Yves here. This TomDispatch offering seeks to bring home the extent of civilian deaths at US hands in the Middle East.
Before World War II, combatants made a bit of an effort to avoid civilian casualties. But as many historians, such as Jonathan Glover in Humanity have reported, air strikes rapidly led to the rationalization of not bothering to try to avoid civilians, say if they manned or merely lived too close to factories, and then to exercises like the firebombing of Dresden, where the strikes concentrated on the city center, when the economic damage would have been greater if they’d targeted the main manufacturing operations, in the suburbs.
And speaking of firebombings….this article gives the obligatory nod to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but omits the more deadly Japanese firebombings.
As a parting shot, on its way out of Afghanistan, the United States military launched a drone attack that the Pentagon called a “righteous strike.” The final missile fired during 20 years of occupation, that August 29th airstrike averted an Islamic State car-bomb attack on the last American troops at Kabul’s airport. At least, that’s what the Pentagon told the world.
Within two weeks, a New York Times investigation would dismantle that official narrative. Seven days later, even the Pentagon admitted it. Instead of killing an ISIS suicide bomber, the United States had slaughtered 10 civilians: Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group; three of his children, Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10; Ahmadi’s cousin Naser, 30; three children of Ahmadi’s brother Romal, Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2; and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.
The names of the dead from the Kabul strike are as important as they are rare. So many civilians have been obliterated, incinerated, or — as in the August 29th attack — “shredded” in America’s forever wars. Who in the United States remembers them? Who here ever knew of them in the first place? Twenty years after 9/11, with the Afghan War declared over, combat in Iraq set to conclude, and President Joe Biden announcing the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” who will give their deaths another thought?
Americans have been killing civilians since before there was a United States. At home and abroad, civilians — Pequots, African Americans, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Filipinos, Haitians, Japanese, Germans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, and Somalis, among others — have been shot, burned, and bombed to death. The slaughter at Sand Creek, the Bud Dajo massacre, the firebombing of Dresden, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the My Lai massacre — the United States has done what it can to sweep it all under the rug through denial, cover-ups, and the most effective means of all: forgetting.
There’s little hope of Americans ever truly coming to terms with the Pequot or Haitian or Vietnamese blood on their hands. But before the forever wars slip from the news and the dead slide into the memory hole that holds several centuries worth of corpses, it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about Zemari Ahmadi, Benyamin, Hayat, Malika, Somaya, and all the civilians who were going about their lives until the U.S. military ended them.
Names Remembered and Names Forgotten
Over the last 20 years, the United States has conducted more than 93,300 air strikes — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — that killed between 22,679 and 48,308 civilians, according to figures recently released by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group. The total number of civilians who have died from direct violence in America’s wars since 9/11 tops out at 364,000 to 387,000, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
Who were those nearly 400,000 people?
There’s Malana. In 2019, at age 25, she had just given birth to a son, when her health began to deteriorate. Her relatives were driving her to a clinic in Afghanistan’s Khost Province when their vehicle was attacked by a U.S. drone, killing Malana and four others.
And Gul Mudin. He was wounded by a grenade and shot with a rifle, one of at least three civilians murdered by a U.S. Army “kill team” in Kandahar Province in 2010.
Then there was Gulalai, one of seven people, including three women — two of them pregnant — who were shot and killed in a February 12, 2010, raid by Special Operations forces in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province.
And the four members of the Razzo family — Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad, and Najib — killed in a September 20, 2015, airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.
And there were the eight men, three women, and four children — Abdul Rashid as well as Abdul Rahman, Asadullah, Hayatullah, Mohamadullah, Osman, Tahira, Nadia, Khatima, Jundullah, Soheil, Amir, and two men, ages 25 and 36 respectively, named Abdul Waheed — who were killed in a September 7, 2013, drone strike on Rashid’s red Toyota pickup in Afghanistan.
Then there were 22-year-old Lul Dahir Mohamed and her four-year-old daughter, Mariam Shilo Muse, who were killed in an April 1, 2018, airstrike in Somalia.
