On the US ‘Sensitivity’ to Civilian Deaths

Last week, US News and World Report national security reporter Paul D. Shinkman posited that the U.S. goes above and beyond the call of duty in terms of how seriously it takes civilian casualties of it or its allies’ bombing campaigns.

Shinkman didn’t necessarily write his own headline – “Iraqi Civilians Will Die: U.S. Must Get Used to It, Experts Say” – or the murderously reasonable sub – “An investigation into a June 2 bombing that killed 70 civilians in Iraq demonstrates the U.S. military’s sensitivity to civilian casualties.” – but the sentiment is the same in the body of text. Like a cold father lecturing a crying child, the subservient one must remember that the beatings could always be worse – so stop crying, or he’ll give you something to cry about.

After all, the target of this June 2 strike may have been a munitions factory, but it could have been, say, one that makes medicines instead. Certainly the former’s destruction is less outrageous on its face, but Reuters notes that the strike also “flattened an entire neighborhood.” Sure, the target was the factory, but nothing in war ever is that clean. Seventy people died. We will never know how many of them were bad, wicked men who “deserved” it.

And even if it were acceptable to punish people for the crimes of the insurgents nearby, why does the fact of the Pentagon investigation trouble Shinkman? Is there something wrong with that, even if the skeptical among us can assume the end result will be “everything was justified.” Hell, an unnamed military source in the Reuters piece is more generous – or more offensive, considering his job – than Shinkman, saying “I have difficulty thinking of any civilian casualties in Iraq….One is clearly too many.”

The only thing wrong with the Pentagon checking under its boots to see what and who all has been trod upon is the dishonesty of it. Two words that should not go together are “military” and “sensitivity” when speaking of dead and injured civilians. Sensitivity about the dead is for people who don’t know the victims, who had nothing to do with their demise. Does anyone require sensitivity of mass murderers, especially if they don’t appear to be interested in rehabilitation – that is, not repeating their crimes? How about stop killing people instead of being sensitive when you do?

There’s a basic reason why this website wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s Antiwar dot com, not because other issues are unimportant, or that readers here or elsewhere won’t disagree on other big things. It’s because war is everything bad you can do to a people all wrapped up in not justification, but glorification. I’d like to think that the latter was invented out of necessity for even the invaders. War is bad for people, period. And that is a good sign for humanity.

In the meantime, how lackadaisical to suggest that “sensitivity” means anything in the face of unfixable, final death. Many people argue as Shinkman does that the U.S. could be worse in its imperialism (well, they don’t tend to use that word). And they are right. It could always be worse. Vietnam could have been razed to the ground entirely. Does that fact erase the 2 million dead, and the lingering health problems caused by Agent Orange exposure?

Shinkman mentions Dresden’s reported 25,000 dead thanks to Allied bombing. He is right that the acceptable number of enemy casualties “has varied wildly in America’s previous conflicts.” And yes, that is particularly awful because it is 25,000 individuals who were killed – a number that is barely comprehensible. And so? The Allies weren’t actively thrilled about the dead? At least there wasn’t a Holocaust? (Well, there was a lowercase holocaust. Firestorms caused by bombings definitely constitute a holocaust.)

Drone strikes have killed just a few thousand people, and maybe just a few hundred civilians (probably more, since the government doesn’t seem interested in disproving that a victim was a terrorist or insurgent of some kind). You could argue that U.S. policy is becoming less murderous as years pass, and less willing to accept more than four figure counts of civilian casualties. (Try not to remember the 2003 Iraq war.) And, though drones are making cheap, endless occupation affordable for even a broke empire, you might be right. Things are looking up. But why does this kind of grim optimism only work in reference to people who are not Americans?

Nobody dares suggest that “only” 3000 people died on September, 11. Just eight soldiers died in the attempt to rescue the hostages Iran captured after the 1979 embassy takeover. Four people at the Benghazi embassy in 2012 is a blip, right? Imagine how many more it could have been in every single one of those cases – how many more people could have died who didn’t.

What’s that? Those were Americans? Sure, most Americans are more likely to have some connection to an American, as opposed to an Iraqi or a Vietnamese person. Are noble, individualist principles intended to be about an inferred rights to exist? Are individuals important only because they have large families who can mourn them in front of cable news cameras? Come to think of it, many people in the countries being bombed by the U.S. also have large families. A Yemeni man Walid al-Ibbi had a wife and four children – and 22 other family members. According to Human Rights Watch, 27 members of al-Ibbi’s family are now dead thanks to Saudi airstrikes.

These are tragedies we must know about in America. Shinkman’s contention that “widely publicizing investigations such as [the June 2 Iraqi airstrike] may further complicate the war effort itself” is troubling. Terrorists may be blessedly incompetent when trying to hit America most of the time, but I suspect ISIS can figure out the merits of hiding among civilians without the media or the Pentagon’s help. On the other hand, not talking about 70 dead civilians is always good for American war morale. Which is the point.

Could have been worse is not an argument, especially when faced with incomprehensible loss such as the one suffered by Mr. al-Ibbi. “They weren’t American” is not a real argument, either. But condoning these aggressive American wars (or the wars of the country’s allies) is a tacit endorsement of that concept, whether you realize it or not. American pilots aren’t dropping their bombs often enough, reports Shinkman, because the Pentagon is micromanaging troops out of fear of killing civilians. This is not a moral argument for more bombs. It’s a bad strategic one as well, because we know blowback is real.

On an individual scale, you can use lethal force against an attacker or even a home invader who may be there only to steal your laptop or your jewelry. But that unknown fear of what someone might do as a justification for aggressive wars does not translate. You cannot shed blood all over the world, and then prove it had to be done because they would have hurt your country. And you cannot console the displaced or those mourning their dead with the fact that you could have destroyed more cities and killed more people.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

Read more by Lucy Steigerwald

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.