Pentagon Blasted for ‘Unacceptable Failure’ to Reckon With Civilian Casualties

Yves here. Jonathan Glover’s classic Humanity, which details some of the key horrors of the 20th century, devotes a chapter to the rise in indifference to civilian deaths during World War II. Although he does not quite state it this way, it was technology-driven. Aerial bombing, particularly targeting transportation networks and factories, was an important way of reducing the enemy’s ability to wage war. But bombs weren’t very precise. And that bled into attacks to terrorize the public, starting with Britain’s apparently accidental bombing of Berlin, which led to Hitler retaliating with the Blitz (which ironically was a significant contributor to Germany’s defeat; the Blitz halted the German campaign to destroy RAF planes and airstrips).

What makes America’s cavalier attitude toward civilian deaths reprehensible (even charitably assuming our wars and nation-breaking exercises make any sense) is our much improved surveillance and targeting capabilities means we ought to be able to tamp down on the collateral damage. And that’s not just a matter of morality but also practicality. More deaths of innocents means more enmity, particularly in cultures that carry grudges for many generations. Yet it’s clear US leadership can’t be bothered.

By Brett Wilkins. Originally published at Common Dreams

Days after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a new investigation into a clandestine airstrike that killed scores of Syrian noncombatants whose deaths were subsequently covered up, 24 advocacy groups on Wednesday published an open letter calling on the Pentagon to “reckon with U.S.-caused civilian casualties and commit to urgent reforms.”

“We urge you to… commit to finally implementing structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm.”

The letter, addressed to Austin, expresses “grave concerns” about the Pentagon’s “civilian harm policies and practices and their impact,” citing an August 29 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 10 civiliansincluding an aid worker and seven children, as well as a March 18, 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria in which around 70 civilians died and was “flagged as a possible war crime by at least one Defense Department lawyer.”

“These strikes, and the Defense Department’s record of civilian harm over the past 20 years, illustrate an unacceptable failure to prioritize civilian protection in the use of lethal force; meaningfully investigate, acknowledge, and provide amends when harm occurs; and provide accountability in the event of wrongdoing,” the signers continue.

While determining the exact number of civilians killed during 21 years of the U.S.-led so-called War on Terror is impossible given that the United States doesn’t “do body counts” or, in many cases, adequately investigate who has been harmed by airstrikes and other attacks, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs says 900,000 noncombatants have died. Other groups contend that number could be perhaps twice as high.

The bulk of these casualties occurred during the administration of former President George W. Bush. His successor, former President Barack Obama, bombed more countries and dramatically expanded unmanned aerial drone strikes, while former President Donald Trump presided over the deaths of thousands of civilians after promising to “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State militants and their families, and relaxing rules of engagement meant to protect noncombatants.

With the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and increasingly infrequent U.S. attacks in the ongoing War on Terror, civilian casualties have declined dramatically under President Joe Biden. However, monitoring groups including U.K.-based Airwars have periodically reportednoncombatant deaths and injuries caused by U.S. attacks in at least Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

“For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies,” the letter argues. “This needs to change.”

“The Defense Department’s response to the Kabul and Baghuz strikes also underscores the department’s repeated failure to adequately investigate alleged civilian harm—including possible war crimes, as required under international law—and provide compensation or amends,” it adds.

“We urge you to robustly account for and reckon with the civilian harm of the last 20 years,” the signers assert, “and commit to finally implementing structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm.”

The groups’ demand came as the PAX Protection of Civilians conference kicked off in The Hague and online, with speakers including Airwars co-founder Chris Woods and survivors of a 2015 U.S.-backed Dutch airstrike on the Iraqi city of Hawija that killed 70 civilians.

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  1. cnchal

    Blasted? Wanna know what will actually blast the Pentagon? How about a $500 billion budget cut, for starters then $100 billion per year after till it’s close to zero.

    Let’s cut the “war on terror” misdirection. It is war “of” terror.

    . . . and Julian is still in hell for exposing military criminality, while the war mongering MSM has heart warming stories every second night about the surprise homecoming of a soldier, look there is David Muir smirking away – aww look at them happy kids with their crippled dad, ain’t we great country or what?

