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.
Because strikes in Kabul and Baghuz, Syria add to a 20-year record of unacceptable failure to prevent civilian deaths and injuries; meaningfully investigate, acknowledge, and provide amends for harm; and provide accountability in the event of wrongdoing. This must change. https://t.co/h7YXGSTgtB
— Hina Shamsi (@HinaShamsi) December 1, 2021
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.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Policies weren’t followed; it should not be possible for a unit to “self-investigate” for civilian casualties.
See what actions should be taken: https://t.co/ITXVnJkUma
— Caitlin Howarth (she/her) (@CaitlinHowarth) December 1, 2021
“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.”
“When the US designate claims of civilian casualties as ‘not credible’, they are really saying that they do not believe civilians in the areas they are operating and that they do not believe organisations like @amnesty and @hrw.” – @chrisjwoods, speaking at #PAXPoC2021 https://t.co/PQHTHRT1MC
— Airwars (@airwars) December 2, 2021
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.