I had a very interesting twitter conversation last night with CJ Chivers, who co-wrote the NYT piece on collateral damage in Libya. He direct messaged me as he caught some of my snark about the story. I was reacting to the apparent surprise that NATO was not perfect, that it had killed "scores" of civilians in the course of the campaign. While unfortunate, I had considered this actually to be quite low and thus surprised at tone of the piece.
Chivers indicated that the problem was not so much the casualties but NATO's denial of them. This led to a 140 characters at a time conversation about NATO and its inability to communicate about things that are pretty ordinary. One of the problems of alliance warfare, he argued (and I need to take seriously as Dave and I near the end of our odyssey on NATO and Afghanistan) is the desire to avoid blame. Not only is burden-sharing a key problem, but blame-sharing as well. If NATO identities incidents where civilians were mistakenly targeted, that is likely to lead to one country getting heaps of blame (not unlike the Kunduz bombing of 2009 where the Germans screwed up royally, killing more civilians in one attack than NATO did during the entire Libyan campaign). So, NATO hems and haws, and plays pass the buck game with the media.
NATO has not been pushed to be more accountable in Libya because there is no President Karzai making the mistakes more important than the successes. In Afghanistan, talking about collateral damage is a political campaign tactic. In Libya, the rebels have heaps of gratitude so they have not been interested in examining NATO's mistakes.
This, of course, is yet another situation where a bit of transparency goes a long way. If NATO were straightforward about this kind of thing, the NYT would not feel compelled to put on its front page an exhaustive story about the mistakes made and the lessons that need to be learned.
Indeed, lesson learning--militaries do heaps of it to make sure they do not repeat errors. Civilians are doing more of it--Canada is doing its first lessons learned exercise for the civilian side of things after Afghanistan. But alliances? Not so much. And relying on bad numbers is not going to foster improved lessons. Maybe we all need to take a look at the politics of numbers.
And the lessons I learned are: (a) the internet is mighty cool since it allowed me to converse with an impressive journalist who did some mighty brave reporting in the midst of a chaotic civil war; and (b) the tendency to snark via twitter can mean that one misses the heart of an argument.