  2. The Rev Kev

    In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, they had an ‘acceptable’ number of collateral kills to get one target. So if you killed your target with a drone, the other kills like friends, neighbours, passer-bys could be ignored but I forget the ratio that they used. It could have been as high as seventeen to one. So these civilian casualties simply became a ‘cost of doing business’.

    Maybe the problem is that the Pentagon planners were concentrating on the kills without thinking about why they were killing in the first place and to what end. Killing became the metric that defined their success, just like the body count of the Vietnam era, but it didn’t work then and it didn’t work now. If you read about US military gear, it is all about the ‘lethality’ factor and it did not matter if you were taking about a drone or a mortar (or even goggles) – it was all about how lethal it was.

    And this type of thinking permeated itself across the Pentagon. It is like the old argument of efficiency versus effectiveness. But because you can measure kills more readily than efficiency, it became a lazy way of defining success and the result is all these civilian casualties that we see – as well as the many more that we don’t. The most important thing to realize here is that you can put kills into a database or a PowerPoint file. But you cannot do the same for effectiveness so the Pentagon planners went with the former not realizing – or ignoring – that it was the later which determined if the war was going to be won or not.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Every military commander knows that if he has more men and weapons at his disposal than the enemy, the simplest way to win a war is to be utterly ruthless in using his resources. There are alternatives, but they are usually very hard work. The question of whether there are non-ruthless alternatives go back as far as we have records – some kings and emperors thought there was a value in being considered merciful by your enemies, but they were probably a minority.

    But even the worst authoritarian states try to hide this from their citizenry – nobody wants to think ‘we are the bad guys‘. The Nazis and Japanese governments in WWII went to extraordinary lengths to hide their atrocities from their own citizens. What this indicates is that the only limiting factor on the military is the perception of their own people (or in some cases, international opinion). The European colonial nations usually did what they wanted in the darker depths of Africa or Asia, but had to be a little more considered in areas frequented by independant foreign correspondents. The Belgians were only forced to stop treating the Congo as a giant slave state by public opinion in other European countries, including other colonisers. Britain was constrained in what it could do in Ireland in 1918 by fear of US public opinion turning against it, but never had the same constraints in India.

    So the Pentagon will go as far as it can, but will only stop when public opinion turns against it. Mai Lai changed policy in Vietnam, but there were many unrecorded Mai Lai’s that had no impact because the reporting was suppressed (Nick Turse has an excellent history of this).

    Appealing to the better nature of military commanders will never change things, because their primary job is to win conflicts with the minimum cost of their own soldiers. Only transparency will change things. This is why Julian Assange is where he is.

    1. LowellHighlander


      I agree that “appealing to the better nature of military commanders will never change things”. But, as an Economist and Veteran, I want to proffer a way that might well result in change.

      There’s a concept prevalent in [neo-classical] economics called “moral hazard”. As I understand it, the concept means that an actor will continue engaging in behavior until that actor has to bear the brunt of the behavior’s consequences. As far as I’ve ever heard, military actors were not excluded from this concept; they’re human, too.

      What would this imply? Simple: if a military commander(s) has committed a war crime, that commander must face the full, legal consequences. Think how future commanders will then behave if they know they will be prosecuted for engaging in such behavior (i.e. killing innocent civilians).

      Let me state that I abhor having to resort to such “logic”; I think the case is much more sound on purely ethical grounds, but I’m not much of a philosopher. But I think we can all agree that letting some of these guys kill at will, like the U.S. Navy commander who shot down that civilian Iranian airliner, is just beyond criminal and must be treated as such.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        So far as I’m aware, that principle already exists in international law. Several Japanese generals were executed after WWII on the basis of atrocities committed by their soldiers, despite very weak evidence that there were any direct orders to do so.

        One reason its not applied more widely is that nobody knows where the buck would stop. The German generals responsible for killing thousands of Dutch civilians when they opened up the dykes to stop the allied advance were to face trial until they suggested that they’d call the RAF commanders of the dam busters raid as witnesses for the prosecution.

    2. Andrew Watts

      Politicians would rather externalize the cost of human life onto civilians rather than the armed forces. It isn’t good optics for them to have flag laden coffins coming home from the wars of choice they support. When the primary goal of your military planners is force protection at all costs civilian casualties are inevitable. The level of force protection afforded to the military is ultimately a political decision.