And between 2013 and 2020, in seven separate U.S. attacks in Yemen — six drone strikes and one raid — 36 members of the al Ameri and al Taisy families were slaughtered.
Those names we know. Or knew, if only barely and fleetingly. Then there are the countless anonymous victims like the three civilians in a blue Kia van killed by Marines in Iraq in 2003. “Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too,” wrote Peter Maass in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Years later, at the Intercept, he painted an even more vivid picture of the “blue van, with its tires shot out and its windows shattered by bullets, its interior stained with blood and smelling of death, with flies feasting on already-rotting flesh.”
Those three civilians in Iraq were all too typical of the many anonymous dead of this country’s forever wars — the man shot for carrying a flashlight in an “offensive” manner; the children killed by an “errant” rocket; the man slain by “warning shots”; the three women and one man “machine-gunned” to death; and the men, women and children reduced to “charred meat” in an American bombing.
Who were the 11 Afghans — four of them children — who died in a 2004 helicopter attack, or the “dozen or more” civilians killed in 2010 during a nighttime raid by U.S. troops in that same country? And what about those 30 pine-nut farm workers slaughtered a year later by a drone strike there? And what were the names of Mohanned Tadfi’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and seven nieces and nephews killed in the U.S. bombing that flattened the city of Raqqa, Syria, in 2017?
Often, the U.S. military had no idea whom they were killing. This country frequently carried out “signature strikes” that executed unknown people due to suspicious behavior. So often, Americans killed such individuals for little or no reason — like holding a weapon in places where, as in this country, firearms were ubiquitous — and then counted them as enemy dead. An investigation by Connecting Vets found that during a 2019 air campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, for example, the threshold for an attack “could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio” or if an Afghan carrying “commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike.”
Targeted assassinations were equally imprecise. Secret documents obtained by the Intercept revealed that, during a five-month stretch of Operation Haymaker — a drone campaign in 2011 and 2013 aimed at al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders along the Afghan-Pakistan border — 200 people were killed in airstrikes conducted to assassinate 35 high-value targets. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 people slain in those “targeted” killings were not the intended targets. So, who were they?
Even if targeting was ordinarily more accurate than during Operation Haymaker, U.S. policy has consistently adhered to the dictum that “military-age males” killed in airstrikes should automatically be classified as combatants unless proven innocent. In addition to killing people for spurious reasons, the U.S. also opted for allies who would prove at least as bad as, if not worse than, those they were fighting. For two decades, such American-taxpayer-funded warlords and militiamen murdered, raped, or shook-down the very people this country was supposedly protecting. And, of course, no one knows the names of all those killed by such allies who were being advised, trained, armed, and funded by the United States.
Who, for instance, were the two men tied to the rear fender of a Toyota pickup truck in southeastern Afghanistan in 2012 by members of an Afghan militia backed by U.S. Special Operations forces? They were, wrote reporter Anand Gopal, dragged “along six miles of rock-studded road” until they were dead. Then their “bodies were left decomposing for days, a warning to anyone who thought of disobeying Azizullah,” the U.S.-allied local commander.
Or what about the 12 boys gunned down by CIA-backed militiamen at a madrassa in the Afghan village of Omar Khail? Or the six boys similarly slain at a school in nearby Dadow Khail? Or any of the dead from 10 raids in 2018 and 2019 by that same militia, which summarily executed at least 51 civilians, including boys as young as eight years old, few of whom, wrote reporter Andrew Quilty, appeared “to have had any formal relationship with the Taliban”?
How many reporters’ notebooks are filled with the unpublished names of just such victims? Or counts of those killed? Or the stories of their deaths? And how many of those who were murdered never received even a mention in an article anywhere?
Last year, I wrote 4,500 words for the New York Times Magazine about the deteriorating situation in Burkina Faso. As I noted then, that nation was one of the largest recipients of American security aid in West Africa, even though the State Department admitted that U.S.-backed forces were implicated in a litany of human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings.
