Naming America’s Wars Is A Scary Enterprise

1280px-FDR_Memorial_wall
FDR’s Four Freedoms brought meaning to World War II

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich asks a pregnant question: What should we call America’s no-name wars?  (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on.)  It used to be the GWOT (global war on terror), sometimes shortened to War on Terror and favored by the Bush/Cheney administration.  The Obama administration punted, preferring the anodyne label of “overseas contingency operations.”  Other names and concepts have been floated, such as “generational war” and “long war,” and the U.S. military itself, which is quite expert at creating acronyms, has used terms like MOOTW (military operations other than war).  Indeed, the fact that America’s wars lack a commonly accepted name points to the lack of a common theme or strategy.  Put differently, when you can’t name something accurately, how can you understand it, let alone fight it smartly and win it?

Forgive me for being flippant, but I can think of a few less than reverent names that serve to highlight the folly of America’s nameless wars.  How about these?

  1. “Perpetual Preemptive War”: Preemptive war was the great idea of the Bush/Cheney administration. Remember how we couldn’t allow the smoking gun of Iraqi WMD to become a mushroom cloud? We had to preempt the non-existent WMD, hence the disastrous Iraq war(s).
  2. “Generational War for Generals”: General David Petraeus has spoken of a generational war against terror in countries like Afghanistan, comparing it to America’s 60+ year commitment to South Korea. Waging that war should keep a lot of U.S. generals busy over the next few decades.
  3. “Bankrupt Strategy to Bankrupt America”: America’s total national debt just reached $21 trillion (you read that right), with perhaps $6 trillion of that due to America’s wars since 9/11. If we keep up this pace of spending, we will soon conquer ourselves to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished!
  4. “The Wars to End All Peace”: Woodrow Wilson had “the war to end all wars” with World War I. Bush/Obama/Trump can say that they have the wars to end all peace, since there simply is no prospect of these wars ever ending in the foreseeable future.
  5. “Endless War to End Democracy”: FDR had the Four Freedoms and a real war to end Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to world peace. We now have endless war to end democracy in America.  As James Madison wrote,

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

In short, instead of fighting for Four Freedoms, we’re now waging a permanent war that will end freedom.

Small wonder we avoid naming our wars – their theme and meaning are too frightening to nail down with precision.

Our Enemy, Ourselves

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I suggest how America can pursue a wiser, more peaceful, course.  This is exactly what our leaders are not doing (and haven’t been doing for decades), as I document in the first half of my article, which I’m sharing here.  Bottom line: perpetual war doesn’t produce perpetual peace.  Nor does it make us safer.

Whether the rationale is the need to wage a war on terror involving 76 countries or renewed preparations for a struggle against peer competitors Russia and China (as Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested recently while introducing America’s new National Defense Strategy), the U.S. military is engaged globally.  A network of 800 military bases spread across 172 countries helps enable its wars and interventions.  By the count of the Pentagon, at the end of the last fiscal year about 291,000 personnel (including reserves and Department of Defense civilians) were deployed in 183 countries worldwide, which is the functional definition of a military uncontained.  Lady Liberty may temporarily close when the U.S. government grinds to a halt, but the country’s foreign military commitments, especially its wars, just keep humming along.

As a student of history, I was warned to avoid the notion of inevitability.  Still, given such data points and others like them, is there anything more predictable in this country’s future than incessant warfare without a true victory in sight?  Indeed, the last clear-cut American victory, the last true “mission accomplished” moment in a war of any significance, came in 1945 with the end of World War II.

Yet the lack of clear victories since then seems to faze no one in Washington.  In this century, presidents have regularly boasted that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force in human history, while no less regularly demanding that the most powerful military in today’s world be “rebuilt” and funded at ever more staggering levels.  Indeed, while on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised he’d invest so much in the military that it would become “so big and so strong and so great, and it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it.”

As soon as he took office, however, he promptly appointed a set of generals to key positions in his government, stored the mothballs, and went back to war.  Here, then, is a brief rundown of the first year of his presidency in war terms.

