Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Civilian Casualties and U.S. Conduct in Iraq

Colin Kahl, writing in the new International Security (PDF), provides an outstanding examination of the U.S. military's record of minimizing noncombatant casualities in the Iraq war.

Kahl's research shows that while the war has resulted in a heavy loss of civilian life, U.S. forces in Iraq have a better record of limiting noncombatant fatalities than in America's previous wars. Further, a powerful norm of noncombatant immunity has generated tremendous collective expectations for combat behavior that conforms with international human rights standards.

Here's the comparison of the record in Iraq to earlier wars:

The number of documented fatalities attributable to U.S. forces or crossfire in Iraq is much lower than those for many other U.S. military campaigns of the last century where civilians were clearly targeted. During World War II, for example, U.S. and British forces engaged in strategic bombing against German and Japanese cities, killing more than 1 million noncombatants. In a single night of U.S. firebombing over Tokyo in 1945, at least 85,000 people, mostly civilians, were incinerated—nearly 21 times the total number of civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes in Iraq through the end of 2006 (according to IBC data), and 6–10 times the total number of Iraqi civilians killed by all U.S. ground and air forces or crossfire in the first three and one-half years of the war. Although some might argue that improvements in precision-guided munitions account for the majority of this historical difference, many of the noncombatant fatalities from bombing during World War II were the result of attacks aimed at destroying enemy morale, not incidental by-products of crude targeting and guidance technologies.

Perhaps the most telling comparisons, however, are to the U.S. wars in the Philippines and Vietnam, the two most significant foreign counterinsurgency campaigns in U.S. history. In the Philippines between 1899 and 1902, approximately 16,000 guerrillas were killed and at least 200,000 civilians perished (out of a total population of 7.4 million in 1900). U.S. forces engaged in the widespread destruction of crops, buildings, civilian property, and entire villages as forms of collective punishment against families and communities suspected of supporting insurgents. Hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians were moved to concentration camps to separate them from guerrillas, and ablebodied men who dared to venture outside of these “protected zones” were assumed to be enemies and could be shot.

In Vietnam, the United States also fought in ways that put civilians directly in the crosshairs. Almost 750,000 North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong were killed during the war, and a conservative estimate of civilian deaths from violence in South Vietnam places the total at 522,000 (out of a total population of 16 million in 1966). U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam relied on massive firepower directed on occasion at targets in densely populated areas. U.S. forces established “free fire zones” in some areas, allowing anyone not wearing a South Vietnamese military uniform to be shot. The U.S. military used more than 29 times the tonnage of incendiary bombs in Vietnam as it did in World War II, and sprayed toxic defoliants on land in South Vietnam that was home to about 3 percent of the population. U.S. forces were also involved in many cases of outright murder and several incidents of mass killing. In the most notorious case, at My Lai on March 16, 1968, as many as 571 unarmed men, women, and children were massacred by a platoon of U.S. soldiers. Recently declassified records show abuses were documented in every U.S. Army division deployed to Vietnam.

The contrast between the current Iraq war and previous U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns is striking. Adjusted for population size and duration, civilian deaths in Iraq through the end of 2006 were 11–17 times lower than in the Philippines. Because available data for the Philippines do not separate casualties caused by U.S. forces, this estimate is based on all violent deaths in Iraq. This certainly underestimates the difference between the Philippines and Iraq because, in the former case, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that U.S. troops were responsible for a much higher percentage of total deaths. In the case of Vietnam, extrapolations from available hospital records suggest that at least 177,480 South Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. bombing and shelling. Controlling for population and duration, Iraqi civilian fatalities ttributable to direct U.S. action and crossfire through the end of 2006 were 17–30 times lower than those from bombing and shelling alone in Vietnam. Without adjusting for population, the average monthly deaths are still 10–16 times lower than in Vietnam.

