And getting better all the time. That’s a cold comfort to Iraqis worried about death squads but it’s good to have on the record for when the Haditha charges are handed down. Which could be tomorrow.

How do you keep collateral damage down? With target lists vetted by military lawyers, computer software that weighs risk variables, rules of engagement that adapted as operations moved from combat to counterinsurgency, and an emphasis on proportionate force instead of big-bang weapons like airstrikes and artillery.

[T]he casualty figures for Iraq are much lower than those for many U.S. military campaigns of the last century. The number of civilian deaths during major combat in March and April 2003, including those caused by aerial bombing, was not significantly higher than it was in the 1991 Gulf War, even though U.S. objectives in the more recent conflict were far more ambitious and required extensive operations in densely populated Iraqi cities…

After adjusting for population size, the data suggest that … 9 times as many [civilians] died per month in South Vietnam as have died each month during the counterinsurgency period in Iraq thus far. Even if the estimates for Iraq are off by a factor of two or three, the conflict’s casualty count is far lower than that in previous U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns.

To take a specific example:

[T]he September 2005 assault on Tal Afar (an insurgent safe haven 40 miles from the Syrian border) … was planned and executed with extraordinary care. Prior to the assault, the U.S. military used radio and television messages, loudspeaker broadcasts, posters and handbills, and airdropped leaflets to encourage residents in insurgent-heavy districts to evacuate. Iraqis who left the city were provided with prepositioned humanitarian supplies in outlying areas; those who stayed were directed to remain in their homes to avoid being mistaken for insurgents. U.S. forces then struck known insurgent safe houses and defensive positions with precision-guided munitions. Attacks were carried out with continual “eyes on the target” and timed to minimize the risk to noncombatants. The bulk of the operation relied on U.S. and Iraqi ground forces, who conducted house-by-house searches. U.S. and Iraqi forces killed or captured hundreds of insurgents, and, according to the U.S. military, only three civilians were caught in the crossfire.

And yet:

Judging by a June 2003 Pew Global Attitudes survey, … over 90 percent of Jordanian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Turkish respondents and over 80 percent of Indonesian and Pakistani respondents felt that the United States “didn’t try very hard” to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq. That view was shared outside the Muslim world by over 70 percent of the Brazilians, French, Russians, and South Koreans polled.

Some of that is mindless anti-Americanism but some of it’s born of the unrealizable expectations that come with having the world’s most technologically sophisticated military. From both sides, too: people like Mark Steyn (and I) wonder why the U.S. Marines should have such trouble defeating a bunch of Arab gangs armed with mortars and machine guns while people like Human Rights Watch wonder why the they should have such trouble not killing old ladies driving too fast at checkpoints. And as the technology advances, so will the expectations. Eventually we’ll reach the point where an errant JDAM draws the same degree of coverage as Haditha has now. Perfect war or no war. And it’d better not take longer than a year or so, either.