What never made it into the piece was any mention of three men who were executed in two separate attacks. On May 22, 2019, uniformed Burkinabe troops arrived in the village of Konga and took two brothers, aged 38 and 25, away in the middle of the night. The next day, a relative found them on the side of the road, bound and executed. Most of the family fled the area. “The Army came back a week later,” a relative told me. “My uncle was the only one in our family who stayed. He was shot in broad daylight.” Such deaths are ubiquitous but aren’t even factored into the 360,000-plus civilian deaths counted by the Costs of War project, which offers no estimate for those killed in America’s “smaller war zones.”
Build the Wall!
We live in a world filled with monuments celebrating lives and deaths, trailblazers and memorable events, heroes and villains. They run the gamut from civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Women’s Rights Pioneers to the chieftains of the American Confederacy and Belgium’s King Leopold.
In the United States, there’s no shortage of memorials and monuments commemorating America’s wars and fallen soldiers. One of the most poignant lists the names of the American military dead of the Vietnam War. Initially derided by hawkish veterans and conservatives as a “black gash of shame” and a “nihilistic slab,” it’s now one of the most celebrated monuments in Washington, D.C. More than 58,000 men and women are represented on the visually arresting black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Vietnam itself has no shortage of monuments of its own. Many are Soviet-style memorials to those who died defeating the United States and reuniting their country. Others are seldom-seen, tiny memorials to massacres perpetrated by the Americans and their allies. No one knows how many similar cenotaphs exist in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other forever-war countries, but in 2017, journalist Emran Feroz found just such a memorial in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province — a remembrance of five civilians slain in drone strikes during 2013 and 2014.
There have been other attempts to memorialize the civilian dead of the forever wars from art installations to innovative visual protests to virtual commemorations. In 2018, after then-President Trump signed a bill approving the construction of a Global War on Terrorism Memorial, Peter Maass proposed, even if only half-seriously, that the bullet-riddled blue Kia van he saw in Iraq should be placed on a pedestal on the National Mall. “If we start building monuments that focus our attention on the pitiless killing of civilians in our wars,” he wrote, “maybe we would have fewer wars to fight and less reason to build these monuments.”
A blue Kia on the National Mall would be a good starting point. But if we’re ever to grasp the meaning of the post-9/11 wars and all the conflicts that set the stage for them, however, we may need a wall as well — one that starts at the Kia and heads west. It would, of course, be immense. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial spans a total of 400 feet. The celebrated Vietnam War photographer Philip Jones Griffiths observed that a wall for the Vietnamese dead, counting combatants, of the American War would be nine miles long.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is arrayed in a unique chronological format, but the Civilian Deaths Memorial could begin with anyone. The last civilians killed by the United States as part of its 2001 to 2021 Afghan War – Zemari Ahmadi, Zamir, Faisal, Farzad, Naser, Arwin, Benyamin, Hayat, Malika, and Somaya – could lead it off. Then maybe Abdul Rashid and the 14 passengers from his red pick-up truck. Then Malana, Gul Mudin, Gul Rahim, Gulalai, Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad, Najib, Lul Dahir Mohamed, and Mariam Shilo Muse. Then maybe Ngo Thi Sau, Cao Muoi, Cao Thi Thong, Tran Cong Chau Em, Nguyen Thi Nhi, Cao Thi Tu, Le Thi Chuyen, Dang Thi Doi, Ngo Thi Chiec, Tran Thi Song, Nguyen Thi Mot, Nguyen Thi Hai, Nguyen Thi Ba, Nguyen Thi Bon, Ho Thi Tho, Vo Thi Hoan, Pham Thi Sau, Dinh Van Xuan, Dinh Van Ba, Tran Cong Viet, Nguyen Thi Nham, Ngo Quang Duong, Duong Thi Hien, Pham Thi Kha, Huynh Van Binh, Huynh Thi Bay, Huynh Thi Ty, Le Van Van, Le Thi Trinh, Le Thi Duong, and Le Vo Danh and her unborn child, all slaughtered in the tiny South Vietnamese village of Phi Phu by U.S. troops (without any of the attention accorded to the My Lai massacre). They could be followed by the names of, or placeholders for, the remaining two million Vietnamese civilian dead and by countless Cambodians, Laotians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, and Yemenis.