In 2017, Afghanistan saw a mini-surge of roughly 4,000 additional U.S. troops (with more to come), a major spike in air strikes, and an onslaught of munitions of all sorts, including MOAB (the mother of all bombs), the never-before-used largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, as well as precision weapons fired by B-52s against suspected Taliban drug laboratories.  By the Air Force’s own count, 4,361 weapons were “released” in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to 1,337 in 2016.  Despite this commitment of warriors and weapons, the Afghan war remains — according to American commanders putting the best possible light on the situation — “stalemated,” with that country’s capital Kabul currently under siege.

How about Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State?  U.S.-led coalition forces have launched more than 10,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since Donald Trump became president, unleashing 39,577 weapons in 2017. (The figure for 2016 was 30,743.)  The “caliphate” is now gone and ISIS deflated but not defeated, since you can’t extinguish an ideology solely with bombs.  Meanwhile, along the Syrian-Turkish border a new conflict seems to be heating up between American-backed Kurdish forces and NATO ally Turkey.

Yet another strife-riven country, Yemen, witnessed a sixfold increase in U.S. airstrikes against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (from 21 in 2016 to more than 131 in 2017).  In Somalia, which has also seen a rise in such strikes against al-Shabaab militants, U.S. forces on the ground have reached numbers not seen since the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993.  In each of these countries, there are yet more ruins, yet more civilian casualties, and yet more displaced people.

Finally, we come to North Korea.  Though no real shots have yet been fired, rhetorical shots by two less-than-stable leaders, “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un and “dotard” Donald Trump, raise the possibility of a regional bloodbath.  Trump, seemingly favoring military solutions to North Korea’s nuclear program even as his administration touts a new generation of more usable nuclear warheads, has been remarkably successful in moving the world’s doomsday clock ever closer to midnight.

Clearly, his “great” and “powerful” military has hardly been standing idly on the sidelines looking “big” and “strong.”  More than ever, in fact, it seems to be lashing out across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks began the Global War on Terror, all of this represents an eerily familiar attempt by the U.S. military to kill its way to victory, whether against the Taliban, ISIS, or other terrorist organizations.

This kinetic reality should surprise no one.  Once you invest so much in your military — not just financially but also culturally (by continually celebrating it in a fashion which has come to seem like a quasi-faith) — it’s natural to want to put it to use.  This has been true of all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, as reflected in the infamous question Madeleine Albright posed to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell in 1992: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

With the very word “peace” rarely in Washington’s political vocabulary, America’s never-ending version of war seems as inevitable as anything is likely to be in history.  Significant contingents of U.S. troops and contractors remain an enduring presence in Iraq and there are now 2,000 U.S. Special Operations forces and other personnel in Syria for the long haul.  They are ostensibly engaged in training and stability operations.  In Washington, however, the urge for regime change in both Syria and Iran remains strong — in the case of Iran implacably so.  If past is prologue, then considering previous regime-change operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the future looks grim indeed.

Despite the dismal record of the last decade and a half, our civilian leaders continue to insist that this country must have a military not only second to none but globally dominant.  And few here wonder what such a quest for total dominance, the desire for absolute power, could do to this country.  Two centuries ago, however, writing to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams couldn’t have been clearer on the subject.  Power, he said, “must never be trusted without a check.”

The question today for the American people: How is the dominant military power of which U.S. leaders so casually boast to be checked? How is the country’s almost total reliance on the military in foreign affairs to be reined in? How can the plans of the profiteers and arms makers to keep the good times rolling be brought under control?

As a start, consider one of Donald Trump’s favorite generals, Douglas MacArthur, speaking to the Sperry Rand Corporation in 1957:

“Our swollen budgets constantly have been misrepresented to the public. Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor — with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”

No peacenik MacArthur.  Other famed generals like Smedley Butler and Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke out with far more vigor against the corruptions of war and the perils to a democracy of an ever more powerful military, though such sentiments are seldom heard in this country today.  Instead, America’s leaders insist that other people judge us by our words, our stated good intentions, not our murderous deeds and their results.

For ten suggestions (plus a bonus) on how the U.S. can pursue a wiser, and far less bellicose, course, please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com. 

America’s Cascading Disaster in Afghanistan

the Oval Offrice ...
A U.S. government promotional photo.  Pamela notes, “Look closely at the expressions on the faces of the Afghans.”

