Reducing Collateral Damage Through Wiser Weapon Choice

A new look at data from the Iraq Body Count finds that some weapons leave a disproportionate share of civilians dead in their wake.
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A new look at data from the Iraq Body Count finds that some weapons leave a disproportionate share of civilians dead in their wake.

A new analysis of violent civilian deaths in Iraq since the American-led invasion in 2003 has a little something for many viewpoints.

For those who fear the rise of ruthless and shadowy homegrown forces, a third of the civilians killed died in executions after they were abducted or captured. And three out of 10 of their corpses show signs of torture, "such as bruises, drill holes, or burns."

Or perhaps it's terrorists that need to be dealt with. Some 28 percent of civilian deaths were attributable to "improvised explosive devices" and their ilk — half from suicide bombers and half from either vehicle or roadside bombs.

Then again, surely the heavy hand of the coalition's style of warfare has taken a toll: When air strikes kill civilians (meant to be the exception and not the rule, unlike the earlier examples), an average of 17 civilians die — the highest "per event" death toll of any of the standard ways in which they perish. Nonetheless, air strikes were responsible for but one in 20 of the civilian deaths - or seen in a less charitable light, for more than 3,000 innocents killed.

But the takeaway message is clear: All weapons are not created equal, and those that in one fell swoop kill more civilians, especially women and children, must see their use radically revamped to avoid breaking international law. While the paper is predicated on Iraq, the paper's concerns reflect current alarm in Sri Lanka or Gaza or any discussion where the proportionality of hurting an enemy is weighed against collateral damage.

Finding Patterns
Using the extensive data gathered by the Iraq Body Count, six researchers parsed its information to produce, "The Weapons That Kill Civilians — Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003-2008," which appears in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.

"The patterns we found convince us that documenting the particular causes of violent civilian deaths during armed conflict is essential, both to prevent civilian harm and to monitor compliance with international humanitarian law," wrote the authors, led by psychiatrist Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks, an honorary lecturer at King's College, University of London, and board member of the group that oversees the IBC.

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The Iraq Body Count is a nongovernmental organization that exists solely to document civilian deaths since the invasion. Its count, reads its Web site, "is drawn from cross-checked media reports, hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures to produce a credible record of known deaths and incidents." While its data focus aims for objectivity, it's clearly not an enterprise to warm the hearts of the war's supporters.

Any body that sets out to collect data in a contentious arena will face criticism, and the IBC is no exception. Its tally has been attacked from both some of the war's backers who charge the count runs high, and from opponents who feel the IBC undercounts, sometimes dramatically. The latter criticism was especially vociferous in 2004, when an article in the British medical journal The Lancet produced an estimate of civilian dead many times higher than the IBC's confirmed count; that higher count remains intensely controversial.

While the team behind the new analysis accepts the IBC's findings — besides Hicks, co-authors Harmit Dardagan and John A. Sloboda are co-founders of the IBC - the specific numbers that fuel contention are not this paper's focus.

"Our NEJM paper is not at all about this bottom-line number, so in this context, these criticisms have little relevance," responded co-author Michael Spagat, an economist at the University of London's Royal Holloway College (and co-creator, with Hicks, of a "Dirty War Index" reported here earlier).

"... The strength of our conclusions about the effects of different weapons on the civilian population arises from the frequency with which they exhibited the patterns we identified." In short, he continued, even if you might not accept the exact numbers, the team's conclusions are reliable.

Weapons and Weeping
Those "bottom-line numbers" count 60,481 civilians known dead from 14,196 incidents between March 20, 2003 and March 19, 2008. The authors factored out both the initial invasion and the two sieges of Fallujah because they felt the duration of those events created data that fogged the "reliable direct link between the weapons used and the numbers and characteristics of civilians killed (the focus of our analysis)," Spagat explained.

"Since the point is to compare the impacts of uses of different types of weapons on civilians with particular emphasis on proportions of women and children killed, this exclusion is unlikely to cause a problem."

But the numbers can create a problem for the American-led coalition. While a huge proportion (92 percent) of the civilians killed are adult men, when less precise weapons like bombs and mortars kill civilians, the proportion of women and children grows. That means the coalition reliance on air superiority in tactical situations creates the collateral damage that the media "more readily" gloms onto. (Mortars are more the province of the insurgents.)

That is not to say that "indiscriminate weapons" killed more women and children - they haven't. Some 660 women and 416 children died by small-arms fire, the largest numbers for both groups, but those were spread out among just shy of 6,000 documented attacks that killed 11,877 civilians in total. In comparison, 258 women and 277 children died from air strikes - solely the province of the coalition - but those came from just 253 deadly instances (a smaller number than the sum total of air sorties, as this random day's account illustrates).

