U.S. Air Strikes and Civilian Deaths in the War on Terror

Mosul, Iraq: Destroying the City to Save It?

W.J. Astore

U.S. and Coalition forces have seriously undercounted the number of civilians killed in air attacks against ISIS.  That is the key finding of an 18-month-long investigation led by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal and published this week in the New York Times Magazine.  Khan/Gopal surveyed 103 sites of air strikes in northern Iraq, extrapolating from these attacks into other regions in which the Coalition launched air attacks against ISIS since 2014.  They conclude that between 8000 and 10,000 civilians have been killed in these attacks, far higher than the U.S. government’s estimate of roughly 500 civilians killed (or the 3000 civilian deaths estimated by Airwars.org over this same period).

Does it matter to Americans if the true count of civilian deaths is closer to 10,000 than 500?  To most Americans, sadly, I’m not sure it matters.  Not if these air strikes are described and defended as saving American and Coalition lives as well as killing terrorists.

Airwars.org keeps a running tally of U.S. and Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.  Their website today (11/19/17) records 28,380 strikes over an almost four-year period, using 102,082 bombs and missiles.  It would be remarkable if only a few hundred innocents were killed by such an astonishing number of bombs and missiles, and indeed they estimate that nearly 6000 civilians have been killed in these attacks.

Why are U.S./Coalition figures so much lower than those estimated by Khan/Gopal and Airwars.org?

In March 2013, I wrote an article for TomDispatch in which I explained that airpower and bombing missions are neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive.  More recently, I lamented the horrific euphemism of “collateral damage,” a term often used to elide the realities of death by bombing.  There are good reasons why officialdom in Washington is content to undercount the number of civilians killed in bombing and drone attacks overseas.  Some are obvious; others perhaps less so:

  1. It’s not in the best interests of the U.S. military to give a full and honest accounting of civilian casualties, so they don’t.
  2. A full and honest accounting requires direct investigations (boots on the ground) like the ones conducted by Khan/Gopal. These are not generally done, partly because they would expose U.S. troops to considerable risk.
  3. A full and honest accounting might suggest that air attacks are too costly, murderously so.  The Coalition and the U.S. military prefer to advertise airpower as a “precise” and “decisive” weapon, and of course the Coalition relies on airpower to keep their casualties limited.
  4. Related to (3), as airpower is sold as “surgical” and decisive, there are billions and billions of dollars riding on this image.  Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in warplanes, drones, and munitions.  Is the U.S. willing to suggest that this approach is often not that effective in the “war on terror”?  Even worse, that it results in the death and grievous wounding of thousands of innocent men, women, and children? That it may, in fact, exacerbate terrorism and intensify the war?
  5. Another possible angle: Do you want to tell pilots and other crew members that their bombs and missiles often kill innocents rather than the enemy? What would that do to morale?

When civilian deaths are mentioned in the U.S. media, they are often explained, or explained away, as the byproduct of ISIS/ISIL using innocents as human shields, or of the messiness and unpredictability of urban warfare in densely packed cities like Mosul.  But the Khan/Gopal study notes that civilian deaths from the air war are often due to poor intelligence – a failure of process, the result of insufficient resources and inadequate understanding of events on the ground.  In a word, negligence.

Again, do Americans care about civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria or other faraway places?  We seem to have a blasé attitude toward foreign peoples being killed at a distance in air strikes.  I suppose this is so because those killings are termed “accidental” by military spokesmen even as they’re attributed to a nefarious enemy or to technological errors.  It’s also so because these deaths have been both undercounted and underreported in America.

In showing that the U.S. government seriously undercounts civilian casualties and by highlighting systemic flaws in intelligence-gathering and targeting, the Khan/Gopal study makes a major contribution to our understanding of the true costs of America’s endless war on terror.

14 thoughts on “U.S. Air Strikes and Civilian Deaths in the War on Terror

  1. Old habits die hard. We did the same in Hue after the Tet offensive in 1968. Just another version of “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”


  2. Hi Bill,

    You don’t mention Iraqi Kurdish military intelligence’s much higher estimate of 40,000 civilians killed in Mosul alone, which I wrote about couple of months ago. Mosul was not demolished just by air strikes, but also by U.S., French and Iraqi heavy howitzers and U.S. Marine 220 lb HiMARS rockets, none of which are “precision” weapons, although the rockets are supposed to be more accurate than howitzers. In any case, the accuracy of U.S. precision air-launched weapons was estimated at only 75-80% during Shock and Awe only 14 years ago, and I have yet to see any convincing evidence that it has improved dramatically since then. As a retired Air Force officer, maybe you can shed some light on that: https://consortiumnews.com/2017/08/21/covering-up-the-massacre-of-mosul/

    Peace! Nicolas Davies


    1. Hi Nicolas: yes — photos of Mosul remind me of Stalingrad in World War II. Devastating urban warfare. Destroying a city to save it makes no sense whatsoever.

