Does the body count of civilians in the U.S.-led attack on Iraq matter morally?

If the question is asked of the American press, their overall coverage answers “no.”

For three weeks, the American media have shown mostly images of war’s glory, not war’s gore. Articles have focused on the fight, not the innocent fatalities. Finding any Iraqi body count in American newspapers has been almost impossible.

The one shining exception has been the Houston Chronicle, which has a link on the front page of its Web site titled “U.S. Casualties.” That page includes the body count of American, British and Iraqi combatants, as well as Iraqi civilians.
Unlike the American media, the Arab media have focused extensively on civilian suffering.

Arab News, a Saudi Arabian English-language newspaper, carried a piece today referring to “the massacre of innocent civilians” and calling the killing of Iraqis “genocide.”

Such divergent coverage of the war between American and Arab media suggests that different values are at work. The American press values military victory. The Arab press prioritizes war’s cruelty.

In recent days, the American media have begun to tell the body count story, corresponding oddly to the spike in journalist deaths. The media death toll stands at 12, according to the Washington Post.

But the lack of concern about the civilian death toll also exists in the religious press. The Southern Baptist Convention’s press service has carried numerous stories about U.S. soldiers in prayer and being baptized, but no articles headlining civilian deaths. Other religious news services have also given civilian deaths and injuries too little attention.

So, do civilian deaths matter morally in the Christian community?

The lack of public statements expressing concern about the rising death toll suggests that the answer may be “not much.”

With an average of 100 casualties per hour being admitted to Baghdad’s five major hospitals and the International Red Cross’ suspension of operations there (BBC News), one would expect the American religious community to call at least for a cease-fire on the grounds that too many innocent people are being killed.

One of the reasons for silence in the Christian community about the civilian body count results from the use of just war theory.
One principle in just war theory concerns the means for fighting war. This principle forbids the targeting of civilians. As non-combatants, civilians are not to be intentionally killed. However, it is morally acceptable if some civilians are unintentionally and indirectly killed.

An example of just war theory’s dark side occurred when Marine Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, a sharpshooter, killed an Iraqi woman standing too near an Iraqi soldier. “I’m sorry,” he told the New York Times. “But the chick was in the way.”

Just war theory says soldiers should avoid killing non-soldiers, but some spillover of civilian deaths is morally tolerable if the military gain outweighs the loss of civilian life. If the number of civilian deaths becomes too high, military action becomes immoral. War fighting clearly has moral limits.

Civilian casualties are becoming too high. If civilian casualties matter morally, it’s time for the Christian community to call for a cease-fire.

Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.

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