shattering myths of precision and accountability in modern warfare – The New Indian Express
The US military is facing allegations that it covered up instances of civilian casualties in the US-led coalition’s war against Islamic State (IS). It’s a question that has drawn attention to one of the most disturbing aspects of US and coalition involvement in the Middle East: the large number of civilian casualties or what has come to be called “collateral damage”.
On November 13, 2021, The New York Times reported that more than 70 people were killed in an F-15 airstrike on the Syrian town of Baghuz in 2019. Lawyers flagged the incident as a possible crime of war at the time and called for an investigation.
But this investigation never took place. Instead, information about the strike was buried, inconvenient questions ignored, reports were “suppressed, sanitized and classified”, and defense analyst Gene Tate, the whistleblower in question , was fired. It was only after finally turning to the media that the Pentagon acknowledged that there had been 80 deaths. The fact that these victims were civilians has not been recognized – nor has the possibility that this been a war crime been recognized. The Pentagon maintained that the civilian identity of those killed was impossible to determine because ISIS women and children sometimes took up arms.
The Baghuz airstrike is not an isolated event. Recent research into a Dutch-led coalition airstrike on an ISIS weapons factory in the Iraqi town of Hawija in 2015 that killed more than 70 civilians shows that neither the shocking number of civilian deaths, nor is its denial and concealment unique. Dutch politicians first denied responsibility for civilian casualties – then tried to keep the civilian casualty count classified in the name of “operational security”.
When reporters demonstrated irrefutably that the Hawija attack had been carried out by the Netherlands, there too, officials said no one could know whether those killed were civilians or IS fighters.
This denial of victims and the questioning of their civilian identity is a systematic feature of the war at a distance waged against IS. Respected monitoring agency Airwars estimates that between 8,150 and 13,174 civilians have been killed as a result of the 35,000 airstrikes that have been carried out since the war began in 2014 (and which have destroyed more than 70% of cities like Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria). Yet the coalition as a whole recognizes just over 10% (1,417).
The US-led coalition war against ISIS is a good example of how advanced armies are turning to ranged warfare. Ranged warfare is characterized by a move away from “boots on the ground”. It involves drones and airstrikes and special ops teams training local forces to fight and die. This “zero-risk war” appeals to Western Democratic leaders: With fewer returning body bags, they no longer fear public outcry and electoral losses.
Ranged warfare is sold to the public with an emphasis on things like missile “accuracy” and “care” taken to avoid civilian casualties. US coalition commander Stephen J Townsend, for example, challenged anyone to find a “more accurate air campaign in the history of warfare… The coalition’s goal is always zero human casualties” .
For coalition strategists, this new kind of “perfect war”, based on “smart technologies” and “proportionality principles”, allows them – in principle at least – to save the lives not only of Western military personnel, but also friendly civilians.
Denial, secrecy and impossibility of knowing
Thus, incidents that involve mass civilian casualties have the potential to undermine the legitimacy not only of a particular operation, but of the new nature of warfare in general. This is why, in situations such as the two described above, Western governments keep the civilian harm caused by their ranged attacks a secret and do everything possible to keep them quiet.
To maintain the myth of a “clean war”, officials resort to routine strategies of denial (“the civilians didn’t die”) and secrecy (“we can’t divulge whether civilians died because of operational security”). If, however, civilian casualties can no longer be kept secret, authorities resort to emphasizing the outright impossibility of knowing the identity of those targeted. With this, they ironically undermine their own precision talk: precisely because the strikes take place far away and there are no boots on the ground, it is seemingly impossible to determine who died.
Regarding Hawija, the Dutch Ministry of Defense initially claimed that only Centcom – the US central command that waged the war against ISIS – had the authority and ability to establish the existence of civilian casualties in Hawija.
But when Centcom later acknowledged that the 70 casualties were part of its official civilian body count, Dutch Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld argued that even Centcom could never know the true civilian nature of the casualties, due to “the difficulty of distinguishing retrospectively between IS fighters and civilians”. In many ways, the US responses to Baghuz echo this logic, stating that the civilian identities of the 80 people killed were inherently impossible to determine.
Ranged warfare and responsibility
This systematic and strategic refusal to “know” the harm done to civilians undermines transparency, recognition and accountability for human suffering in distant wars. It also undermines the ability of Western citizens and parliaments to exercise democratic control over wars waged in their name. This will make advanced Western armies more – not less – prone to war, and allow civilians to continue to be killed without realizing it.
Monitoring organizations, journalists, academics, and military whistleblowers are doing their best to uncover and make visible the asymmetrical death and suffering that occurs in wars far away. It is now up to the people of the West and their governments to care and question the logic of this type of violence.
Lauren Gould is Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University, Jolle Demmers is Professor in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and Nora Stel works as Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at Radboud University.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.