By Pamela

Editor’s Intro: I asked Pamela if I could highlight a recent comment she made at this site about the U.S. military’s approach to Afghanistan.  Not only did she give me her permission: she elaborated on her point in an email.  Pamela, a former aid worker with a decade’s worth of on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, worked with the Afghan people in relationships characterized by trust and friendship.  Her words should be read by all Americans, especially our foreign policy “experts.” W.J. Astore

Cascading disaster is an apt term for the U.S. military’s strategy in Afghanistan, which involves the indiscriminate killing of terrorist leaders, whether Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS or whatever else.

In addition to heavily underreported civilian casualties, U.S. military strikes increase the ferocity of those terrorist outfits. Not just because those outfits want to show the world how strong they are.  There is another element which arguably is even worse, as it is virtually impossible to reverse. Each “neutralized” leader leaves a power void within his organization 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 unsavory lot to have as a government, with medieval habits, but they were 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-month-old 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.

Furthermore, we knew the original Taliban leaders, and they were relatively predictable.  Each new batch needs to be infiltrated, investigated and analyzed from scratch, after which we kill those too. What a waste of energy and knowledge! But President 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.

This “destroy the Taliban by assassination” strategy has one more layer: the eroding authority of their original leaders.  By continuously eliminating (often after several failed attempts in which civilians are killed instead) successive leaders at all levels — from village to nation-wide – the U.S. has shattered the Taliban into different splinter factions, each with its own power structure & power struggles.  This has increased pressure and violence at the village level, as people who during the day were already pressured by coalition armies and at night by the Taliban, ended up with several competing “Taliban” factions all pressuring them to join. Some of these factions were foreign, as Afghan friends would tell me, meaning they were from some other part of Afghanistan, not necessarily from a different country, which made it even harder to negotiate with them.  Multiple terrorist factions contributed to anarchy in which common criminality has flourished.

At the same time, as this cascading fracturing continued, successive local “terrorist” leaders became increasingly detached from central top leadership and therefore any negotiations with Mullah Omar or any other grey eminence might not translate into concrete changes in the field.

Negotiations should have been conducted in 2002, when the Taliban had been wiped out, which then was no major feat as the vast majority of its followers had been coerced into joining and were only too happy to have been delivered from this burden and being able to return home.

So few true believers were left in 2002 that the Taliban was in a very weak bargaining position, a perfect starting point for negotiations.

Systematic demonizing by the U.S., however, and the ludicrous strategy of killing them one by one — which is as absurd as believing that the best way to eliminate ants is by crushing them one at a time as they appear at our sugar bowl — have led to what we have now: a thoroughly opaque playing field with regularly shifting alliances and competition, which makes it even harder to keep track of who’s who, with whom, against whom.   This increasingly chaotic situation makes counter-terror operations even more complicated (spectacular attacks may have more centralized backing, but smaller attacks are often initiated by local splinter factions).

The addition of ISIS further complicated the situation, as the Taliban have been fiercely fighting them — Afghans generally do not like Arabs nor any other foreigners who want to impose their ways — and thus the absurd situation developed in which everyone is fighting everyone — Taliban, ISIS, Haqqani et al, the Afghan army & police, coalition-supported local militias and coalition armies themselves.  A bit like the present proxy-wars in the Middle East in a nutshell.

We also tend to forget that the Taliban — for all their senseless cruelty and often medieval ideas — were welcomed in 1996 with a huge sigh of relief when they cleaned up the murderous chaos of the civil war and restored law and order.  When asking Afghan friends what part of their experiences since 1979 was the worst, they all would name the civil war.  Unfortunately power corrupts and soon this relief was replaced with a different kind of horror. The Taliban regime was loathed but at least was relatively predictable.  One could somehow adapt to its rules.

I am convinced that given a bit more time, the Afghans would have gotten rid of that regime themselves and the ensuing civil war would have been relatively short-lived as then they all were thoroughly fed-up with fighting.

Today, the chaos and corruption in Afghanistan is being hidden further, as the U.S.-led coalition acts to suppress information, specifically the reports of SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, has always been a hero of mine, shining a bright light on the mess that otherwise was swept under the carpet.

Now even that light is being switched off.

Two Notes on the U.S. Military

napalm strike
Napalm Strike

W.J. Astore

One of the joys of blogging is hearing from insightful readers.  Today, I’d like to share two notes that highlight vitally important issues within the military — and that touch on larger problems within American society.

