Washington appears intent on making Russia’s war on Ukraine into a moral crusade. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby last week declared that "we’re certainly seeing clear evidence that the Russian military is conducting war crimes."
Any large-scale conflict is going to kill civilians, some directly in combat, others from the impact of war’s destructive impact on a modern society. Thus, Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol cannot help but kill civilians. Last week the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated 953 dead and 1557 injured Ukrainian civilians. But that is merely the number of victims whose death can be confirmed.
OHCHR reported that it "believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, especially in Government-controlled territory and especially in recent days, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration. This concerns, for example, Mariupol and Volnovakha (Donetsk region), Izium (Kharkiv region), Sievierodonetsk and Rubizhne (Luhansk region), and Trostianets (Sumy region), where there are allegations of numerous civilian casualties. These figures are being further corroborated and are not included in the above statistics."
Nothing can justify this terrible toll and Moscow’s attack. However, those who judge the moral conduct of others should be measured by the same standard. Which raises the question of war crimes committed by the US in its many conflicts. American forces may attempt to fight "cleaner" wars than does Russia, but even so no one should have any illusion about the high civilian cost of Washington’s interventions. Innocent people die, some directly, many indirectly. And if war criminals were routinely prosecuted, Americans would be in the dock as well as Russians.
Consider Washington’s widespread drone war. One terrible strike made last August when Americas were withdrawing from Afghanistan wiped out a family, including seven kids. It was a terrible mistake, but the US was culpable. Reported the New York Times: "Military officials said they did not know the identity of the car’s driver when the drone fired, but deemed him suspicious because of how they interpreted his activities that day, saying that he possibly visited an ISIS safe house and, at one point, loaded what they thought could be explosives into the car." [Italics added] Upon this litany of unproved suppositions, which turned out to be wild speculation, Washington acted like a terrorist and wiped him out along with all those around him.
Such mistakes are common because America relies on such "signature" strikes, based on interpretating the actions of people typically hundreds or thousands of miles away. Noted the New York Times: "Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess."
Afghanistan has been a major focus of America’s drone war. A detailed investigation in 2015 by two media organizations and a foundation concluded that drone strikes had killed 3852 people, 476 of whom were civilians. That’s a civilian kill rate of 12.4 percent, better than untargeted air or artillery strikes, but still much higher than claimed by Washington.
According to journalist Emran Feroz: "Afghanistan is the most drone-bombed country in the world. The United States dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in 2019 than in any other years since the Defense Department began keeping track in 2006. According to new figures released by the U.S. military, at least 7,423 bombs and other munitions were dropped on the country in 2019, a nearly eight-fold increase from 2015 and an average of 20 bombs a day."
He described another drone attack that apparently went awry: "Ordinary Afghans say it has happened to them many times and never – not once – has it made news anywhere outside Afghanistan. Last November, an American Reaper drone targeted a group of villagers in the mountainous area of Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Paktia and killed seven of them. Paktia has long been home to Taliban militants, but local residents say all the victims were civilians, including three women and one child. They had gone to the remote area to graze their cattle and collect wood. Suddenly, they were dead."
Another cost of the drone war: creating new terrorists who target Americans. Waging war on Muslims around the world makes a lot of enemies, some of whom strike back.
For instance, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square in response to Washington’s drone campaign. He explained to the court in 2010: "I want to plead guilty 100 times because unless the United States pulls out of Afghanistan and Iraq, until they stop drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen and stop attacking Muslim lands, we will attack the United States and be out to get them." The judge asked him why he was willing to kill kids. He explained: "When the drones hit, they don’t see children." Hence, Shahzad concluded that "I am part of the answer to the US killing the Muslim people."
America’s anti-ISIS bombing campaign also killed civilians in prodigious numbers. NPR reported on the work of New York Times correspondent David Philipps, who said "the United States’ air war against ISIS seems to have been particularly brutal on innocent civilians in Syria. In recent stories, Philipps reports that a top-secret unit of the US military was allowed to pick targets for drone attacks and bombing runs with little oversight, and that as the conflict wore on, it increasingly sidestepped rules to protect noncombatants, ordering airstrikes that killed farmers in their fields, children in the street and families fleeing combat."
According to Philipps, the military counted 1400 dead civilians "during the four years of the war. And they were very confident that those numbers were real and that outside organizations like Human Rights Watch that were reporting numbers that were many times higher were being unreasonable. But once we looked under the hood at how it worked, we found that, you know, time and time again, their accounts were just seriously flawed."