"That air attacks, whether involving bombs or missiles, killed relatively high proportions of female civilians and children is additional support of the argument that these weapons, like mortars, should not be directed at civilian areas because of their indiscriminate nature," the paper says.

The insurgents, although also not identified, don't escape the authors' censure. Still, from a practical standpoint, it's likely more can be achieved by jawboning the United States and British governments — when he was in command in Iraq, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus has specifically said the coalition aims to take "the moral high ground" — than castigating anonymous car bombers.

The authors see suicide bombers in a unique light — as "close-quarters 'smart bombs,'" since bombers can determine exactly when and where they will detonate. These are also devastating for civilians — suicide bombers on foot kill an average of 16 innocents — in part, the authors agree, because civilians often are the targets.
This, they write, is a war crime from the start.

So Many Wars, So Little Time
While the article does not identify perpetrators, Spagat noted that with the exception of gun battles, the method of killing usually tags the perpetrator. He added that the authors plan on follow-up pieces specifying known perpetrators, which is part of the IBC data. Teasing out those responsible for civilian deaths by gunfire is also on their radar.

"The impact of particular weapons depends, to a large extent, on the characteristics of those weapons, which is what we draw out in this paper," Spagat said. "But it depends also on how these weapons are used and the same or a similar weapon can be used differently by different perpetrators. There can, for example, be different rules of engagement adopted by different perpetrators."

The authors essentially question the very legality - Spagat termed it "highly problematic" — of air strikes in urban areas; they also question the use of mortars, which are generally a weapon of the insurgents. "It seems clear from these findings that to protect civilians from indiscriminate harm, as required by international humanitarian law (including the Geneva Conventions), military and civilian policies should prohibit aerial bombing in civilian areas unless it can be demonstrated - by monitoring of civilian casualties, for example - that civilians are being protected," they write. That's a far cry from the city-based bombing campaigns of World War II.

But their take is seen a little differently by war fighters or their proxies.

"There is, in fact, a dichotomy between the use of air power and the death of civilians, and the use of ground power and the death of civilians," U.S. attorney Gary Myers told interviewers for the PBS Frontline documentary "Rules of Engagement" "There is no responsibility attached to the use of air power and the death of civilians, whereas the death of civilians associated with ground forces comes under great scrutiny. And the irony is that air power is employed after thoughtful consideration, whereas the use of force on the ground is employed after milliseconds, frequently, of (a) decision-making process to fire or not fire."

Of course, Myers had a stake in his argument - he then was defending a Marine accused in the Nov. 19, 2005, Haditha killings.

Spagat cited the dilemmas war fighters face as reason they should pay attention to this paper.

"The military people I have met are not indifferent to the killing of civilians, but they lack good information on the likely impact that their actions might have on civilians," Spagat said. "Under international humanitarian law there is a principle of proportionality according to which killings of civilians are to be weighed against military benefits. Yet among the many problems in attempts to implement this principle in practice is the fact that often there is no credible mechanism for determining the number of civilians killed in particular actions.

"The scarcity of available data on the impact of uses of particular weapons on civilians makes it hard to determine likely consequences of uses of such weapons. In such a vacuum, attempts to apply the principle of proportionality become empty and meaningless. Our paper is an attempt to fill this vacuum."

Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, made a similar point on Frontline in explaining the value of these data exercises.

"The importance of keeping those numbers is threefold: First, it means a lot to the Iraqi families, and when you're trying to win the war you have to win the people. Second, you don't know if you are avoiding civilians — as they must do according to international law — if you're not keeping the numbers. That means when you think that you're going to kill 30 civilians in an air strike, and you think that it's worth it, when you go back in you should find out if you killed 30 or if you killed 300. And third, if you don't know how many people you've harmed, you don't know how many people to give aid to."

Are the findings from the New England Journal of Medicine paper applicable to other conflicts?

Sloboda, for one, says yes. "Our weapon-specific findings have implications for a wide range of conflicts, because the patterns found in this study are likely to be replicated for these weapons whenever they are used," he was quoted in a release from NEJM.

But some of the specifics of the Iraqi war may be less universal, Spagat suggested, especially the huge proportion of people - 95 percent of them male - killed while captive (some 19,706 dead in the period studied). Although he saw similar trends while looking at Colombia's civil war while working on the dirty war index, "I would speculate that executions are unusually prevalent in the Iraq conflict compared to many other conflicts."

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