The Civilian Wall could be built in a zig-zag fashion across the country with the land in its way — homes and businesses, parks and roadways — seized by eminent domain, making Americans care about civilian deaths in ways that news articles never could. When you lose your home to a slab of granite that reads “Pequot adult, Pequot adult, Pequot child…” 500 times, you may actually take notice. When you hear about renewed attacks in Iraq or drone strikes in Somalia or a Navy SEAL raid gone awry in Yemen and worry that the path of the wall might soon turn toward your town, you’re likely to pay far more attention to America’s conflicts abroad.
Obviously, a westward-traveling wall memorializing civilian carnage is a non-starter in this country, but the next time you hear some fleeting murmur about a family wiped out by a drone strike or read a passing news story about killings by a U.S.-backed militia, think about that imaginary wall and how, in a just world, it might be headed in your direction. In the meantime, perhaps the best we can hope for is Maass’s proposal for that blue Kia on the Mall. Perhaps it could be accompanied by the inscription found on a granite slab at the Heidefriedhof, a cemetery in Dresden, Germany, the site of a mass grave for civilians killed in a 1945 U.S. and British fire-bombing. It begins: “How many died? Who knows the number?”
A genuine memorial to murdered civilians would be a wonderful idea. Its very hard to see it ever happening. I think most countries with a dubious history has gone through this, very few have come up with any effective way of memorialising innocents killed by their own governments. The very best way of course of honouring those dead is to not do it again.
As for aerial killing, Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling is well worth a read – its an investigation by a philosopher into how the mass destruction of civilian cities went from being an abhorrent war crime in 1939 to being just how war was done within 2-3 years – he gives a lot of historical context. Its often forgotten just how contraversial it was even at the time. Oddly enough, the British (maybe because they’d suffered it more during the Blitz and the Zeppelin bombings of WWI) seemed to agonise over it more than the US. It always seems to be a case of people fighting their own conscience and winning. One aspect Grayling brings up is the remarkably few examples of pilots from any side refusing orders to drop bombs on civilians – in contrast to the many cases on all sides of regular soldiers refusing orders to kill civilians in other contexts. Behind the scenes though there were refusniks, including chemical companies (often owned by Quaker families) that refused (at least initially) to manufacture phosphorous bombs.
Its hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a racial aspect as well – it always seems easier to drop bombs randomly on brown people than those of a similar complexion to the pilots. The US was far more ruthless when it came to destroying Japanese cities than German ones. When I visited Damascus in 2001 there were still bullet holes visible in the roof of the main market from French straffing of the city in the 1920’s. The British had no compunction about bombing Iraqi tribal villages from the air in the same period, at a time when this was considered unacceptable in any European wars (at least in theory). An arguable exception is the German casualness about dropping bombs from Zeppelins over any civilian city (and of course, Guernica).
TBH, even by 1939 people may have seen it as “abhorrent”, but _everyone_ expected it.
It was the infamous “bomber will always get through” and the reason why gas masks were widely distributed to civilians (since it was felt that for it to be a ‘proper’ terror bombing it had to be done with a poison gas).
What is unbelievable is that even after the German bombing, which, if anything, hardened the attitude of British, there were believers on the Allied side who genuinely believed it would achieve the strategic goal of winning the war.
While there was, undeniably, an economic effect, it was IMO relatively small compared to other things going on.
That said, bombing of German cities – expressly to get at civilians – was seen as the right thing to do by most of the Allied public. You’d put a good argument that the strategic bombing was more important for the morale at the home front than any impact on the enemy.
