It’s a little pat to just say that things like the bus incident are unavoidable in a war zone — even “unavoidable” incidents can occur with frequency — but the Wikileaks video and the arrival of “collateral damage” on the streets of Washington, D.C., are both powerful reminders that to a certain extent, the counterinsurgency era has been about shielding the public from the reality of what war is.
No; the effort to prevent the public from understanding the costs that war would exact upon civilians preceded the COIN turn by at least fifteen years; those of us who remember the pretty pictures of cruise missiles blowing up Iraqi “intelligence centers” in 1991 understand that shielding the public from the reality of war was pretty much the point of such exercises. The urgency of this effort became apparent as the actual damage to Iraqi civilian institutions in the wake of the Gulf War became clear. Precision guided weapons, in the fevered dreams of RMA enthusiasts and airpower advocates, would take the killing out of war and render the use of force antiseptic. This conception of the utility of force dominated debate in 1991, in 1999, in 2001, and in 2003. Indeed, the idea that the Iraq War could be launched and conducted in an antiseptic manner was CRITICAL to the “humanitarian” case for war.
It is within this context that we need to situate COIN advocates claims about casualty awareness. In the debates about both the importance of civilian casualties to the war effort, and the likelihood that war will cause civilian casualties, COIN advocates are firmly on the right side, arguing both that civilian casualties are likely and relevant. It’s fair enough to observe that COIN advocates often stray too far in depicting the “humanitarian” elements of their preferred doctrine, but challenging those claims without taking note of the context of the debate that COINdistas are having with the antiseptic war crowd really misses the point. In other words, COINdistas are neither the first to try to shield the American public from the reality of war, nor the most egregious sinners in that regard. Indeed, procedures put in by COIN advocates to recognize and apologize for civilian casualties have come under harsh criticism from other elements of the military.
Yglesias larger point is quite sensible; we should never allow either COINdistas or RMA fanatics to tell us that war is an antiseptic, humanitarian endeavor. Guns/bombs/bullets/cruise missiles kill, even when used with “precision”. It’s crucial to remember, however, that COIN advocates are part of a debate, and that they’re currently holding the “war is long, dirty, and expensive” terrain. The “war is quick, clean, and inexpensive” crowd played a very significant role in trying to make the Iraq War seem like a good idea.