The Times explained that it "worked with journalist Azmat Khan, who went to dozens and dozens of these sites on the ground and talked to people who were there and compared what they said to what the military’s own records said and found repeatedly that there was a gulf between them." For instance, Human Rights Watch estimated some 7000 dead civilians. A toll that dwarfs the number of civilian dead in Ukraine, where the US is blaming Russia for committing war crimes.
The US also has armed Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, helping them wreak death and destruction against Yemen, the poorest nation in the Mideast. No participant in this civil war, which was internationalized by the Saudis and Emiratis, looks good. However, most casualties and damage are a result of the royal regimes’ air attacks and effective blockade, which has resulted in mass malnutrition, immiseration, and disease.
President Joe Biden once criticized the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its pernicious role in the Yemen war. Like so many of his predecessors, however, he has since effectively turned US policy over to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, continuing to sell them weapons and deploying US forces to help protect them from retaliation for their continuing attacks on Yemeni civilians. A year after the president took office the war is heating back up in Yemen.
Reported the Yemen Data Project: "January 2022 was the most violent month in the Saudi-led air war in Yemen in more than five years. Yemen Data Project recorded 139 civilian deaths and 287 civilians injured in Saudi coalition airstrikes in January, taking the casualty toll to over 19,000 civilians killed and injured since Saudi Arabia launched its bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015. Not since October 2016 have more civilian casualties been recorded in a single month in the air war. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes caused more civilian harm in the first month of 2022 than in the two previous years combined."
The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen revealed that civilians were routinely targeted by the Saudi and Emirati royals. Victims included "civilians shopping at markets, receiving care in hospitals, or attending weddings and funerals; children on buses; fishers in boats; migrants seeking a better life; individuals strolling through their neighborhoods; and people who were at home."
Widespread air attacks also wrecked basic infrastructure, with catastrophic consequences for health, nutrition, commerce, and safety. The United Nations Development Program reported:
"By comparing the current reality in Yemen to a scenario where no conflict ever occurred, we can provide an estimate of the total death count – the number of deaths caused both directly and indirectly from the conflict. By doing so, we found that by the end of 2021, Yemen’s conflict will lead to 377,000 deaths – nearly 60 per cent of which are indirect and caused by issues associated with conflict like lack of access to food, water, and healthcare. These deaths are overwhelmingly made up of young children who are especially vulnerable to under and malnutrition. In 2021, a Yemeni child under the age of five dies every nine minutes because of the conflict. This is a significant increase since our 2019 report, Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen, that – through the same assessment – found this to be approximately every 12 minutes."
The experts’ group also found devastating impact: "Protracted conflict, disease outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic, flooding, import restrictions, an economic and fuel crisis, and limited humanitarian aid have made everyday life in Yemen unbearable for many. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, around 20.7 million people in Yemen currently require some form of humanitarian and protection assistance. More than 16.2 million of them will face significant food insecurity this year. Additionally, international funding has fallen far short of the required levels to address the humanitarian crisis."
Harm from this kind of warfare goes even further. Last fall the experts’ group observed that "Living in a country subjected to an average of 10 airstrikes per day has left millions feeling far from safe. Although the frequency and intensity of airstrikes have fluctuated over the last four years, the Group of Eminent Experts has continued to observe their devastating impact on civilians."
Assessing Washington’s moral blame in aiding the royal aggressors is easy. The legal case is more difficult, but the State Department already made the connection. It warned previous administrations that US officials were committing war crimes. The New York Times reported: "The civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s disastrous air war over Yemen was steadily rising in 2016 when the State Department’s legal office in the Obama administration reached a startling conclusion: Top American officials could be charged with war crimes for approving bomb sales to the Saudis and their partners. Four years later, more than a dozen current and former US officials say the legal risks have only grown as President Trump has made selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle East nations a cornerstone of his foreign policy."
There is much more to criticize in US policy. Rural Afghanistan suffered desperately for years as a battleground between the US and Taliban, causing many residents to turn toward the insurgents. Washington intervened in Libya’s civil war more than a decade ago to promote regime change under cover of helping to protect civilians from the Khadafy government. Hopes for a better future remained unfulfilled as contending factions subsequently fought for control and now squabble over plans to hold elections.
Russia deserves to be criticized and held accountable for its increasingly brutal military campaign in Ukraine. However, Washington would have more credibility to judge if its message wasn’t do as I say, not as a I do. US officials should come clean internationally and admit when they have failed in their obligation to protect human rights, including in wartime. Next time they shouldn’t just promise to do better. They should do so.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.