Drone Casualties: The New Body Count (Updated)

A method of war, not a strategy

W.J. Astore

In President Obama’s drone wars, how many innocent civilians have been killed?  An official U.S. government report will suggest that roughly 100 civilians have been killed since 2009 in drone strikes, a surprisingly small number.  According to NBC News:

The Long War Journal, a project of the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank whose numbers tend to be the most favorable for U.S. policy-makers, tallied 207 civilian casualties since 2009 in 492 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. That does not include strikes in Somalia and Libya, which the Obama administration includes in its count of around 100 [civilians killed].

New America, a left-leaning Washington think tank, counted between 244 and 294 civilians killed in 547 attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as 1068 civilians were killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the vast majority since 2009.

So it’s unclear whether the Obama administration’s drone strikes have killed 100 innocents, 300 innocents, or over 1000 innocents.  Part of the discrepancy involves who is a “militant” and who is an innocent civilian.  The U.S. government tends to count all military-age males killed in drone strikes as “militants,” effectively changing the meaning of civilian to “women and children.”

In one respect, this body count doesn’t matter.  Dead is dead, whether you’re talking about 100 people or 1000.  And isn’t the death of 100 innocents enough to provoke protest if not outrage?  Think of the reaction in the U.S. to the killing of 49 innocent civilians in Orlando.  Better yet, think if a foreign government was flying drones over our skies, taking out American “terrorists” while killing a few innocent civilians now and again.  Would we dismiss 100 dead American civilians as “collateral damage,” regrettable but necessary in this foreign power’s war on terror?

Of course not.  Americans would memorialize the dead, honor them, and make them a cause for vengeance.

For all the people the U.S. government is killing overseas in hundreds of deadly drone strikes, it’s not obvious that any progress is being made in the war on terror. The wars continue, with the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan.  ISIS is on the wane, until it rebounds or morphs into another form.  What is essentially terror bombing as a weapon against terror has little chance of ending a war on terror.  Meanwhile, hammer blows from the sky against fractured societies only serve to propagate the fractures, creating new fault lines and divisions that are exploitable by the determined and the fanatical.

Indeed, we really have no clear idea whether these multi-billion dollar air campaigns are making any progress in war. Much of the data and results of these campaigns are both classified and open to bias, with reports of casualties being manipulated or “spun” by all sides.  All we really know is that innocents are killed (whether 100 or 1000) as the wars persist with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, American exceptionalism rules.  As Tom Engelhardt noted back in May of 2015:

In his public apology for deaths [of innocents by drones] that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years.  Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. “It is a cruel and bitter truth,” he said, “that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones.  This attitude has infused Obama’s global assassination program and the White House “kill list” that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen.

Drone strikes are a method of war, but they’ve become the American strategy.  The strategy, so it seems, is to keep killing bad guys until the rest give up and go home.  But the deaths of innocents, whether 100 or 1000, serve to perpetuate cycles of violence and revenge.

We have, in essence, created a perpetual killing machine.

Update (7/2/2016): Well, the Obama administration has done it again, releasing its report on drone casualties on the afternoon of Friday, July 1st, just before the long Independence Day weekend, ensuring minimal media coverage.  The report excludes “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, a convenient definition that serves to lower the death toll.

According to the report, U.S. drone strikes in places like Yemen, Libya, tribal Pakistan, and Somalia have accounted for about 2500 “terrorists” while killing 64 to 116 civilian bystanders.  The tacit message: We’re killing 25 times (or perhaps 40 times) as many “terrorists” as we are innocent civilians, a very effective (even humane?) kill ratio.

Talk about an exercise in cynical bookkeeping!  One can guess what happened here. Someone high up in the government began with the civilian body count judged acceptable: I’m guessing that figure was roughly 100.  Then, they worked backwards from that.  How do we get 100?  Well, if we exclude “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and if we squint sideways …

Well, you probably know the saying: the very first casualty in war is truth.  Followed by an honest accounting of civilian casualties, as this latest report from the Obama administration shows.

8 thoughts on “Drone Casualties: The New Body Count (Updated)

  1. William.

    Good analysis of our drone strategy, if we can call it a strategy. I’ve long thought the bad guys could not have come up with a better recruiting tool. The cumulative effect tops torture by a long shot, and, incidentally, highlights the cowardice of 99% of the American people. Cheer the war and hooah the troops, but don’t get your hands dirty or bloody in the trenches. Armed drones are made-for-TV losers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t see how we can snipe our way to victory, Walt. Meanwhile, the more we rely on drones, the more the enemy learns to adapt.

    Yet drones have become a method of choice because they play to our strength in technology, there’s no risk to U.S. pilots, and they provide political cover to politicians, who point to them as showing “progress” in the war on terror.