My understanding is that modern German historians think that the allies underestimated the military damage caused by the bombing. What is often overlooked is the enormous effort the Germans had to make to try to stave off the bombing. I can’t recall the exact figure, but I think that something like 40% of all military production near the end of the war was devoted essentially to anti-aircraft fire. They spent far more on anti-aircraft shells than on building tanks. The radars and night fighters were also hugely and disproportionately expensive. Of course, this was a ‘political’ choice made by the Nazis. They had to be seen to do things rather than allocate spending to what was really needed on the Eastern Front.
The Japanese didn’t suffer similarly since they had no resources to combat the B-29’s anyway. Likewise the North Koreans simply bunkered down and didn’t waste resources trying to combat things they could not fight (as did the Taliban and Iraqis). The Vietnamese turned the air war against the US, by putting just enough effort into attrition on air crew to raise the cost of the bombing to an unsustainable level, without distracting themselves from the ground war.
To get back to the topic of the article, I think that while there may be an arguable ethical case for bombing if it genuinely finishes a war more quickly, it is the knowledge that the US military command believed that it was useless later on the war that makes its continuation a war crime and completely unjustifiable. Its clear that, for example, the later fire bombing of Japanese cities was simply a case of having a hammer and continuing to use it because it was convenient – nobody truly believed that it had any utility whatever.
BTW, there is a wonderful Japanese anime called ‘In this Corner of the World’ which gives what appears to be a very accurate depiction of what it was like to be at the receiving end of fire bombing.
I would donate to have a civilian memorial built as I bet would many other people. Perhaps the memorial could be built at the UN or the Hague or some other place where international politicians meet.
I would like to see the memorial have listed for every war the number of military dead v. the number of civilian dead so that the true cost of wars could be seen. Wars truly are crimes against humanity but we never see them that way. Perhaps we need to be reminded over and over.
The noncombatants that died had lives that were every bit as important as the soldiers that died and they too should be remembered!
I don’t think that governments care about either soldier or civilian deaths. It’s all grist. From the treatment of damaged vets, I’d observe that governments simply want soldiers to come though either dead or essentially intact at the end of hostilities, to avoid the veteran affairs costs.
Bombing does not work.
German war production actually increased towards the end of WW2.
Tons on bombs were scattered across SE Asia and the indigenous population still won.
Japanese cities were burned to the ground. And the Japanese dominate as much as they did with the Greater Asia Co Prosperity Sphere.
North Korea infrastructure especially hydro electric plants were wrecked.
Simply flinging bombs without combined arms is folly.
Too many times bombing people was pointless and did not achieve anything worth the while. The Germans were bombed intensively but production as Bob pointed out, actually increased. The British were heavily bombed but stayed in the fight, the North Koreans were massively bombed but never quit, the Vietnamese were heavily bombed and they went on to win, Afghanistan was smashed but they too went on to win. So why does it happen? Maybe because it looks like results are being achieved and can be measured/managed. Sometimes it comes down to revenge like when Biden bombed the advancing Taliban with B-52s, A-10 Thunderbolts and everything else that could be sent. So why does it continue? Maybe because, as one WW2 American combat vet put it, the dead do not complain.
Bill almost became first gentleman
Turse wrote an excellent book on the US military in Vietnam, but it’s important to remember what his basic argument was: that the pressure to demonstrate “results” led to a policy of widespread and indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese civilians who were just in the wrong place. Here, he doesn’t really have an argument at all, just a set of disconnected assertions. It’s important to remember that “civilian” is not a legal category here: the law of war distinguishes between “combatants” (essentially regular troops) and “non-combatants,” who are protected so long as they don’t engage in hostilities. (The latter include, for example, soldiers who have surrendered). Only “military objectives” (and there’s a definition) may be attacked. “Civilians” who take part in the fighting are legitimate targets, even if they are women and children. So far so simple, but this tidy arrangement beloved of lawyers describes a type of war that had pretty much finished even by 1939, and is now grotesquely removed from the reality. Most conflicts today are fought by non-combatants in the legal sense, not wearing uniforms, not carrying weapons openly, alternating between “civilian” and military functions and blending into the “civilian” population where they hide, and using bombs and suicide bombers as their basic tactics. In spite of some timid attempts (like the Additional Protocols to the GC in 1977) the NGO-Legal Industrial complex has basically failed to grapple with the nature of war as it exists today.