  4. JCC

    Today’s Useful Idiots interview with Oliver Stone covers some of the root cause of all this. When you live in a country that has an economy that is primarily a war-based economy, what else can you expect?

    The entire show is well worth watching, one of the better shows they’ve done, but the link I’m providing starts at the interview

  5. synoia

    Atrocities Missing in the list are Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those killed a few a few non-combatants.

    The repeated use of Agent Orange in Vietnam also killed covilians.

    1. Telee

      “For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies,”

      This are commitments the US has NEVER made in practice, only in words. For example after dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the NYT front page headline was that there was no evidence of radioactivity from the A bombs.

    2. Tom Stone

      Dresden and the firebombing of Tokyo.
      Every “War of Choice” is explicitly a crime under International Law and the crimes and atrocities that flow from those Wars of Choice number in the millions.

  6. Andrew Watts

    The siege of Baghuz was essentially a World War I type battle at what was basically a refugee camp filled with trenches and tunnels. It’s unreasonable to expect there wouldn’t be any mass amount of civilian casualties in that environment. It’s that reason among many why I’m guessing the legal status of the strike will remain ambiguous. It isn’t hard to believe Daesh would use human shields to cover their attacks during the siege either.

    They started to use human shields among evacuating civilians ever since the liberation of Tabqa. There would be a suicide bomber among fleeing refugees, or they’d fake surrender, and then try to trigger their suicide vests, The situation was further complicated by the fact that evacuating civilians admitted they took part in the battle on more than one occasion. If you didn’t fight towards the end at Daesh’s last stand in Baghuz you didn’t eat. The presence of child-soldiers and women wasn’t an uncommon sight on the battlefield.

    The responsibility for ending the battle was ultimately in Daesh’s hands. Their situation was hopeless and their choices were to either surrender or die. Any evacuation to Idlib was out of the question. Most of them chose to surrender, but that begs the question why they held out for so long. I believe it’s because they were hoping for a glorious last stand that the NY Times reported it as by comparing it to the Alamo. Though the last stand at the Alamo served a greater military purpose to buy Austin time to rally his forces. It was a delaying action that paid dividends and not comparable at all.

    I suppose there’s an argument to be made that civilian / non-combatant casualties could’ve been reduced by sending in professional Western ground forces. But with all due respect to a French Colonel of artillery who took part in the battle I fail to see how this would’ve reduced casualties as resistance would’ve been much fiercer. It would’ve given Daesh exactly what they wanted, and apparently holding out for, instead of what they received.

  7. NotThePilot

    I guess the way I think about this is that we should first separate idealism from realism. The world would obviously be a better place if recognizing civilians vs. soldiers or non-aggression were the baseline human condition.

    Unfortunately though, a lot of people see these ideas of right & wrong applying only to those like themselves. For outsiders, the rule is “the strong do as they will, the weak suffer what they must.” That, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for flirting with total war, even if they take centuries to manifest. The same people are just too short-sighted & tribal to recognize them.

    With that in mind, I think there are actually 3 things going on here:
    1. Perhaps the humanitarian procedures in American war were never about humanitarian principles, but rather maintaining the appearance of them. By conflating these procedures with people’s common-sense notions of justice, people can sometimes be persuaded the procedures confer legitimacy, even in the absence of real justice.

    2. There has always been one ultimate source of accountability in war: the enemy. Funny enough, I think the subconscious realization of this often drives both hawks & doves some. The hawks hope to continually push off the inevitable day some bruised tribe find themselves on top & looking for vengeance. Whatever their other beliefs, I think doves often hope that by stopping a conflict, there can be forgiveness and that accounting never takes place. To be fair, I think that can happen if both sides feel they’ve traded licks somewhat equally.

    3. Perhaps the greatest restraint on war in a society isn’t actually dovishness, which still identifies as part of the society, even if a counter-movement. And it isn’t war-weariness, which is really just the flip-side of jingoism as long as things go well for the tribe. But what if the tribal identity itself breaks down, and the society erases the old definitions of “us” and “them?” By then acting & living with new definitions, and making the inevitable sacrifices that come with that, part of a society preempts even the enemy & holds itself to account.

  8. Synoia

    It is clear, it is the US maintaining Imperialism, pure and simple.

    All the other words actions are propaganda to disguise that the US is, and always was, an Imperial power – If you doubt that, ask the Indiana in the US.

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