    But it’s that last point that’s most problematic. Progress — how so? How measured? Has anything really changed on the ground? Have we compelled the enemy to do our will? It doesn’t seem so.


    1. You ask, Bill: “Has anything really changed on the ground? Have we compelled the enemy to do our will? It doesn’t seem so.”

      Well, if you really want an answer, I would say that everything depends on what you mean by the words, “ground,” “our,” “enemy,” and “will.”

      If, for instance, you accept at face value the typically sloppy (if not deliberately vague) usage of these terms by officials and spokespersons of the U.S. government, then you might experience some slight degree of frustration — after thirteen years — at not seeing any signs of resolution to the seemingly endless conflict.

      On the other hand, if you recognize the “enemy” as the U.S. voter/taxpayer, the “gound” as the public treasury, “our” as belonging by divine right to the trans-national (i.e., “global”) corporate oligarchy, and “will” as whatever the global corporate oligarchy wishes, then you would most likely understand perfectly how utterly successful this “war” thing has been for those who have designed it, who have profitted obscenely by it, and who never, ever, want to see it end.

      In other words, please save yourself and others much mental anguish by refusing to accept and parrot officially sanctioned misnomers and duplicious disinformation regarding something called “war.” The word has become tedious and entirely meaningless when associated with the United States and anything its government has to say on the subject. Anyway, I recommend further exploration of this fundamental “follow the money” thing at the always excellent TomDispatch. See Andrew Cockburn’s superb article” The Pentagon’s Real $trategy: Keeping the Money Flowing.

      Whenever I hear any U.S. government spokesperson utter the word-like noise, “war,” in any context whatsoever, I immediately think of the pickpocket shouting, “Hey, look over there!” as a means of distracting my attention so that he/she might rob me of my wallet.


      1. Mike: To use software terminology, is U.S. bungling “feature” or “bug”? You clearly believe it’s a feature of U.S. policy, and I entirely agree that the military-industrial complex needs an enemy (or enemies) and thrives on threat inflation. But I’m not as sure as you are at the nefarious designs of U.S. policymakers. You credit them, perhaps, with too much craftiness (and success). I’m inclined to believe that much of the military’s behaviors (to include the government, but I repeat myself, to borrow a phrase) is a “bug,” a product of a flawed system that cannot right itself.

        There are smart people in the military and government who see the problems and who try to enact reforms (as during the Vietnam War). But the system itself is almost impervious to reform. Is this because it doesn’t want to reform, because it’s getting its own way (part of your thesis), or is it because it can’t reform, it can’t correct itself, because it can’t see the glitch in the matrix?

        And perhaps it’s not either/or but both. It’s both feature and bug. Or the bug has become a feature because so many profit from the bug. The bug in this case being overseas empire and perpetual war in regions of marginal interest.

        About Vietnam, Hannah Arendt said the U.S. was guilty of using excessive means in an attempt to achieve minor ends in an area of marginal interest to the U.S. Is this assessment also not true of the vast majority of our efforts in the Greater Middle East?

        Again, feature or bug? Or both? I welcome your ideas …


  3. As an additional note on that “body count” thing so beloved of U.S. politicians and generals (but I repeat myself), I especially detest the sub-category “military age males,” as if the gender and age of a Muslim person determines their “crime” and its “punishment,” i.e., death as determined at the personal whim, in complete secrecy, by the President of the United States and some of his or her hired minions. Hence, in verse, some thoughts about:

    “Felonious Military Age Muslims”

    You’ve reached the age of sixteen years
    Or maybe thirty-five
    This makes of you a “militant”
    So why are you alive?

    Our president can kill you now
    His list contains your name.
    Intended, or if by mistake,
    He’ll kill you just the same

    The bomb will kill the one it hits,
    As well as those nearby
    Who had no business being born
    Unless it was to die.

    A free-fire-zone we called this dodge,
    All over Vietnam,
    Which meant to shoot just anywhere.
    Who gives a bloody damn?

    Obama’s body counts reveal
    Upon his magic map
    Some “progress” after decades spent
    Repeating this same crap.

    But Democrats now think him “tough”
    And cheer at each new kill.
    Republicans, of course, do not,
    And never ever will.

    And so the country lurches right
    As scapegoat Muslims fall,
    And fascist brownshirts thrill to see
    Obama “standing tall.”

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2012


  4. Thank you for your response to my comments above, Bill. I’ll add some more material regarding this “feature/bug” dichotomy of yours here, hopefully leaving room for others to respond below.

    I spent fifteen years as a manufacturing planner and computer programmer for the Hughes Aircraft Company in Southern California, so I know something about software algorithms like LIFO (last In, First Out), FIFO (First in, First Out), and GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Regarding the now thoroughly privatized U.S., Government, Inc., I would especially call attention to the debilitating — if not fatal — U.S. military virus, which in BASIC code looks like this:


    Only cure for that lethal line of code? Power off, shutdown, and reboot of the system.

