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The Futile War Against Civilian Casualties

The rise of precision munitions should have made civilian casualties an avoidable relic of yesteryear. It didn't.
Relatives mourn as bodies of Iraqi residents of west Mosul killed in an airstrike are placed and covered with blankets on carts on March 17th, 2017.

Relatives mourn as bodies of Iraqi residents of west Mosul killed in an airstrike are placed and covered with blankets on carts on March 17th, 2017.

Late last month, the Department of Defense offered some grim findings of its two-month investigation into civilian deaths at the hands of the United States military: Airstrikes carried out against ISIS in the strategically important city of Mosul had "inadvertently" led to the deaths of 100 Iraqis, the single deadliest instance of civilian deaths since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria in August of 2014.

The Pentagon's investigation found that the 500-pound GPS-guided GBU-38 bomb deployed in March of 2017 against two ISIS militants in Mosul's Al-Jadida district "inadvertently set off explosives that gutted a sprawling apartment block," according to the Los Angeles Times, turning a residential neighborhood into a graveyard of metal and stone.

Hours later, warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition killed more than 100 Syrian civilians in the eastern city of Deir al-Zorm, according to the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The death toll included more than 40 children, according to Reuters. Those two back-to-back strikes centered an international spotlight on collateral damage: According to a Department of Defense report released last week, at least 484 civilians have died since the start of the U.S.-led coalition bombing campaign—132 attributed directly to American warplanes.

The U.S. defense and national security establishment has a civilian casualties problem, and the Trump administration is only making things worse.

In March, the New York Times reported that the White House was exploring loosening restrictions on battlefield operations in combat areas beyond official war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, opening the floodgates for more aggressive—and potentially deadly—drone strikes and special operations incursions in countries like Yemen and Somalia where the Pentagon seeks to exterminate nascent al-Qaeda and ISIS franchises. The news prompted dozens of defense and national security figures to caution President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis that "even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries—whether or not legally permitted—can cause significant strategic setbacks."

The White House has yet to heed those warnings as Trump makes good on his campaign promise to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS. In April, Trump took steps to up the operational tempo of anti-terror campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa under the mandate of "total authorization" for the Pentagon to eliminate ISIS. The move quickly came under fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. "You really have the military making decisions that were designed to be made by the civilian authorities running the military," House Armed Services Committee Representative Adam Smith told CQ-Roll Call. "We've seen an increase in civilian casualties.... I think they've become a little too indiscriminate in what they're doing."

The U.S. defense and national security establishment has a civilian casualties problem, and Trump is only making things worse.

By mid-April, data collected by non-profit Airwars revealed that U.S.-coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria jumped from 585 in the closing months of 2016 to 2,580 in the first quarter of 2017, per USA Today. As of the beginning of May, Trump's Pentagon was averaging an airstrike a day (compared to President Barack Obama's one every 5.4 days) and 3,500 munitions dropped on ISIS targets a month, up from an average of just over 2,300 bombs during 2016 and 2015, per U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) statistics. The higher pace of both ground and air operations, the more stretched U.S. forces become—and the more prone to potentially deadly tactical miscalculations they become.

This problem extends not just to strategic recklessness, but a lack of transparency that's been a disturbing streak in Trump's Pentagon since the White House announced in March it would cease to regularly disclose new troop deployments (Department of Defense policy under the Obama administration was to announce all conventional missions). Even though not every munition deployed as part of Operation Inherent Resolve is of U.S. origin, CENTCOM won't even publicly attribute airstrikes to coalition allies, according to a May report from Airwars and Foreign Policy.

To be fair to Trump, this is far from a new trend. The Obama administration seemed especially reliant of the MQ-1 Predator drone; the Pentagon conducted at least 10 times as many drone strikes during the Obama years than under President George W. Bush. And secrecy has always defined Obama's drone war: "Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret," the Washington Post reported in 2011, "it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified."

And despite the specter of wanton violence that's seemed to hang over Trump-era military operations since the ill-fated January U.S. Special Operations Command raid in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead, the lethal precision that made the Obama-era drone war so appealing wasn't very precise at all. According to documents obtained by The Intercept in 2015, nearly 90 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan during 2012 "were not the intended targets"; during the opening months of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014, the U.S. Air Force wasn't even using the right munitions, resulting in bombing runs that either "[did] not have the intended effect or not detonate entirely," as the War Zone put it.

Yes, it's fair to look at Trump's even more aggressive War on Terror as a function of his administration's apparent callousness. But given his predecessor's eight years of death from above, the rising tide of civilian casualties poses a more fundamental question: Despite the lip service of the White House and protestations of Pentagon leadership, does the American political establishment really care about collateral damage beyond the jousting and moral posturing of daily politics?

Civilian casualties are, to those who shape their lives around the complexities of war and peace, an inevitability. In the vacuum of our homes, we can and must assert that human life is inviolable and unquantifiable, supposedly the core pillar of Western political philosophy that separates the just wars of nation-states from the malicious "barbarism" of terrorists who deliberately target civilian populations.

But that's not the case. The very concept of "acceptable losses" presupposes a human life that can be assigned a dollar value, a comparative value to others. And, once the human life is monetizable, its value and use become flexible and expendable beyond those moral and ethical rules regarding civilian casualties we consider laws of war. Civilians will die, either because of their tangential association with the war fighting effort (say, workers in munitions factories in Germany and Japan that felt the full wrath of Allied air power) or by accident, and in the eyes of career war fighters, pretending otherwise "is based on historical misconceptions, moral sloppiness, and an unwillingness to confront some inconvenient truths about the nature of war," as Congressional Research Service military manpower analyst Robert Goldich put it in 2014.

Sure, collateral damage is preferably avoidable even from a strategic point of view, as the national security letter to Trump indicated, but that logic cuts both ways. "While battle losses, then, are unquestionably a matter of vital concern both to heads of state and to those who command their armed forces," retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General and former ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry wrote in the Army War College journal Parameters, "it is not at all clear to what extent it is constructive for a military to explicitly include the goal of casualty limitation as a cornerstone of its doctrine."

Trump may be callous in the eyes of his detractors, but in the case of civilian casualties, his White House isn't even trying to pretend like it cares—and, in some ways, that's both better and worse than the era of death from above ushered in by Obama. Most conventional politicians appear to adhere to Carl von Clausewitz's famous maxim that war "is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means." Trump may be the only politician to embrace this principle so nakedly—and time will tell what consequences that yields for the international community.