A Formula for Slaughter

On the American rules of engagement in the Iraqi air war.

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A little over a year ago, a group of Johns Hopkins researchers reported that about 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the Iraq war during its first 14 months, with about 60,000 of the deaths directly attributable to military violence by the U.S. and its allies.
The study, published in The Lancet, the highly respected British medical journal, applied the same rigorous, scientifically validated methods that the Hopkins researchers had used in estimating that 1.7 million people had died in the Congo in 2000. Though the Congo study had won the praise of the Bush and Blair administrations and had become the foundation for UN Security Council and State Department actions, this study was quickly declared invalid by the U.S. government and by supporters of the war.

This dismissal was hardly surprising, but after a brief flurry of protest, even the antiwar movement (with a number of notable exceptions) has largely ignored the ongoing carnage that the study identified.

One reason the Hopkins study did not generate sustained outrage is that the researchers did not explain how the occupation had managed to kill so many people so quickly — about 1,000 each week in the first 14 months of the war. This may reflect our sense that carnage at such elevated levels requires a series of barbaric acts of mass slaughter and/or huge battles that would account for staggering numbers of Iraqis killed. With the exception of the battle of Falluja, these sorts of high-profile events have simply not occurred in Iraq.

Mayhem in Baiji

But the Iraq war is a twenty-first century war and so the miracle of modern weaponry allows the U.S. military to kill scores of Iraqis (and wound many more) during a routine day’s work, made up of small skirmishes triggered by roadside bombs, sniper attacks, and American foot patrols. In early January 2006, the New York Times and the Washington Post both reported a relatively small incident (not even worthy of front page coverage) that illustrated perfectly the capacity of the American military to kill uncounted thousands of Iraqi civilians each year.

Here is the Times account of what happened in the small town of Baiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad, on January 3, based on interviews with various unidentified “American officials”:

“A pilotless reconnaissance aircraft detected three men planting a roadside bomb about 9 p.m. The men ‘dug a hole following the common pattern of roadside bomb emplacement,’ the military said in a statement. ‘The individuals were assessed as posing a threat to Iraqi civilians and coalition forces, and the location of the three men was relayed to close air support pilots.’

“The men were tracked from the road site to a building nearby, which was then bombed with ‘precision guided munitions,’ the military said. The statement did not say whether a roadside bomb was later found at the site. An additional military statement said Navy F-14’s had ‘strafed the target with 100 cannon rounds’ and dropped one bomb.”

Crucial to this report is the phrase “precision guided munitions,” an affirmation that U.S. forces used technology less likely than older munitions to accidentally hit the wrong target. It is this precision that allows us to glimpse the callous brutality of American military strategy in Iraq.

The target was a “building nearby,” identified by a drone aircraft as an enemy hiding place. According to eyewitness reports given to the Washington Post, the attack effectively demolished the building, and damaged six surrounding buildings. While in a perfect world, the surrounding buildings would have been unharmed, the reported amount of human damage in them (two people injured) suggests that, in this case at least, the claims of “precision” were at least fairly accurate.

The problem arises with what happened inside the targeted building, a house inhabited by a large Iraqi family. Piecing together the testimony of local residents, the Times reporter concluded that fourteen members of the family were in the house at the time of the attack and nine were killed. The Washington Post, which reported twelve killed, offered a chilling description of the scene:

“The dead included women and children whose bodies were recovered in the nightclothes and blankets in which they had apparently been sleeping. A Washington Post special correspondent watched as the corpses of three women and three boys who appeared to be younger than 10 were removed Tuesday from the house.”

Because in this case — unlike in so many others in which American air power utilizes “precisely guided munitions” — there was on-the-spot reporting for an American newspaper, the U.S. military command was required to explain these casualties. Without conceding that the deaths actually occurred, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad, commented: “We continue to see terrorists and insurgents using civilians in an attempt to shield themselves.”