The first note comes from a senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy.  This NCO highlights the tendency for “green” (new) officers to want to prove themselves as “warfighters,” instead of doing the hard work of learning their jobs, which entails listening to their NCOs with a measure of humility while working together as a team.  It further highlights the arrogance of some officers who are full of themselves after graduating from military academies, where they are often told to “take charge” because they are “the very best.”

Here’s the note:

As a Chief Hull Technician, I ran the damage control and repair shop.  My shop was responsible for hull, piping, water, sewage repairs and damage control equipment on our ship.  The officer in charge of “R” Division is always a first assignment for new ensigns reporting to their first ship.  I was a senior enlisted with 16 years in the Navy,  working for a 22 year old (ensign) with either 4 years at the academy or nine weeks of OCS (officer commissioning school) and a year of SWO (surface warfare) school.  All the new officers want to be war fighters.  None want to know the nuts and bolts of actually running the ship. During my tour I had 3 (Naval) academy and one OCS ensign.  The ensigns from the (Naval) academy were horrible.  Not just bad officers, but lousy people.  I understand the cluelessness of a 22 year old, but the desire to achieve with no regard for the people who will make you great was appalling.  They did not realize their crew would make them great.  They thought they were so brilliant, they could do it on their own.  My job was to save them from themselves.  My Chief Engineer would get mad at me when they made asses of themselves.  My OCS ensign was a good officer. He wasn’t full of the Naval Academy education… Breaking traditions is hard in the military.  The fact we have presidents with no military leadership is contributing to letting the Generals run wild.  Instead of realizing the civilians control the military, not the other way.  I would have fired or (forced) early retirements of all flag officers who supported the Iraq war.  Who needs people around who give bad advice?

This senior NCO makes an excellent point at the end of his letter.  Why not fire or early retire generals and admirals who offer bad advice?  But rarely in the military is any senior officer held to account for offering bad advice.  As LTC Paul Yingling noted in 2007, a private who loses a rifle is punished far more severely than a general who loses a war.  Citing Yingling, military historian Thomas E. Ricks noted in an article at The Atlantic in 2012 that “In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.”

Since 1945 decisive victories by the U.S. military have been few but everyone nevertheless gets a trophy.

The second note I received is as brief as it is powerful:

My father is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he flew both Korea & Vietnam, had the time of his young hot shot fighter pilot life in Korea, but had grave misgivings in Vietnam, and in fact was passed over for a Wing & a promotion to General, because as he said to me on 1969 after his return; “There is something fundamentally wrong with dropping napalm on little old men in rice paddies, and going back to (the) Officers Club to drink it up, and do it all over again the next day.” 

Yes, there is something wrong with dropping murderous weaponry on often innocent people, then returning the next day to do it again (and again), without experiencing any doubts or moral qualms. There is also something wrong with a military that promotes amoral true believers over those officers who possess a moral spine.

The issue of killing innocent civilians is yet again in the news as casualties rise during the Trump administration.  According to The Independent:

More than three-quarters of the civilians killed during the four-year war against Isis in Iraq and Syria occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency, new figures show. 

A total of 831 civilians have been “unintentionally killed” over the period, according to the US military’s own figures. 

And the official figures offered by the U.S. military significantly underestimate civilian deaths, notes a recent study by Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan.  Yet moral qualms about the deaths of innocents are rarely heard today.

I’d like to thank again readers who share their insights and experiences with me, whether by email or in comments at this site.  This is how we learn from each other — it is one small way we can work toward making the world a better, more just, place.

The “War on Terror”: The Globalization of Perpetual War

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has a revealing article on the truly global nature of America’s war on terror, accompanied by a unique map put together by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.  The map reveals that America’s war on terror has spread to 76 countries, as shown below:

costofwar_projectmap_large1

This metastasizing of “counterterror” efforts is truly paradoxical: the more the U.S. military works to stop terror, the more terror spreads.  “Progress” is measured only by the growth of efforts to stem terror networks in more and more countries.  But the notion of “progress” is absurd: That 76 countries are involved in some way in this war on terror is a sign of regress, not progress.  After 16 years and a few trillion dollars, you’d think terror networks and efforts to eradicate them would be decreasing, not increasing.  But the war on terror has become its own cancer, or, in social-media-speak, it’s gone viral, infecting more and more regions.