    To elaborate in English on what I mean by that single line of fatal U.S. military computer code above, consider the following observation by Frances Fitzgerald:

    “There was timeless quality to the American effort – which is not to say that it was static but that it was constantly moving over the same ground. … Only the faces of the young men and the numbers of hamlets changed year after year. For those who stayed in Vietnam long enough, it was like standing on the ground and watching a carousel revolve.” — Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972)


    Or, this Englsih translation from the late Barbara Tuchman:

    “A last folly was the absence of reflective thought about the nature of what we were doing, about effectiveness in relation to the object sought, about balance of possible gain as against loss and against harm both to the ally and to the United States. Absence of intelligent thinking in rulership is another of the universals, and raises the question whether in moderns states there is something about political and bureaucratic life that subdues the functioning of intellect in favor of “working the levers” without regard to rational expectations. This would seem to be an ongoing project.” — The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam (1984)

    Working the Levers


    To continue with the computer software analogy, the “designers” of the American Corporate Military “Government” (pardon the multiple redundancies) have constructed an operating system wherein the viral “bug” has become the only “feature” of the system. Since everybody in the system profits from starting and stopping and servicing and maintaining the broken Rube Goldberg machine, nobody wants to fix it so that it efficiently accomplishes something other than its own perpetuation.

    This situation reminds me of Richard McKenna’s timeless novel The Sand Pebbles, the story of a small U.S. navy crew aboard a run-down Spanish gunboat (the San Pablo) cruising the waters of the Yangtze River in pre-revolutionary China. The old boat had a dent in the hull which caused a misalignment of the propeller shaft which caused a severe wearing of the brass bushings which supported the shaft’s weight. The Chinese coolies who attended the engine did all the dirty work while the American crew paraded around on deck in their nice, white uniforms, doing physical exsercises and “showing the colors” to the bemused Chinese crowds who watched them inscrutably from the shoreline. Periodically, the wear on the bushings would become so extreme that they required replacement or the engine would tear itself apart. The Chinese coolie laborers loved this situation, though, since they collected all the brass shavings from the worn bushings and sold this scrap material on the local market to supplement their meager income. So, the more worn bushings the better from their point of view. Then came this U.S. Navy machinist mate named Jake Holman who decided to fix things, which he did, after much screaming and bitching and sabotage from the Chinese coolies who depended upon all those brass shavings for their livelihood. The old ship ran a little smoother after Jake Holman fixed it, and the Chinese coolies charged the U.S. Navy just as much money as they had before, even without having to collect and sell brass shavings from worn bushings, since the U.S. Navy didn’t know the difference or much care as long as the ship’s captain got to parade his crew around on deck in their clean, white uniforms “showing the flag.”

    So, again, the U.S. military feature/bug — or Makework Militarism, as I like to call it — has itself become the only reason for the system; and this has gone on now for so long that no one seems to remember a time when anything actually worked or that anyone actually cared if if did or not. “It’s a home and a feeder!” as the crew of the San Pablo would say, in complete self-satisfied agreement. You can’t say anything better about a U.S. Navy ship than that. So, fellow Crimestoppers, repeat after me:


    Care to explore any other metaphor/analogies, professor?


  5. Long ago, I took a course in BASIC, so I know exactly what you mean, Mike. I also took FORTRAN. It does seem as if we’re caught in an infinite loop of repetition, sort of like the movie “Groundhog Day” but without Bill Murray’s learning curve.

    What’s disturbing is how the government seemingly convinces itself that there is a learning curve, that progress is being made, that lights can be seen at the end of tunnels. But if we’re seeing light, it’s the light of our headlights being reflected back at us, blinding us until we crash, like James Bond driving his Aston Martin in “Goldfinger.”

    As Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Like the quote you cited from Daniel Ellsberg that Iraq wouldn’t be like Vietnam. Yes — it’s sand instead of jungle and a dry heat instead of a humid one, but the quagmire remains the same. And so it has proved.


  6. Fascinating discussion, gentlemen.

    “A last folly was the absence of reflective thought about the nature of what we were doing, about effectiveness in relation to the object sought, about balance of possible gain as against loss and against harm…” Wonderful line. And then the “subdued functioning” of our political class incapable of anything but working levers!
    The “Fire in the Lake” reference looks worth pursuing.. .an interesting juxtaposition in the sense of Vietnam as a process of “lever working.”

    My take on “nefarious designs” is simple. Where does “threat inflation” come from? What aspects of threat inflation are by design and how much is accidental? Who “thrives” and who doesn’t count?

    “Nefarious designs” fits the bill for me.


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