U.S. Conducts War in Callous Disregard for Civilians

One of the persistent myths about the recent Iraq war was that it was conducted by the US-led coalition in a manner that was unusually sensitive to minimizing civilian casualties.

Sometimes this is stated to be a consequence of a particularly American respect for life and human dignity. Other times, it is explained as a consequence of more precise weapons and an increasingly disciplined US military.

As a testable hypothesis about reality the myth runs into problems. First, because it’s not easily testable, since you can’t compare one war against another one to determine the rates of civilian casualties as if everything else about the wars were equal. Second, because the Pentagon prefers not to find out how many civilians it kills, and so it has a hard time measuring reality against its predictions.

But most troublesome is that the available data seem to show the opposite: the US seems to be getting more and more reckless about civilian casualties over time.

I brought this up , when the founder of the software company I used to work for was quoted in the paper making excuses for the military’s interest in our software:

“The fact that the battles of today are about information more than about bigger bombs will make war less destructive to most people,” he said. “It certainly makes it possible and likely that there’s less harm to innocent bystanders. As much as everyone hates war, I think the world is better because our technology exists.”

In his e-mail, J— added: “My father’s generation fought a huge war with massive casualties and disruption. My generation fought a war with carpet bombing, napalm, land mines and booby traps. Today, we’re able to fight a war with drone aircraft, communications, sensors and other protective equipment, and precise munitions that damage as small an area as possible.”

I pointed out that , the Christian Science Monitor had reported that contrary to this expectation, as war becomes more high-tech, civilian casualties seem to increase:

…In the [] Gulf War, just 3 percent of bombs were precision-guided. That figure jumped to 30 percent in the bombing of Yugoslavia, and to nearly 70 percent during the Afghan air campaign . Yet in each case, the ratio of civilian casualties to bombs dropped has grown.…

Well, now the numbers are in on the latest war in Iraq. The numbers are the best estimates that the Project on Defense Alternatives was able to come up with for Iraqi casualties during the invasion (they restricted their analysis to the time when Iraqi regular forces were still resisting the invasion,  — their methodology is described in detail at http://www.comw.org/pda/0310rm8.html).

They believe that between 10,800 and 15,100 Iraqis were killed during this period, and that between 3,200 and 4,300 of them were civilian noncombatants. Almost 30% of the people killed by coalition forces were not Iraqi troops, Ba’ath party targets, or members of armed militias, but were unarmed civilians. And although more Iraqis died in the Desert Storm war, more civilians died in the recent war, both in number and in percentage.

The study’s author was quoted as saying “In this war in particular we see that improved capabilities in precision attacks have been used to pursue more ambitious objectives rather than achieve lower numbers of civilian dead.”