On Thursday, The New York Times Magazine published a blockbuster investigative report by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal documenting civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes in the war against ISIS in Iraq. Beginning in the spring of 2016, Khan and Gopal began visiting the sites of coalition strikes that had taken place since the war began in 2014, as well as interviewing survivors, neighbors, and others who could provide information about the targets of the strikes.
What Khan and Gopal found was shocking. According to data provided by the coalition, only 89 out of more than 14,000 airstrikes since 2014 have resulted in civilian casualties, or in other words one out of every 157 strikes. Khan and Gopal concluded, however, that the more accurate number is that one out of every five strikes has led to civilian casualties, a total 31 times higher than the coalition’s estimate. Khan and Gopal’s findings have immediate implications for Christians who wish to evaluate U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria using the traditional just-war criteria.
What accounts for the striking difference between the official count of civilian casualties and that of Khan and Gopal? In many cases, coalition forces mistakenly identified civilians as ISIS combatants as a result of flawed intelligence. Ideally, coalition forces plan airstrikes after weeks of surveillance combined with rigorous on-the-ground intelligence gathering. Each targeting plan is also reviewed by a team of lawyers who assess its potential risks to civilians. The reality often does not live up to this ideal.
For example, the homes of Basim Razzo, who is profiled in the article, and his brother Mohannad in Mosul were targeted and destroyed by a coalition airstrike after the houses were falsely identified as an ISIS compound. An informant provided coalition troops with mistaken and out of date information about ISIS activity in the area, leading to the misidentification of the houses. According to documents obtained by Khan and Gopal through a Freedom of Information Act request, surveillance drones observed the two houses for a total of only 95 minutes, and the families’ activities were judged by a standard of “guilty until proven innocent” based on the faulty intelligence; innocent activities such as opening a gate to welcome guests were interpreted as evidence of ISIS activity since they were deemed consistent with the behavior of ISIS combatants. Basim’s wife and daughter, as well as Mohannad and his wife, died in the attack on the houses.
In other cases, civilian casualties were undercounted because coalition forces failed to adequately record airstrikes in their own logs. Khan and Gopal discovered several instances in which there was clear evidence that the coalition was responsible for airstrikes that had caused civilian casualties, and yet these strikes were not recorded in coalition logs. In some cases, the coalition itself had uploaded videos of these strikes to YouTube (including the strike on Basim and Mohannad’s homes), despite their absence from the official logs. If airstrikes were not recorded in those logs, however, the coalition did not consider them to have been carried out by its own forces, and therefore they did not count the resulting civilian casualties. In at least one case identified by Khan and Gopal, coalition forces launched multiple strikes in an area over a one-hour period, but only one of the strikes was listed in the logs. Any casualties further than 50 meters from that one strike were then never recorded.
Coalition protocols also call for an investigation after each strike to determine if there were civilian casualties, and if so, whether they could have been avoided. Based on these findings, the coalition then revises its decision-making process to avoid future mistakes. Khan and Gopal found, though, that this process likewise does not always function as intended. In most cases, coalition forces do not carry out on-the-ground investigations of the strikes, instead relying on surveillance data and their previous intelligence assessments to evaluate the extent of civilian casualties. If, as in the case of Basim and Mohannad and their families, civilians had initially been misidentified as ISIS combatants, then no civilian casualties are recorded, leading to no corrective feedback. And in the many cases were coalition airstrikes were not recorded in the official logs, then the extent of civilian casualties and their avoidability was never assessed.
These mistakes made by coalition forces had important consequences for the survivors of airstrikes beyond the loss of family members and homes. For example, because his home had been misidentified as an ISIS compound, Basim was subsequently considered an ISIS sympathizer by the Iraqi government. This limited his ability to travel around the country and put him at risk once the city of Mosul was liberated, but he had no clear legal procedure to clear his name.
In addition, Khan and Gopal found that despite the resumption of U.S. military activity in Iraq in 2014, the system of “condolence payments” to those who lost loved ones in coalition airstrikes that had been implemented in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 was discontinued. Although the previous system had been haphazard and arbitrary, it at least served as a gesture that the U.S. military lamented the civilian casualties caused by its operation and recognized that in some cases they had been avoidable. The discontinuation of the program, combined with the coalition’s failure to recognize many of the civilian casualties of its operations starting in 2014, represents a failure to grapple with the tragic, unintended consequences of war.
How should a Christian evaluate this report in light of the just-war tradition? The just-war theory holds that soldiers should never deliberately target civilian targets, including not only residences, but also civilian structures such as hospitals, schools, etc. This is the principle of noncombatant immunity. Just-war theorists recognize, however, that in the course of war unintended civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian structures will in some cases likely be unavoidable. Therefore, the principle of proportionality states that this unintended “collateral damage” must be kept to a minimum and must be proportionate to the objectives to be achieved by the military operations that cause it. Likewise, as Tobias Winright and Mark Allman, among others, have pointed out, the just-war theory also has a jus post bellum component, that is, considerations of what justice requires in the aftermath of war or of a particular military engagement. Compensating the innocent victims of war or helping to rebuild civilian structures destroyed in war can be an important part of post-war justice.
As shocking and disappointing as Khan and Gopal’s findings may be, it is still necessary to point out the lengths that U.S. and coalition forces have taken to act consistently with the principles outlined above. Through the use of technology and strict targeting criteria, civilian casualties can be reduced to an extent unprecedented in modern warfare. As Khan and Gopal note, coalition forces are capable of launching “a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.” Similarly, the explain that “the idea that civilian victims of American wars deserve compensation was, until recently, a radical notion floating on the edges of military doctrine” with little basis in international law. The United States’ offer of condolence payments to victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, although not a true compensation for loss, was nevertheless a rare effort toward post-war justice and reconciliation.
Still, the justice of a nation’s participation in war ought to be judged not just against what has been done before or what other nations have done, but also against what was reasonably possible in a given situation. If coalition forces could have reasonably reduced civilian casualties without significantly sacrificing mission effectiveness, then they ought to have done so. That was likely the case in Iraq since 2014.
Based on Khan and Gopal’s research, there does not seem to be evidence that coalition forces intentionally set out to put civilian lives at risk, let alone intentionally targeted civilians. Rather, the civilian casualties documented by Khan and Gopal were the result of bureaucratic routinization, sloppy recordkeeping concerning coalition airstrikes, and a lack of diligence in applying targeting standards that were already in place. Officers failed to adequately question the intelligence they were receiving and failed to question their assumptions about what happened on the ground in the aftermath of an airstrike. These intellectual vices then overshadowed the concern for civilian life that had been the original motivation for the targeting standards. More ominously, however, Khan and Gopal report than when coalition authorities were confronted with the former’s findings, the latter made efforts to hide their failings rather than address them, for example by removing videos of unlogged airstrikes from the internet.
As combat appears to be winding down in Iraq it would be tempting to ignore Khan and Gopal’s findings and fail to learn any lessons from them. As the United States continues to take on a limited military role in Syria, however, and continues to engage in drone strikes in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, it is morally necessary that the United States and its allies learn from these mistakes made in Iraq. They must meticulously keep logs of all military strikes so that an accurate count of civilian casualties can be made and so that U.S. and allied forces can learn from any mistakes that are made. They must also rigorously adhere to standards for targeting, making sure that to the extent possible intelligence is accurate and up-to-date and correcting any false information whenever it is discovered. They should also revive some form of “condolence payment” or compensation to the surviving victims of military strikes as a matter of justice and to facilitate efforts toward post-war reconciliation.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.