Outside the U.S. context, contemporary Russian counterinsurgency efforts in Chechnya offer an even starker contrast. In the two Chechen wars (1994–96 and 1999–present), the Russians used an extraordinary amount of indiscriminate firepower, including intensive artillery and aerial bombardment in dense urban settings. The lowest estimate of civilian deaths attributable to Russian actions through 2003 is 50,000 out of a total Chechen population of approximately 1 million (other estimates place the death toll for the two wars as high as 250,000). Even the most conservative estimate is 100–175 times the U.S.-caused toll in Iraq through 2006 (controlling for duration and population). Given the nature of the conflict, the number of civilians killed in Iraq, however awful, is not sufficient to suggest systematic U.S. noncompliance with the norm of noncombatant immunity. On the contrary, compared with conflicts where civilians were directly targeted, Iraqi casualty data provide some indirect evidence for U.S. adherence.
Kahl takes a look at a range of factors contributing to the high level of American compliance with the laws of war in minimizing noncombatant casualties. There has been an almost incredible effort by the American military to prevent unintended death. Steps to this effect include developing "off limits" targeting protocols and preapproved "strike lists"; embedding operations observers with forward-deployed troops to facilitate the designation of insurgent targets versus civilian assets; and the deployment of precision-guided weaponry and mitigation practices.

The author suggest that as ambitious and effective as these noncombatant protection practices have been, there remain a number of cases of U.S. noncompliance with international standards of civilian protection. These instance include collateral damage casualities reaching totals outside of acceptable levels, escalation of force incidents after the initial stage of major combat (where U.S. forces often overreacted to perceived threats emanating from civilians), and the military's practice of mounting large-scale offensive operations in the earlier years of the counterinsurgency period, which were widely criticized as inadequately planned to avoid noncombatant fatalities.

Yet, events like the 2005 Haditha atrocity have been relatively rare events throughout the U.S. deployment. These tragedies have generated widespread media coverage, and military officials have worked even more diligently to guarantee against additional episodes of U.S. noncompliance. Additionally, criminal investigations are launched at the outset of allegations of noncombatant deaths at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

What's noteworthy as well is that military analysts have suggested that the U.S. has done so well in adhering to international norms against civilian killing that rules to limit such incidents indeed may have placed U.S. forces at a tactical disadvantage. Under rules of engagement carefully proscribing when American troops may use deadly force, significant numbers of insurgent and militia members have survived engagements with U.S. forces, melting back into the general population to fight and kill another day, and to destabilize the Iraqi population.

Kahl provides a powerful quote that capture the ethos of compliance among the American military in Iraq. In describing what he expected of a company of paratroopers as they prepared for the assault on Samawah in 2003, a captain of the 82 Airborne announced:

I need guys who can hit targets. I need guys who will do anything to protect their buddies. I need guys who are ready to kill. . . . And I want you to remember something. You are Americans. Americans don’t shoot women and children. They don’t kill soldiers that have surrendered. That’s what the assholes we’re up against do. That’s what we’re fighting. We’re gonna do things differently. But if your life is in danger, you shoot. And you shoot to
The bottom line is that the popular perception on the left of the U.S. military in Iraq as an occupation army committing wanton atrocities across the civilian space in Iraq is wrong. The U.S. has not engaged in an indiscrimate campaign of gross human rights violations. There have been a number of highly publicized cases of U.S. violations of international rights standards - Abu Graib, for example - but these case have in fact been substantial anomolies in an otherwise U.S. regime of aggressive compliance with the laws of war.

Critical commentators in the left-wing press, academe, and among the radical antiwar contingents would do well to read this research and evaluate U.S. practices for what they are: Agressive tactics for protecting civilian life in wartime, and the judicious development and extension of rules of engagement and protocols advancing the cause of America's just war mission in the liberation of Iraq.

Update: Who links to this post?

Central Sanity: "Soldiers and Civilians."

Chicago Ray: "Wednesday's Hero Blogburst."

Right Truth: "Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Now Terrorist Organization."

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