Editorial: The Truth About the Cost of War

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A half-century ago, the Pentagon's misleading claims about civilian deaths in Vietnam eroded public trust and, ultimately, support for the war. The U.S. military today claims to have learned the hard lessons of that and subsequent wars. It's put in place an elaborate system intended to minimize civilian casualties, including an Obama-era requirement that forces have "near certainty" that no civilian will be harmed before launching an attack. Intelligence analysts select targets, "targeteers" study models to calculate the most precise angles to strike, teams of lawyers evaluate plans, and the Pentagon later discloses the few civilians who still, inevitably and tragically, wind up getting killed.



It turns out this is all, at least partly, an illusion. The Pentagon is killing far more civilians than it acknowledges, according to a recent report in The New York Times and other findings. A system intended to ensure transparency and accountability appears, instead, to be enabling the Pentagon to fool itself as well as the rest of us about the true cost of its strikes. It is often feeding bad intelligence into its intricate targeting system in the first place and then failing to thoroughly investigate civilians deaths after an attack.



The U.S.-led military coalition has claimed, for instance, that the ratio of civilian deaths to airstrikes in the operation against the Islamic State in Iraq is 1 for every 157 strikes. The New York Times Sunday Magazine's account found a ratio of 1 civilian death for every 5 airstrikes — more than 31 times the Pentagon's claim. The true number, wrote the authors, Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, "is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history."



Khan's and Gopal's reporting provided the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since the operation began in 2014. They visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes in northern Iraq after ISIS was expelled, and they interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors and others. They photographed bomb fragments and mapped the destruction with satellite imagery, and they took the data to experts at the U.S. base in Qatar.



The article's organizing narrative was the tragic story of Bassim Razzo, whose wife, daughter, nephew and brother were killed in 2015 in coalition airstrikes on their side-by-side homes in Mosul, the main ISIS stronghold in Iraq. Video and written records showed that the coalition misidentified the two compounds as an ISIS car-bomb factory or command center. Before the writers took up the case, coalition officials had not included the Razzo family in its accounting of civilian victims. When Bassim Razzo asked for compensation, the military eventually offered the insulting sum of $15,000.



The Costs of War project at Brown University estimates that more than 200,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan since 2001. Most experts attribute a majority of the civilian deaths to extremists.



Although international law obligates combatants to minimize harm to civilians, it is unrealistic to think that all civilian deaths can be prevented. Yet the reporting by Khan and Gopal suggests that America could be doing far more to protect civilians. They said they found a "consistent failure" by the U.S.-led coalition to investigate claims carefully and to keep proper records. Some deaths occurred because civilians were close to ISIS targets. Many others, however, appear to have been recorded wrongly by "flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants." The article said the military seldom recognized its failures or made changes to prevent civilian deaths.



To some extent, the American people may be blind to this carnage, having been lulled by their military and political leaders into believing that advanced technology and precision strikes kill the bad guys while sparing the innocent. This seductive concept took hold with video of seemingly pinpoint strikes during the first Persian Gulf War and was reinforced since by widespread use of drone strikes by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump against faraway targets.



However precise the weapons, careful the planners and skilled the fighters, war inevitably includes mistakes that kill civilians. Leaders need to be honest that there is no such thing as antiseptic combat, while Americans need to understand the full cost and consequences of military actions undertaken in their names.



These are not idle concerns. The pace of attacks and civilian casualties seems to be rising, and with them the potential for alienating the very people America hopes to save. The anti-ISIS fight has quickened and moved into crowded cities, but the president has also given field commanders more authority to make battlefield decisions in an ill-defined hunt for terrorists.



Civilian deaths impose another penalty. They become a recruiting tool for terrorists and undermine counterterrorism operations. It's up to Congress to ensure true accountability and transparency, if the administration does not, by holding hearings and demanding answers.



~ The New York Times


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