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

mosul-destroyed
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.

National Defense versus Global (In)Security

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Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.

The Disastrous Italian War Against Austria-Hungary (1915-18), the Rise of Fascism, and Trump’s Victory in 2016

W.J. Astore

My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I.  In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:

My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him.  He was highly agitated.  A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.

His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army.  He was a forward observer for an artillery unit.  He was severely gassed on the Austrian front.  He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.

Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army.  My mother used to call him El Sargento.

Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War [1911-12] and four years in World War 1.  He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year.  I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item.  He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.

So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas.  My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)

War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.

A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson.  My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:

The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing.  The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind.  The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians.  Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan.  (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.)  If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.  

With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:

Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering.  Many POWs died as a result.  Unbelievable.

So much for the alleged glories of war.  Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States.  It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.

In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar?  Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered  a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past.  Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.

Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war.  Rather, both men were against losing wars.  Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again.  Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action.  No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.

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Did Trump win because he had the nerve to highlight the “mutilated victory” nature of America’s wars?  (Note that the caption here, from the Krinera/Shen study and the Zaid Jilani article, is unclear.  The intent is to show that higher casualty rates favored Trump, and, if rates had been lower, Hillary Clinton may have won instead.)

Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq.  He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016.  As the study notes (also see the illustration above):

“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”

Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first!  America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.

The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper?  Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?

We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II.  Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?

Time will tell.

Business as Usual at the Pentagon

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It keeps spinning and spinning …

W.J. Astore

The revolving door between major defense contractors and the Pentagon is spinning ever more rapidly, notes FP: Foreign Policy.  Here’s a telling report from last week:

McCain says enough, but does he mean it? During a hearing Thursday to vet several Trump administration nominees for top Pentagon jobs, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was tired of seeing defense industry executives go to work in the Pentagon.

But he indicated he’ll support the Mark Esper, chief lobbyist for for Raytheon — the fourth largest defense contractor in the United States — for secretary of the Army, telling Esper his concerns “grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about potential nominations, including yours.” McCain added that “it was then that I decided I couldn’t support further nominees with that background, beyond those we had already discussed.”

Lots of defense industry execs already at work. But at least one more will soon pass through McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee, however. At some point in the coming weeks, John C. Rood, senior vice president for Lockheed Martin International will testify for the under secretary of defense for policy job, the third highest position in the Defense Department.

The Senate has already approved former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to be deputy defense secretary — the second highest position in the Pentagon — and Ellen Lord, the former chief executive officer of Textron Systems, to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

In short, there are no fresh thinkers at the Pentagon: just men and women drawn mainly from the corporate world or from the ranks of military retirees (or both).  They’re hired because they know the system — but also because they believe in it.  They’re not going to rock the boat.  They believe in “staying the course.”

The result is a system with no new ideas.  Consider Afghanistan.  Sixteen years after the initial invasion after 9/11, American forces are still bogged down there.  As FP: Foreign Policy reports today, we finally have an official number for the latest mini-surge orchestrated by retired Generals John Kelly and James Mattis:

We have a surge number. After months of tapdancing around exactly how many more U.S. troops are are heading to Afghanistan, Monday’s request asks for $1.2 billion to support an additional 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Somehow, a few thousand extra U.S. troops are supposed to reverse the growth of the Taliban while improving Afghan security forces and reining in Afghan governmental corruption.  In short, sixteen years’ experience has meant nothing to U.S. decision makers.

It puts me to mind of a great description of military thinking from C.S. Forester’s “The General,” a remarkable novel about British generalship in World War I (and one of General John Kelly’s favorite books).  Here’s what Forester had to say about the persistence of military folly among the generals planning major offensives in that war:

“In some ways it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.”

Forester goes on to write that:

“The Generals round the table were not men who were easily discouraged–men of that sort did not last long in command in France. Now that the first shock of disappointment had been faced they were prepared to make a fresh effort, and to go on making those efforts as long as their strength lasted.”

That’s the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a nutshell: fresh efforts, but no fresh thinking.  How could it not be so?  The same generals are in charge, men like Mattis and Kelly, who led previous “surges,” backed by civilian leaders drawn from private military contractors, whose main priority it is to spend this year’s massive defense budget while ensuring next year’s budget will be even more massive.

There’s no incentive in the system for fresh thinking, and certainly none for saving money.  Instead, it’s all about showing “resolve,” even if resolve in this case means hammering and pulling away at so many screws.  And this even makes a weird sort of sense, for there’s a lot of profit to be made in the name of  developing better pincers and levers and fulcrums to tackle “screws” like Afghanistan.

The Definition of American Insanity

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There’s always money for more nukes

W.J. Astore

Here are two items this morning from FP: Foreign Policy (foreignpolicy.com), which provides a daily summary (Situation Report, or SITREP) of news items related to the U.S. military and foreign policy.  Together, they represent the very definition of insanity.

