Counts The Civilian Casualties?
By Brad Knickerbocker
01 April, 2004
The Christian Science Monitor
long before the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, President
Bush told the American people: "If war is forced upon us, we will
fight in a just cause and by just means - sparing, in every way we can,
He meant civilians: men, women, and children who had lived for a quarter-century
under Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted rule - who were not part of Iraq's
military forces, yet could not escape the horrors of war.
How well has Mr.
Bush's pledge been kept? How many civilian casualties - "collateral
damage," to use the antiseptic phrase - have resulted from the
war, and the subsequent occupation in which people are killed and wounded
nearly every day?
It's an impossible
question to answer with sure accuracy. The nature of war - in particular
this kind of war in this kind of place - makes it hard to tally the
"innocent" victims. The Pentagon says it "monitors"
civilian casualties but doesn't keep such figures. Human rights groups
try, but they acknowledge that their figures are estimates at best.
however, signal that losses have been severe. Between 8,789 and 10,638
civilians have died since war began March 19, 2003, according to one
group of British and American researchers that surveys media reports
and eyewitness accounts.
It's also difficult
to assign responsibility or blame. Many thousands of Iraqi civilians
died during Hussein's reign, and 692 US-led coalition soldiers have
died ending that regime. In war - by definition, the failure to resolve
disputes without suffering - how do these losses figure into any kind
of cost-benefit calculus?
Yet it's important
to gauge the toll on civilians, say experts on the laws governing war
and occupation. And current efforts to quantify civilian casualties
come at a time when those laws are being tested as never before.
be hellish, yet they are regulated by a code called the Law of Armed
This includes the
Hague and Geneva Conventions (international protocols spelling out the
rules of war, in place since 1907 and 1949, respectively), in addition
to various international agreements supplementing them. In sum, its
principles are military necessity, distinction, and proportionality,
which add up to targeting only military objectives while avoiding noncombatants.
all pretty gauzy standards involving vague terms, not given to easy
quantification or decision in courtrooms," says Gary Solis, a retired
Marine officer who has taught laws of war at the United States Military
Academy at West Point.
"But the point
is that there are standards, and we're ever more likely to see attempts
to apply them in international forums," says Mr. Solis, now at
the Georgetown University Law School in Washington. "And that's
got to be a good thing."
Even though "major
combat operations" have been declared officially ended, the US-run
Coalition Provisional Authority - the occupier of Iraq - remains responsible
for public order and safety there. At the same time, the resistance
movements fighting the occupation are supposed to be bound by the Law
of Armed Conflict as well - which means that attacks on civilian targets
such as the new Iraqi police forces violate the rules of war.
At various times
during the war and occupation, US officials have issued statements declaring
that "even one innocent person injured or killed is something we
It's difficult (and
sometimes impossible) to distinguish civilian casualties from the victims
of anticoalition guerrilla forces or criminals. Not all casualties are
taken to hospitals where records are kept, and Muslim practice is to
bury victims the same day they die, which makes recordkeeping even more
forces in Iraq do not publish totals of civilian casualties (nor does
international law require them to), they do make payments - usually
several thousand dollars - to individual civilians injured or to the
families of those killed.
Critics say the
US needs to do more to account for and prevent civilian casualties.
better information about the rates and causes of civilian casualties
can only enhance military commanders' ability to make sound judgments
in the heat of combat - and improve their ability to ensure that US
forces really are doing all they can to protect civilians," says
Diane Orentlicher, professor of international law at American University's
Washington College of Law.
"It would be
impossible to obtain a perfect accounting of civilian casualties, in
part because the civilian status of many victims may be doubted,"
says Professor Orentlicher. "But it doesn't make sense to respond
to the proverbial fog of war by donning a blindfold."
In a report titled
"Disappearing the Dead," the Project on Defense Alternatives
in Washington asserts that in Afghanistan and Iraq "there were
more than 85 incidents involving multiple civilian fatalities (sometimes
running into the dozens) whose particulars were supported by multiple
Western sources, on-site reporting, substantial visual records, and
interviews with eyewitnesses, survivors, and sometimes hospital and
As a result, writes
Carl Conetta, the report's author, "The human cost of war ... and
the prospect of collateral damage must figure centrally in any free
decision to go to war."
Centrally or not,
the prospect of civilian deaths does figure into US decisions to use
deadly force, as Clinton and Bush administration officials pointed out
last week in testimony before the commission investigating the 9/11
The US uses a much
higher percentage of precision weapons today than ever before. It is
replacing cluster bombs (large numbers of which fail to detonate on
impact and can later maim or kill civilians) with those that become
inert after a short period if they don't explode when dropped or fired.
Pentagon lawyers are involved in target planning to ensure the Laws
of Armed Conflict are not being violated.
"If you talk
to the Red Cross or most other observers, you'll find that [US forces]
did a rather good job of avoiding or minimizing collateral damage"
in both Iraq and Afghanistan. says Robert Goldman, who specializes in
human rights and armed conflict at American University's Washington
College of Law. (Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are as difficult
to calculate as those in Iraq.)
This was not the
case in previous wars. In World War II, tens of thousands of civilians
were killed in single attacks. Mussolini terror-bombed Ethiopia; Nazi
Germany indiscriminately bombed London; and the Allies firebombed Dresden
and other German cities. Tokyo was firebombed, and the US dropped atom
bombs on two Japanese cities.
changed our practices since World War II - everyone has - where the
cities themselves were seen as targets," says Prof. Goldman.
Yet, in some ways,
civilian casualties increasingly have become part of war - certainly
part of the Pentagon's planning for what's called "asymmetrical
war" fought against terrorist cells, insurgencies, and stateless
organizations like Al Qaeda.
"In our war
games, the bad guys gave up fighting us directly," says retired
Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who has taught at the National Defense
University. "They moved into cities. They attacked our supply lines
with explosives. They wore civilian clothes. They took hostages. They
responded to our new weapons by forcing on us the dilemma of killing
civilians and of their killing of civilians."
That's exactly what's
happening in Iraq today, and it portends the kind of dilemma US soldiers
are likely to face if the White House and Pentagon civilians continue
to send them into harm's way.
casualties, and even specific incidents, can have a strategic effect
on a conflict out of all proportion to their size, especially in an
age of instant video transmission around the world," says military
analyst Marcus Corbin of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
"If the Defense Department doesn't have its own estimates, even
if [only] a broad range, it cedes the territory to opponents who may
use wildly inflated estimates, which may unfortunately be readily believed
by gullible foreign populations."
Of course, debates
on the means and significance of calculating civilian losses in Iraq
skirt a more central moral issue: Was the US justified in invading the
country in the first place?
Yet once the fighting
starts, that's no longer the question up for debate. Concerns then become
what President Bush touched upon in his State of the Union address on
the eve of war. He promised to spare - "in every way we can"
- innocent Iraqis. But he also said, "If war is forced upon us,
we will fight with the full force and might of the United States military
- and we will prevail."