BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 28.10.01

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN reports on the claims that American and British bombing is very carefully targeted and that modern weapons technology means the minimum of innocent lives will be lost. How much should we believe of what we are being told?

DAVID GROSSMAN: It's rather fashionable to say that modern war is presented like a movie - but there's at least one important difference. No Hollywood script writer would construct such a chaotic narrative with so many contradictory images and expect anyone to follow it. Amid all these confusing versions of events, what can we know for sure. The US and their allies want to convince the world they're hitting hard at only military targets. The Taliban and their supporters on the other hand want to swing international opinion with news of huge numbers of civilian casualties. Amid this claim and counter-claim it's very hard to make an objective assessment of the impact and accuracy of allied bombing. But if previous conflicts, like the Gulf and Kosovo are anything to go by, it could be that US and British Military claims are significantly over-inflated. LORD GILBERT: There was a chasm between what we thought we were hitting in terms, purely of military hardware, that's what we're talking about and what we actually did, no question about it. PROFESSOR GREG PHILO: I can't predict the future but in all previous conflicts what has happened is that we've been given a very different story afterwards than we got at the time. GROSSMAN: Going to the military for an accurate assessment of what their weapons are doing is somewhat hit and miss. In the Gulf War for example, you'll remember all those reports of Iraqi Scuds shot out of the sky by American patriot missiles. Except, actually they weren't. The official US congressional report on the conflict was damning. It concluded that despite having claimed to have shot down four times as many missiles as Iraq actually possessed, a thorough review of the photographs cannot produce even a single confirmed kill of a Scud missile. PHILO: Well in the Gulf War what we saw on television was a whole series of images of smart weapons so the visual impression was that the bombing was incredibly accurate, very high tech and extraordinarily, in a way it was almost safe. You could hit exactly the target you wanted and nobody else. But what it then turned out later on that ninety-three per cent of the bombs that had been dropped had just been traditional iron bombs, they weren't Smart weapons at all. GROSSMAN: In Kosovo too, initial bomb damage assessments, particularly against military targets proved hopelessly optimistic. During the fighting Nato claimed to have destroyed a hundred and eighty one Serbian tanks. But after the conflict when Nato troops were actually on the ground looking for wreckage they could only find physical evidence of twenty-six. LORD GILBERT: I think our intelligence was very faulty but this is not necessarily a criticism of the weapon system, you have to be careful about this. Milosovic was a master at the art of the military camouflage and deception which was part of the art of war. So he would stick up a dummy tank, you send a missile or a bomb at it or a shell, and you hit it and you say I've destroy the tank. Well of course, you haven't destroyed the tank, all you've destroyed is the dummy, but you count it as one. I do recall that the amount that rolled out when we told the Serbs they should take all their heavy equipment out, back in to Serbia, was very little different from the amount we thought they had there in the beginning. GROSSMAN: Strikes on fixed targets tend to be more accurate but are still reliant on the military's most precious resource - Intelligence. Nato thought this building in Belgrade was a Serbian defence procurement office - their bombs turned it into rubble and a major international incident. AIR VICE MARSHALL TONY MASON: A Smart bomb is only as accurate as the information which has led to its targeting. We have the very very obvious example in Kosovo, the tragic example where a B2 bomber from a height of probably thirty-five thousand feet placed three not one, two but three bombs accurately, in bad weather at night into the wing of one building. Unfortunately it was the Chinese Embassy. GROSSMAN: Deciding what to hit and trying to measure your success is a human art. In Kosovo an American pilot from three miles up thought this refugee convoy was tanks not tractors. In straining to read the grainy and blurred battlefield images wishful thinking is the enemy of accurate bomb damage assessment. ANDREW GARFIELD: You can read more in to what you're seeing than you're actually seeing. Some aspects of human nature come in to it. For example you're wishing to see success and sometimes you see success. Also the individual involved may misinterpret the information that they're seeing. So it's not necessarily some sort of conspiracy. It can be simple human error. Also, you may not wish, you may wish to present a more successful campaign to undermine an enemy's morale than perhaps is actually taking place. GROSSMAN: But when does accentuating the positive become misleading propaganda. These images released by the Pentagon this week apparently show the mosque at Herat early warning station undamaged. But we can't of course know what we're not being shown. PHILO: As soon as a war starts, everybody involved in it wants to put the best impression they can on their own side. They want to maximise their own successes, they want to say that there has not been any great cost to their own side and that all of the great costs are being borne by the other side and that that means that everybody has a vested interest in feeding in false information, or at least spun information or bent information. GROSSMAN: The news programmes and channels still of course give plenty of coverage to military claims during this conflict, however the media is now much more wary of presenting those claims entirely unchallenged. So if, for whatever reason, the military end up giving out wildly inaccurate assessments of their own achievements does it actually matter? Some in the Armed Forces and government would argue that it's their job to win a war, not keep score. And in the Gulf and Kosovo the did just that. But critics would argue that this war against terrorism is above all a battle for hearts and minds in which accuracy is vital. GARFIELD: We're not talking about a simple military campaign here. We're talking about a wider war on terrorism that requires cohesion within the alliance. It requires support, co-operation from the wider coalition. It requires the support of a lot of people in the region who are highly sceptical of the campaign that we're fighting. It's therefore important that we both demonstrate that we're being accurate, discriminate as opposed to indiscriminate and that we're releasing as much information as operational security can justify protecting. GROSSMAN: Blank paper spools into a newspaper press - politicians want to make sure that the pictures and words that are printed on it tell a story of smarter weapons and fewer casualties - but some analysts believe the inaccuracies of military claims in the past have made that result much less likely today. PHILO: At the end of the Gulf War there was a huge amount of criticism of the government and journalists then began to point back at news management practices from the time of the Gulf War where they said, for example, that they'd been misled. Journalists after that began to say well look, we are not going to be had in this way again. MASON: We've seen this trend, the increasing proportion of use of precision guided weapons, but it is only a trend and it's been accompanied by an ever increasing public expectation which has probably now gone too far. And instead of looking back and saying hey, look how we've progressed from carpet bombing to something like an eighty-five per cent chance of a precise weapon hitting its target, albeit occasionally with casualties, I think perhaps it's easy to go too far the wrong way and instead of noting the progress that's been made in the reduction of casualties, there is, tends to be, astonishment that there are any casualties at all. GROSSMAN: Propaganda and error is part of war and always will be but some think the military have now learned not to get carried away with their bomb damage assessments. One thing certainly hasn't changed since the Gulf War and Kosovo. We won't know whether what's being said this time is accurate until after the fighting stops.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.