Item 1The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal. That huge number takes into account the replacement of nuclear-capable submarines, ICBMs, and new aircraft for the Air Force.

The budget office warned that the projected costs would muscle out some conventional weapons programs in the coming years unless the Pentagon’s budget is increased substantially. The CBO identified some cost savings however, saying the Pentagon could save as much as $139 billion if it delayed production of a new ICBM, stalled a secretive new nuclear-capable bomber called the B-21, and reduced the number of ICBMs and missile-carrying nuclear submarines than planned. 

All of those plans are carry-overs from the Obama administration, as the Trump team has yet to articulate a nuclear weapons strategy. 

Item 2War in Afghanistan, redacted. The Afghan government is losing control of more and more territory to the Taliban, according a grim new report from the congressionally-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. On the humanitarian side, civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air strikes spiked by 52 percent in the first nine months of this year over last year, the report notes. 

In response to those unfriendly stats, the U.S. military has started to withhold information from the American public, refusing to report figures related to the size and success of Afghan security forces — which the U.S. taxpayer has spent tens of billions to build and sustain.

“The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, told the New York Times. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

In sum, the American people will possibly pay more than a trillion dollars in the next three decades for more nuclear weapons (when the stated goal of leaders like Obama had been to eliminate them), even as information about the never-ending war in Afghanistan is withheld from the American people (especially the jaw-dropping waste of billions of dollars on Afghan security forces that can’t or won’t fight).

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico languish in the dark, the victims of a U.S. government that seeks to punish the island for its debt to various financial institutes and power brokers.

What madness!

Relentlessly Building Potency: The U.S. Military Encircles Russia

Russian Flag
Encircling a bear: A good idea?

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has an excellent article at TomDispatch.com documenting how U.S. special ops forces are involved in many countries that share a border with Russia.  A telling quotation from his article comes from General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  Testifying before Congress, Thomas said

“We are working relentlessly with our [European] partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”

This looks like typical bureaucratese, but two words struck me as revealing: “relentlessly” and “potency.”  Typically, one might say one is working “tirelessly,” or “cooperatively,” or just plain working.  The idea one is working “relentlessly” serves to highlight the often frenetic nature of U.S. military deployments, the emphasis on ceaseless toil and constant action, especially of the kinetic variety.  This is a leading feature of America’s can-do military, a strong preference for acting first, thinking later.  And it doesn’t bode well as American special ops forces take up “mature and sustainable” positions in former Soviet satellite countries for the alleged reason of deterring Russian aggression.

The second word that struck me from the general’s testimony was “potency.”  Americans certainly can’t be seen as impotent.  But potency here is really a weasel word for offensive potential — the ability to strike “kinetically” at an enemy.  For example, one could say the Soviets were building up potency in Cuba during the early 1960s, but the Kennedy administration didn’t exactly see nuclear missiles being based there in those terms.  Is Kim Jong-un similarly building up regional “potency,” working “relentlessly” to deter U.S. aggression in his region of the world?  American military and foreign policy experts would laugh at those words and sentiments coming from the mouth of rival leaders like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.

With ever bigger military budgets, and ever growing ambitions, the U.S. military is relentlessly building up potency, which is nevertheless always framed as defensive, even benign.

Something tells me the Russians don’t see it this way.

Trump Talks About the Military as if It’s His Praetorian Guard

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Hail Trump? Includes wannabe American Emperor in Golf Cart.

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump has a disturbing way of talking about the U.S. military.  Consider the following Trump quotation about the recent attack on U.S. troops in Niger:

“I have generals that are great generals,” Trump said. “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we’re talking about [in Niger], I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it. I’ve been getting reports.” [emphasis added]

For Trump, it’s not the American people’s military, it’s “my” military.  Generals are not Congressionally-appointed officers, they’re “my” generals.  Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding of his role as commander-in-chief, as well as the role of the U.S. military.  He sees himself as the big boss of “his” military, with generals as his personal employees whom he can order around and fire at will.

And by “order around,” I mean the issuance of orders regardless of their legality, a point Trump made back in March of 2016, in response to a debate question by Bret Baier:

BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.

So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they’re illegal.

TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote then, Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of leadership, and especially his boasts about the military obeying his orders irrespective of their legality, disqualified him as a presidential candidate.  Of course, Trump’s dictatorial statements didn’t deter his determined fans. Indeed, they elected him because they wanted a Strong Man, not because they feared one.

So here we are, with a dictator wannabe as president, treating the U.S. military as if it’s his personal Praetorian Guard.  If the Republic isn’t dead, its heartbeat is fading fast.  Meanwhile, the sordid and corrupt Empire of Trump – just by its endurance – grows ever stronger.