John Leo
Even if civilian casualties in Iraq are light, expect a great deal of attention to the subject in the days ahead. In a numbers-obsessed society, focusing relentlessly on the deaths of innocents -- and inflating the numbers, if necessary -- is a conventional way of undermining support for war. This helps explain why dozens of civilian-casualty articles sprouted in the news media within hours of the first shots in Iraq, even before coalition ground forces swung into action.

The news agencies of our chief non-allies -- France, Russia, China and Germany -- were quick off the mark. Agence France Presse may have established the modern world record for fastest print coverage of dead bystanders with "U.S. Strikes Leave Civilian Casualties in Baghdad: Official" (Thursday, 3:42 a.m. EST). The Iraqi regime, of course, is eager for high numbers. A New York Post report Friday said civilians trying to flee Basra were blocked by Iraqi troops who, according to Kuwaitis, were hoping to increase civilian casualties.

We have been through this before. On Fox News during the war in Afghanistan, Brit Hume wondered whether reporting about civilian deaths was getting out of hand. These casualties, he said, "are historically, by definition, a part of war, really." Mara Liasson of National Public Radio chimed in: "War is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable."

All civilian casualties are tragic. But Hume was asking why these casualties had emerged as a major story line. This emphasis may have reflected the usual press resentments toward U.S. forces in wartime (lack of candor, lack of access). But it also reflected the anti-war movement's success in convincing the mainstream press that civilian deaths were a big story.

A New York Times article ("Flaws in U.S. Air War Left Hundreds of Civilians Dead") relied heavily on the findings of workers with Global Exchange, which the Times identified as "an American organization that has sent survey teams into Afghan villages." In fact, Global Exchange is a hard-left, anti-war, pro-Castro group whose numbers on war victims should never be taken at face value. Many groups on the left repeatedly insisted that civilian deaths were scandalously high. But that's what they say during every war. Typical headlines included "Civilian Casualties Mount in Afghanistan" (the World Socialist Web Site) and "U.S. Raids Draw Fire for Civilian Casualties" (Common Dreams News Center).

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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