Imagine you are the sheriff and you want to save someone in distress. Perhaps the person is being held hostage by gangsters.
So you burst into his house with a machine gun and thank goodness you kill the gangsters, or most of them. And you manage to save the hostage. However, in that process of bravery you also end up killing his wife, children, relatives, friends of hostage. The term is "collateral damage". Unintended killings, you see.
What, if any, moral lessons you can draw from this narative?
In Vietnam the failed war policy was summed up by a marine telling a CBS TV news reporter that he had to burn down the village to "save" it from too many Vietcong's either living there or being helped by the village he just torched.
By war's end, an estimated 2 millions civilians were killed in South Vietnam and 2 millions more killed in North Vietnam. Another 1 million north and south communist military personnel were killed. All those deaths were based on the American belief, so clearly articulated by the Secretary of State Dean Rusk in his testimony to the US Senate that "if we don't fight them in Vietnam we will have to fight them in Los Angeles armed with nuclear weapons". The "them" were "Red Chinese", not even the Vietnamese.
In Iraq, civilian deaths? Read this.
The rationale, if you recall, was Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons of mass destruction. So, if you don't get him there, you will see mushroom clouds over New York. Turned out the Twin Towers were destroyed by Al Qaeda, not even welcomed in Saddam's Iraq. And they were mostly Saudi's whose king is a "loyal" friend of the US for generations.
In Afghanistan, the rationale is if you don't destroy the Talibans and Al Qaeda there, you will have to fight them again in New York and this time both Empire State and Chrysler Buildings will be destroyed, and that's just for starters. Actually, no one has said precisely that, but the logic is the same.
Frank Rich in this article in today's NY Times correctly argues that even if you managed to "save" Afghanistan from the Talibans and the Al Qaeda terrotists, that would not be the end of it. Victory will be illusory.
Bin Laden and his gang can still operate in Pakistan or some place in muslim Africa where they enjoy widespread sympathy. So, are we going to attack some countries in Africa in order to "save" them?