OK, strategic bombing first. The theory was that the weak point of a modern country in wartime was industrial production and the willingness of the civilian population to go to work. This was certainly true (WW2 was in large part a production war) but the only way that could be attacked was by air. Strategic bombing advocates argued that in this way, the war could be brought to a very swift conclusion without the need for long and bloody battles. Many intellectuals of the time (Orwell was one) argued that this was a more humane form of war. Their opponents argued, normatively, that “civilians” should not be targets, even if the result was a longer and bloodier war than would otherwise be the case. In the end, whilst strategic bombing was perhaps a bit more effective than some of its critics have claimed, it was essentially a failure in what it promised.
For the rest, the law has always recognised that “civilian” casualties (even if it doesn’t call them that) are inevitable in war. The two requirements are not to attack non-military targets deliberately, and not to use force indiscriminately. Clearly, the US in Afghanistan has been guilty of both of these things. But “war” these days is not the organised rough sport of the period 1870-1939, governed by rules and honour. It’s gone back to what it has been for most of human history. Most irregular conflicts (like Afghanistan) see large numbers of civilian deaths: national liberation struggles, in Algeria, in Mozambique, in Rhodesia, in Vietnam to some extent, were prosecuted by the insurgents with violence and intimidation against their own people, especially those suspected of “collaboration.” That’s pretty much the norm, these days. Which leads to a number of questions of course: is a building where bombs are being assembled a “military target”? Is a car carrying suicide bombers a “military target”? Is an individual with a backpack, walking quickly towards a government building and disobeying orders to stop a “military target?” If you are wrong you could kill innocent people. If you’re right you could still kill innocent people.If you can’t decide, innocent people will probably die anyway. In Europe, where a terrifying spasm of violence has claimed the lives of more than 300 “civilians” at the hands of the Islamic State, this is not a theoretical issue. The IS is regrouping in the Maghreb and West Africa, and we await the next round of atrocities here. There’s an urgent need to rethink what is and isn’t acceptable tactics against groups who don’t correspond to any traditional definition of combatants, who don’t understand the concept of “civilians” and for whom all non-believers (including Mr Turse if he happens to be visiting Europe) are legitimate targets. In the meantime articles like this one may provide certain readers with a pleasurable thrill of righteous anger, but it’s hard to tell what other purpose they serve.
You make a good point that the author should be making a distinction between combatants and non-combatants, as the Geneva Convention does, rather than between soldiers and civilians. However, the ghastly disparity in numbers remains the same.
Regarding a ‘terrifying spate of violence’ which you say has killed 300 non-combatants in Europe, surely this doesn’t remotely compare to the millions of innocents killed by the west’s wars of choice.
Why should it? The two are not related except in the most casual of senses. The IS is the latest iteration of groups that have been around since at least the 1920s, and brought death and destruction to Algeria, for example, in the 90s. They have no connection with Afghanistan, and only an opportunist connection with Iraq. Would someone like to put a figure on the number of deaths Europeans should suffer without fighting back? To the nearest ten thousand perhaps ? The fact is that these people are there, their ideology holds that you and I can and should be killed as unbelievers, and there is a need to confront that problem.
But how and why would bombing people in, say, Algeria, prevent radicals from massacring people in Europe?
Your comments are absurd. Nick Turse knows far more about war crimes than you will ever know. Droning unarmed civilians is always a war crime. Regardless of whether they do or do not support the “enemy”. A family driving to the market may secretly support the objectives of al-Queda. That does not make them legitimate military targets.
