Smart Bombs, Dumb Targets
Did overconfidence in precision targeting cause civilian deaths in Iraq?
The capture of Saddam Hussein dramatically illustrates an ancient, but often forgotten, principle of warfare: It's easy to kill people but very hard to kill a person.
Saddam's nabbing took thousands of Army and special-ops forces, interrogating hundreds of loyalists, tracking dozens of leads, and, in the end, one soldier spotting an out-of-place thread of fabric on what turned out to be a secret cover, then lifting the lid to find the Butcher of Baghdad himself hiding in the bottom of a hole.
It was the work of armed troops on the ground, close-up, ultimately at arm's length. It could not have been accomplished by pilots dropping smart bombs from two miles high in the sky.
Last spring, while the "shock and awe" phase of the war was still in progress, U.S. targeteers tried to get Saddam and his cronies the easy way—or what seemed to be the easy way—with B-1 bombers, F-117 attack planes, and satellite-guided air-to-surface munitions.
A new report by Human Rights Watch reveals, for the first time, just how persistently they tried to kill individual Iraqi leaders in this manner—and how consistently they failed.
Over the course of the war, U.S. air forces mounted 50 so-called "decapitation strikes." The bombs accidentally killed several dozen civilians who happened to be near the explosions, but they killed none of the Iraqi leaders they were intended to strike.
The problem was not with the bombs. The bombs were as accurate as advertised; they hit precisely where they were aimed. The problem was with the pre-strike intelligence; the Iraqi leaders—the bombs' targets—turned out to be someplace else.
The best-publicized decapitation strike took place on March 20, the first night of the war, when the CIA got word that Saddam Hussein was in a bunker under a particular house in Baghdad. Two F-117s, quickly dispatched to the area, dropped four 2,000-pound EGBU-27 earth-penetrating bombs on the site. The results: One Iraqi civilian was killed, 14 were wounded; Saddam was nowhere to be found. A postwar inspection revealed there never was a bunker.
In another high-profile strike, on April 7, a B-1B dropped four 2,000-pound JDAM bombs on a restaurant where Saddam and his two sons were believed to be meeting. Shortly afterward, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "I think we did get Saddam Hussein. He was seen being dug out of the rubble and wasn't able to breathe." Someone might have been dug out the rubble; 18 people were killed, but they did not include the Husseins.
A similar strike was intended to kill Lt. Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka "Chemical Ali." He escaped, if he was ever there; 17 civilians were killed.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.