      With respect to the air war, I think we wage war in a way that we believe plays to our strengths while limiting our casualties. We have airplanes, drones, and GPS bombs and missiles, and the enemy doesn’t. We see these as our “force multipliers,” as well as evidence of our technological superiority. They are our “edge.” Just as in Vietnam, we relied on technology as an “edge” — bombs, missiles, Agent Orange, etc.

      The thing is, technology is largely neutralized in “messy” environments, whether in the jungles of Vietnam or the blasted urban landscape of Mosul. Nevertheless, we persist because the alternative is either more boots on the ground, i.e. higher casualties among our forces, or retreat (and we refuse to retreat because no American wants to be seen as a “loser”).

      I might also add that this is a very expensive form of warfare — and that various drone, bomb, and missile builders are profiting handsomely from our profligate expenditure of munitions.


    2. USA, specializes in defensive and offensive Military . They spend billions on this. my Question: What if some of this were spent on peaceful solutions to conflicts? my next question: Is this what the Chinese intend threw mutually beneficial trade?


  3. When a govt official justifies death of half a million babies as “worth it”, though it is shocking that civilian deaths are undercounted, it is not surprising as “foreign lives” just do not matter whether they are in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or Syria or Yemen. Raqqa has been destroyed to save it from the ISIS with horrible casualties, underreported and still challenged by the general in charge! Will we hear from the power elite, millions starving in Yemen is justified or “we came,we saw, he died!!”? And does the US govt really know who the enemy is?? Reports of support for ISIS factions are not difficult to find.
    And for the first time in six years, the number of U.S. troops killed in overseas operations has increased over the previous year. But who cares? They are not the family members of warmongers!
    Is there any hope for those in harm’s way?


    1. Over population that collects at the foot of “International Big Oil” every discovery and decide that because they are present “Big Oil International” owes them something?


  4. I recall one particular incident when our company was out in the bush in Vietnam and made contact with the NVA near the Cambodian Border. Rather then some gung ho charge, we pulled back about a half a click. The F.O. who was with us told us to get our heads down as an airstrike was coming. I could hear the jet engines and then boom-boom. The concussion could be clearly felt, the ground shook and then the shrapnel came whizzing through. One large piece landed about 6 feet or so away. It resembled a twisted pipe wrench.

    I recall reading a book about WW 1. One section mentioned the high caliber artillery developed between the American Civil War and WW 1 came as shock to medical personnel. Soldiers were killed but they had no external injuries. Autopsies determined they were killed by the concussion, their insides were torn apart.

    As I have mentioned before here we have numbed warfare or sanitized warfare. As Americans far from the battle, we do not see the bodies. Our Media CNN, MSNBC, and FOX censor any and all reporting from the front. Thus, most Americans can be dismissive at best or simply ignore the effects of our destruction.

    You mentioned Stalingrad. Some books about that battle record the reactions of the Soviet soldiers and civilians. They were angered that the Germans had come all the way to Stalingrad to destroy the city and the people in it. The anger stoked by Soviet writers became an enduring hatred of the German people.

    The American Corporate Media blames ISIS or whoever is the villain of the day for the destruction. They leave out the chapter where Bush the Younger invaded Iraq and caused this cascading catastrophe.


    1. ‘Cascading disaster’ is an apt term. It also concerns the indiscriminate killing of terrorist leaders, whether taliban, Al Quaeda, ISIS or whatever else.
      In addition to the heavily underreported civilian casualties as mentioned above, it increases the ferocity of those terrorist outfits. Not just because they want to show the world how strong they are as by now is acknowledged by most people with a sane mind.
      There is another element which arguably is even worse, as it is virtually impossible to reverse. Each ‘neutralised’ leader leaves a power void within his organisation and a number of usually younger and more ruthless members start fighting among each other to take over. With cruelty and spectacular attacks obviously being stronger ‘election’ arguments than a ‘softy’ willingness and capacity for peaceful dialogue …

      Thus in Afghanistan the original taliban – the ones who were ousted in 2001 – probably could have been convinced to take part in negotiations. They were an unsavoury lot to have as a government, with medieval habits, but not terrorists like the ones nowadays. Few people know that in 2000 the British charity Christianaid (yes, with such a ‘provocative’ name) had an office there, run by a female Australian doctor with her husband and little Sam, their six months old baby son. They enjoyed it very much and the taliban had no objection against a foreign woman providing medical care to women and children, despite the obvious need for careful diplomacy.
      Since then however, there have been so many cascading series of ‘eliminations’ of taliban leaders at all levels – all for the purpose of PR spin rather than any coherent strategy – that we now have the umptiest generation, which has lost whatever dignity and humanity their predecessors may have had.
      Not to mention the fact that as we knew the original ones, they were relatively predictable, while each new batch needs to be infiltrated, investigated and analysed from scratch. After which we kill those too. What a waste of energy and knowledge! But Trump believes that the evident lack of success is caused by too little rather than too much bombing/eliminating, so this vicious cascade can be expected to go on and on until doomsday.


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