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Tuesday 20th March 2018

The Debate over the Dead


James Denselow

Sat, 11 May 2019 15:20 GMT

At the start of this month the Defence Department announced that 120 civilians were killed by their military operations in 2018, yet human rights and monitoring groups claim the numbers are far higher. This debate over the dead is an important yardstick as to the challenges modern militaries face in contemporary conflict and will likely influence future US military and foreign policy. 

Why? Partly due to the US current hesitance in deploying soldiers into the line of fire. Indeed following the huge unpopularity as to the seemingly endless and unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama and now Trump have proven allergic to even moderate levels of US casualties. This means a pivot to both partnered military operations, often in fragile coalitions involving non-state actors - such as the one against Isis - or an increased reliance on stand-off or remote weaponry.

The US has incredible advantages when it comes to the variety of the weaponry it can choose to deploy, from long range strategic bombers, to stealthily tactical jets and increasingly ubiquitous armed drones. High resolution surveillance can provide intelligence that can guide in accurate weapons. This may give the impression that war is becoming more surgical and clean cut in its conduct, yet global urbanisation and the increased proximity of the US non-state enemies to a civilian population means that accurate weapons with large explosive payloads can cause serious harm.

This is both in the direct and indirect consequences of these bombs hitting their targets. Directly, a blast wave in a densely populated area, with the associated heat, fragmentation and energising of the environment causes immediate death and injury. Without deployed forces these bodies are often entombed in the rubble of their former home and cannot be easily identified from a loitering drone.

In cities like Mosul and Raqqa the grim discoveries of further bodies under the rubble is a continuing challenge. A recent joint investigation by AirWars and Amnesty revealed that there were over 1,600 casualties caused by the US-led operation, ten times those admitted to by officials themselves. This has led to calls for more forensic attention to the issue of civilian harm.

This would require political commitment, something that already exists in most States, rhetorical commitment to protecting civilians in conflict, and a practical recognition that the various laws that protect non-combatants from harm are only the starting point for practical care in how military actors conduct themselves in today’s wars.

Opponents against acknowledging harm, point to the fact that any airstrike or drone attack that is admitted to have killed civilians will be jumped upon by America’s enemies and used as propaganda or as a means of recruiting more fighters to their cause. However, the contrary argument is not hard to make, that a force committed to avoiding civilian harm and admitting when it occurs and learning from it, is one that would have a far more legitimate claim to win hearts and minds.

As technology improves the range of stand-off weaponry, there is already talk of developing low yield missiles and bombs that don’t have the reverberating effects as much of today’s arsenals. The secondary challenge when explosive weapons are used beyond the immediate deaths and injuries, are the damage to critical infrastructure that can have far wider effects. Take out a water sanitation plant and you can unleash cholera on a population, destroying a city’s schools means you lose a generation of children from education.

Cities are complex and connected entities that don’t respond well to the destruction chaos of big bombs. What is more an advancing infantry force can often find themselves bogged down in the rubble and unpredictable urban terrain left following the use of such weapons, allowing relatively small number of defenders to hold up a larger attacking force as was seen in the battle for Mosul.

The US has made significant strides in a practical commitment towards protecting civilians in modern war, but it has a long way to go and should be more open and receptive in engaging in those who would look to help it properly account for those killed in its operations in the future.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.

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