Drone Casualties: The New Body Count (Updated)

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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.