War etc

Civilians in Post-9/11 Wars and U.S. Policy

This is a cross-post from Mugwump

One of my earliest posts argued against those who claimed that the U.S was offered Bin Laden on a plate in September 2001. This idea wasn’t particularly popular – it was restricted to elements of the “anti-imperialist left”. The argument handled below is somewhat more pervasive – you may even hear it in a pub.  It is the idea that the U.S (and more broadly, Western) military does not care about civilians when operating in war zones. This, it is claimed amounts to what is in effect a policy of targeting civilians either through wilful actions or gross negligence.

To deal with some admin: I want to make clear that I am really only talking about U.S actions in the last decade or so. This is for brevity not necessarily because I want to avoid the issue of pre-9/11 actions. The end-notes are elaborations, the sources are contained with the text itself.

Kahl (2007) in International Security gives us a framework for evaluating whether the norm of not killing civilians is being violated:

[The] three types of measures… used here to assess the degree of U.S. military compliance with the norm of non-combatant immunity [are] (1) levels of civilian casualties (an indirect measure); (2) conduct during military operations; and (3) responses to instances of noncompliance (p.10)


The first is a relatively easy argument to make and I have made it several times: in Afghanistan, coalition forces are responsible for less than 14% of civilians deaths so far in 2013 (a consistent trend). In Iraq, Kahl estimates that coalition forces were responsible for roughly 10% for the period 2003-2006 (p.11-2). A more recent study by King’s College London for the period 2003-2008 found coalition forces responsible for 12% of civilian casualties [1]. In relation to drone strikes, a meta-analysis of several estimates found that, if you take out the lowest estimate, the civilian toll is between 8% and 17%.  If the world’s most powerful militaries had a wilful policy of killing civilians, they are failing miserably. But the argument that the policy exists by way of negligence may still be correct which is where we use conduct and responses to instances of non-compliance.

Note that the mere killing of civilians is not sufficient to warrant moral condemnation. As will be obvious from the second and third sections below, while the loss of life is regrettable, it often comes about because of militant activities (operating in civilian areas, not wearing uniforms) and the fog of war which can lead to errors. Even these errors should not be morally blameworthy – soldiers must act according to the best evidence and it is simply a fact of war that acting reasonably and making reasonable assessments can lead to the death of civilians (see particularly section three, sub-section one). In essence, these are R v Pagget situations.

Why are the casualties so low? Partly because of improvements in technology which mean that we can avoid civilian casualties. Our weapons are becoming more and more sophisticated which allows for precision. The overwhelming majority of munitions used in Iraq and Afghanistan are precision guided (p.21). But this is not the main reason. There has been a radical change in the internalisation of the rules of engagement:

Military culture is institutionalized, routinized, and reproduced in several ways, including education and training, career incentives, doctrine and war plans, budgetary priorities, procurement programs, and even force structures (p.38)

Do read the rest of Mugwump’s post here