A metaphor I like to use is from Charles Darwin.  Consider the face of nature — or of terrorism — as a series of tightly interlinked wedges.  Now, consider the U.S. military and its kinetic strikes (as well as weapons sales and military assistance) as hammer blows.  Those hammer blows disturb and contort the face of nature, fracturing it in unpredictable ways, propagating faults and creating conditions for further disturbances.

By hammering away at the complex ecologies of regions, the U.S. is feeding and complicating terrorism with its own violence.  Yet new fracture lines are cited as evidence of the further growth of terrorism, thus necessitating more hammer blows (and yet more military spending).  And the cycle of violence repeats as well as grows.

A sensible approach: Stop hammering away with missiles and bombs and drones.  Stop feeding the terrorist wolf with more blood and violence.

But the U.S. government is caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and war, as Engelhardt notes here:

Let me repeat this mantra: once, almost seventeen years ago, there was one [country, Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted]; now, the count is 76 and rising.  Meanwhile, great cities have been turned into rubble; tens of millions of human beings have been displaced from their homes; refugees by the millions continue to cross borders, unsettling ever more lands; terror groups have become brand names across significant parts of the planet; and our American world continues to be militarized

This should be thought of as an entirely new kind of perpetual global war.  So take one more look at that map.  Click on it and then enlarge it to consider the map in full-screen mode.  It’s important to try to imagine what’s been happening visually, since we’re facing a new kind of disaster, a planetary militarization of a sort we’ve never truly seen before.  No matter the “successes” in Washington’s war, ranging from that invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to the taking of Baghdad in 2003 to the recent destruction of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq (or most of it anyway, since at this moment American planes are still dropping bombs and firing missiles in parts of Syria), the conflicts only seem to morph and tumble on.

A new kind of perpetual global war: Engelhardt nails it.  To end it, we need to stop feeding it.  But as the map above indicates, it seems likely that U.S. hammer blows will continue and even accelerate, with results as violently unpredictable as they are counterproductive.

America’s Cowardly Prison in Cuba

W.J. Astore

The U.S. government still keeps 41 prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba.  Incredibly, some of these so-called alien enemy combatants have been imprisoned for up to 15 years without benefit of trial; indeed, without even being charged with a crime.  How is this possible in a democracy?  What does it say about our country?

I happen to own an old map of Cuba from 1897 that shows Guantánamo Bay, which is along the southeastern coast of Cuba.  Here’s a photo of a segment of my old map that shows the Bahia de Guantánamo:

IMG_1575

Who could have predicted that when our government, in an imperial land grab, “leased” this base from Cuba in 1903, it would become a century later the site of a loathsome prison for Muslim men snatched mostly from central Asia in a “global war on terror”?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government needed a place to send prisoners gathered in the chaotic roundup of suspects in the war’s opening stages.  Among other locations they chose the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, considered a “safe” spot since it’s both isolated and not in the USA while also being far from the eyes of the media.  What was an expedient, a temporary holding facility, became permanent.  President Obama vowed to close it and failed; President Trump has vowed to expand it with fresh batches of prisoners.

In a remarkable piece at TomDispatch.com, Erin Thompson reminds us that the prisoners at Guantánamo are human beings.  She did (and does) this by curating and displaying their art works.  Their paintings, ship models, and other creations remind us that they exist, that they create, that they hope, that they dream.  The U.S. government has responded by asserting ownership rights over their art.

America’s prison at Guantánamo Bay has been a spectacular fail.  Its very existence amounts to a huge propaganda victory for terrorists and would-be terrorists everywhere.  It’s a stain on our democracy (what’s left of it).  In the eyes of much of the world, it reveals the USA itself to be a terrorist.

The persistence of this prison shows America is losing its own “war on terror.”  Our government lacks the courage to try these men because of fear a few might go free and perhaps spearhead future attacks, despite a national security complex that spends roughly three quarters of a trillion dollars to predict and prevent such attacks.

To paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: Cowards die a thousand deaths; a hero dies but once. By keeping this prison open, and by refusing to offer justice to its occupants out of fear of what they might do if released, we are dying a thousand deaths.

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.