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How the Pentagon Repurposes Civilian Casualties as Anti-Terror Propaganda

The American military has released hundreds of videos showing U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The victims are not always the intended targets.
A picture taken on in in Mosul, Iraq, on July 9th, 2017, shows smoke billowing following an airstrike by U.S.-led international coalition forces targeting ISIS.

A picture taken on in in Mosul, Iraq, on July 9th, 2017, shows smoke billowing following an airstrike by U.S.-led international coalition forces targeting ISIS.

On November 4th, almost two years after Donald Trump promised an adoring crowd in Fort Dodge, Iowa, that he would "bomb the shit" out of ISIS, an American military airstrike reportedly killed at least 10 civilians in the contested province of Kunduz. An Afghan military spokesman told the New York Times that the Air Force bombardment had actually killed 25 Taliban fighters; a United States military spokesperson simply denied that any civilians had died (a claim that was supported by an investigation conducted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that was released two days later). "No hospitals or clinics in the local area indicated treatment of people with wounds from armed conflict," NATO's Resolute Support said in a November 6th statement.

But the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan expressed its skepticism the next day. "U.N. interviews with multiple survivors, medics, elders & others give strong reason to believe civilians among victims," a UNAMA representative wrote in an unusual tweetstorm. "Accounts indicate victims were civilians forced by AGE's [antigovernment elements] to retrieve bodies from earlier fighting."

Ever since precision-guided munitions became the weapon of choice among U.S. troops in the Middle East after the Gulf War, civilian casualties have remained a sad staple of the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria—"acceptable losses" shouldered by defense officials constitutionally bound to carry out Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis' "annihilation" campaign. But an alarming new investigation by The New York Times Magazine reveals that U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve killed civilians at a rate that was more than 31 times higher than that publicly acknowledged by the coalition.

The two-year investigation, which involved in-person visits to nearly 150 airstrike sites and interviews with hundreds of witnesses and survivors across northern Iraq, suggests that a full 20 percent of every U.S.-led coalition bombardments yield civilian casualties, "a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history," according to authors Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal.

Airstrikes have been a defining feature of America's wartime strategy since President Barack Obama helped initiate America's hidden campaign of death from above with his pivot away from the George W. Bush-era "boots on the ground" approach. Under the Trump administration, they've only become more frequent. As I previously reported, Operation Inherent Resolve carried out 1,755 strikes in August, compared to 819 in February. And, according to data collected by Airwars, the uptick in bombing sorties triggered a corresponding increase in claimed civilian fatalities, from 497 in February to 1,881 in March.

The New York Times Magazine report doesn't just reveal the scope of the Department of Defense's deception when it comes to civilian casualties, but also the depth of the Pentagon's disregard for innocent bystanders. The investigation focuses on the story of Basim Razzo, a 56-year-old man living in eastern Mosul. On September 20th, 2015, Razzo's house was destroyed by a coalition airstrike; that same day, while recovering in the hospital, OIR posted black-and-white drone footage to YouTube under the title "Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015." (The original video has since been deleted by the coalition, but it was uploaded to YouTube by Airwars in May of 2017.) "Basim could watch only the first few frames," the Times reports. "He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother's houses."

This is essentially footage of civilian casualties repurposed as American propaganda by the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS. And this video is one of hundreds that OIR has released not just on social media, but also through the Department of Defense's Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS)—official photographs and videos approved by the Pentagon for broad distribution. A simple search of the publicly accessible DVIDS database for "ISIS airstrike" yields 594 video results, the first page full of eagle-eyed drone videos like the one documenting Razzo's loss. These videos have proven highly shareable among the American public. How many of them are really just Article II snuff videos?

A coalition airstrike destroys a Da'esh weapons cache near Mosul, Iraq.

A coalition airstrike destroys a Da'esh weapons cache near Mosul, Iraq.

This facet of The New York Times Magazine investigation is a departure from the Department of Defense's civilian casualty spin a decade ago. During an April of 2010 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., WikiLeaks published footage leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning of two U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopters mowing down Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists during a 2007 assault in Baghdad, Iraq. The video, "Collateral Murder," offered one of the most visceral looks at the dark side of the Global War on Terror in recent memory. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Pentagon insisted that the coalition forces "were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force"; after acknowledging the authenticity of the video, the Department of Defense later blocked Reuters' attempt to obtain the footage in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.

The military-endorsed Razzo video suggests that the Department of Defense doesn't fear leaks when it comes to civilian casualties. If anything, the appropriation of the footage for propaganda purposes underscores the Pentagon's need to repurpose the American public's patriotism into legitimized bloodlust beyond the pale of the laws of war. At some point in the chain of command, a decision was made to not only re-label these videos, but to re-distribute them as propaganda tools. And, in doing so, the Pentagon is sending a message: These people are terrorists. And if left up to the Department of Defense, we'll never know just how true or false that really is.