Where on earth did I say they were? Did you read what I wrote ? Obviously deliberate attacks against civilians are a crime. That’s what I said. Turse , though he wrote a good book some time ago, is here venturing into areas where he’s far from an expert. He ‘s on a political rant, that’s all.
You should consider consulting to the Pentagon, if you don’t already. It pays well, the perks are great and you’ve got the right attitude. No need to even get into the origins of the IS, who’s funded and supported them and why they might want to kill a relative handful of Europeans. They’d rather kill ‘muricans but there’s that ocean crossing thing. Three and four year old children (and younger) can be legitimate targets, really?
There already is a well-known memorial to civilians who were massacred in a bombing raid that even at the time was considered gratuitous and cruel. That is, Picasso’s painting, Guernica, which commemorates the destruction of the town. Guernica has historic importance to the Basques, but at the time, the ways that the lines were, Guernica had no strategic importance. So the raid was to terrorize the population and, some speculate, to test some new techniques.
If there is to be a memorial, rather than something grandiose and abstract, which is what modern memorials tend toward–think of the memorial at the World Trade Center in NYC–it may be better to start with Guernica. It is still a remarkable painting, and if you have had a chance to see it, it is much bigger and more overwhelming than one expects.
I would take issue with a claim that “[B]efore World War II, combatants made a bit of an effort to avoid civilian casualties.” In Europe for a brief period in the 18th and 19th centuries that might have been true, when wars were fought between ruling families who were related over possessions they didn’t want damaged any more than necessary and with generalship soaked in the ethos of the playing fields of Eton, but with this exception civilians have rarely enjoyed any privileges. During the Crusades the Biblical examples of Joshua and David, who liberally exterminated entire populations, was eagerly followed while for most of the medieval period cities that were besieged and refused to surrender were often ‘put to the sword’ pour encourager les autres. Even during periods of gentlemanly war in Europe the British in particular in India and South Africa etc. were far from gentlemanly in their treatment of civilian populations.
During WW2 the bombing campaign made a huge demand on precious resources and would only have been persisted with if the High Command had believed it justified for the war effort, and to suggest it should just have targeted “the main manufacturing operations, in the suburbs” is unrealistic. Given the technology of the day it was all the bombers could do to hit something the size of a city! It was also believed and hoped that such attacks would destroy vital transport hubs such as major railway stations and, by forcing major civilian exoduses as refugees onto the roads, hamper military movements and overwhelm the authorities with their needs. It was often the case, too, that such attacks were preceded by leaflet campaigns warning of the bombing to come, perhaps to try to provoke such exoduses while also to some extent assuaging the consciences of the Generals.
In any war civilians will be caught in the crossfire, which is invariably seen as an unavoidable tragedy and necessary evil. They can also, as in some of the cases above, become a weapon in their own right but only as a means to an end. “Shortening the war” is often used as a justification. Where ‘the line is crossed’ is if there is no such ‘justification.’ An individual soldier killing a civilian just because he can, or an atomic bomb dropped on a city when its effectiveness could just have well been demonstrated in open country is without question a crime.
However, the point I think Turse is making is that however much ‘collateral damage’ to civilians might be justified at the time as unavoidable and/or a necessary evil within the context of the particular war, it can never be justified if the war itself is unjustified. Hence to the extent that the US and its allies had no legitimate defensive reason to be in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan et al in the first place, all and any civilian deaths – and even perhaps the deaths of the ‘enemy’ combatants who took up arms against them – are blots on the consciences of those nations which should be recognised and acknowledged.
The bombing advocates were making promises like that they could end the war in Europe by 1943. That didn’t happen. German war production not only held steady, it was able to increase thanks to the refinements Speer put in place. Now that’s obviously in the context of the constant strategic bombing (it would have been far higher if there was no bombing). But it was abundantly clear years before the war ended that “just bomb more” wasn’t going to work. In the end the allies had to invade Germany and fight all the way to the Reichstag.
The British at least were explicitly targeting civilians, partly out of a desire for revenge. This wasn’t just victims getting caught in crossfire: