Pentagon has also said that estimates of the number of war casualties cannot be known and that such numbers nonetheless would not be meaningful in assessing the overall success of a military operation.

"Distortion of the civilian casualty issue can only serve to impede the sober assessment of US policy, policy options, and their consequences," states a draft copy of the report, provided to the Globe. "It is antithetical both to well-informed public debate and to sensible policy making."

Based on a review of thousands of news articles and other publicly available materials, the report estimates that 18,000 combatants and civilians were killed during the course of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about one-third -- 6,000 -- were civilians. A Pentagon official, who said he had not yet read the full report, maintained that the Pentagon is unable to tally civilian casualties and has no need to.

"Our efforts focus on defeating enemy forces, so we never target civilians and have no reason to count such unintended deaths," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "It is at best extremely difficult to estimate casualty figures, and we cannot say with any certainty how many civilians have been killed . . .

"Even one innocent death is a sad fact, and something we sincerely regret."

As for Iraq, he added, "The responsibility for every death in Iraq, be it soldier or civilian, Iraqi, American, British, or others, lies with Saddam Hussein, who chose war over complying with UN resolutions."

The 60-page report accuses the Pentagon of "spinning" the casualty issue to the media so as to limit public discourse about a subject that military leaders, still haunted by the Vietnam War, fear will hurt support at home and abroad. One method has been to simply not discuss civilian casualties and make no effort to tally them, even when news reports make estimates possible.

The report terms it "casualty agnosticism."

"Rather than making positive claims about casualties, this approach simply implied that no such claims were possible," according to the report. "Casualty agnosticism aims to sink the whole issue of war casualties in an impenetrable murk of skepticism."

When asked about civilian casualties, the analysis contends, Pentagon representatives often repeat a common refrain: US forces take all precautions to avoid harming civilians, and the nature of modern warfare has reduced those numbers dramatically.

That may be true, but the report argues that the approach obscures a crucial part of the debate about whether to go to war: what the civilian cost might be. At the same time, it leaves the wrong impression about how precise American forces can be -- both abroad and at home.

"In addition to distorting the national discourse on war, these efforts may have damaged America's image abroad -- thus contributing to the problem they were meant to mitigate," the report states. "These efforts may have contributed to the perceptual divide that separates America from much of the rest of the world, thus undermining international understanding and cooperation."

Added Carl Conetta, codirector of the Project on Defense Alternatives: "You cannot deduce from all this talk of cruise missiles sailing into buildings how many civilians will die in a war. We need some general sense of what people are dying in these wars, and that we can do."

The Pentagon's approach has also had repercussions on the ground, Conetta believes. "Body counts are not a measure of victory but nonetheless we need to know the facts of the matter," he said in an interview. "It gives us some sense of the impact and how tough it is going to be postwar. Some amount of the sympathy for the Iraqi insurgency has to do with the damage that the war caused."

The report concludes: "Until US political and opinion leaders disabuse themselves of the `new war' ideology, the nation will be brought to war easily, but left unprepared for and perplexed by the consequences that follow."

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