Notice that Lt. Col. Johnson (while not admitting that civilians had actually died) did assert U.S. policy: If suspected guerrillas use any building as a refuge, a full-scale attack on that structure is justified, even if the insurgents attempt to use civilians to “shield themselves.” These are, in other words, essential U.S. rules of engagement. The attack should be “precise” only in the sense that planes and/or helicopter gunships should seek as best they can to avoid demolishing surrounding structures. Put another way, it is more important to stop the insurgents than protect the innocent.

And notice that the military, single-mindedly determined to kill or capture the insurgents, cannot stop to allow for the evacuation of civilians either. Any delay might let the insurgents escape, either disguised as civilians or through windows, backdoors, cellars, or any of the other obvious escape routes urban guerrillas might take. Any attack must be quickly organized and — if possible — unexpected.

The Real Rules of Engagement in Iraq

We can gain some perspective on this military strategy by imagining similar rules of engagement for an American police force in some large city. Imagine, for example, a team of criminals in that city fleeing into a nearby apartment building after gunning down a policeman. It would be unthinkable for the police to simply call in airships to demolish the structure, killing any people — helpless hostages, neighbors, or even friends of the perpetrators — who were with or near them. In fact, the rules of engagement for the police, even in such a situation of extreme provocation, call for them to “hold their fire” — if necessary allowing the perpetrators to escape — if there is a risk of injuring civilians. And this is a reasonable rule… because we value the lives of innocent American citizens over our determination to capture a criminal, even a cop killer.

But in Iraqi cities, our values and priorities are quite differently arranged. The contrast derives from three important principles under which the Iraq war is being fought: that the war should be conducted to absolutely minimize the risk to American troops; that guerrilla fighters should not be allowed to escape if there is any way to capture or kill them; and that Iraqi civilians should not be allowed to harbor or encourage the resistance fighters.

We are familiar with the first principle, the determination to safeguard American soldiers. It is expressed in the elaborate training and equipment they are given, as well as the ongoing effort to make the equipment even more effective in protecting them from attack. (This was most recently expressed in the release of a Pentagon study showing that improved body armor could have saved as many as 300 American lives since the start of the war.) It is also expressed in rules of engagement that call for air strikes like the one in Baiji. The alternative to such an air attack (aside from allowing the guerrillas to escape) would, of course, be to use a unit of troops to root out the guerrillas. Needless to say, without an effective Iraqi military in place, such an operation would be likely to expose American soldiers to considerable risk. The Bush Administration has long shied away from the high casualty counts that would be an almost guaranteed result of such concentrated, close-quarters urban warfare, casualty counts that would surely have a strong negative effect on support in the United States for its war. (The irony, of course, is that, with air attacks, the U.S. is trading lower American casualties and stronger support domestically for ever lessening Iraqi support and the ever greater hostility such attacks bring in their wake.)

The second principle also was applied in Baiji. Rather than allow the perpetrators to take refuge in a nearby home and then quietly slip away, the U.S. command decided to take out the house, even though they had no guarantee that it was uninhabited (and every reason to believe the opposite). The paramount goal was to kill or capture the suspected guerrilla fighters, and if this involved the death or injury of multiple Iraqi civilians, the trade-off was clearly considered worth it. That is, annihilating a family of 12 or 14 Iraqis could be justified, if there was a reasonable probability of killing or capturing three individuals who might have been setting a roadside bomb. This is the subtext of Lt. Colonel Johnson’s comment.

The third principle behind these attacks is only occasionally expressed by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, but is nevertheless a foundation of American strategy as applied in Baiji and elsewhere. Though Bush administration officials and top U.S. military officers often, for propaganda purposes, refer to local residents as innocent victims of insurgent intimidation and terrorism, their disregard for the lives of civilians trapped inside such buildings is symptomatic of a very different belief: that most Sunni Iraqis willingly harbor the guerrillas and support their attacks — that they are not unwilling shields for the guerrillas, but are actively shielding them. Moreover, this protection of the guerrillas is seen as a critical obstacle to our military success, requiring drastic punitive action.

As one American officer explained to New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, the willingness to sacrifice local civilians is part of a larger strategy in which U.S. military power is used to “punish not only the guerrillas, but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.” A Marine calling-in to a radio talk show recently stated the argument more precisely: “You know why those people get killed? It’s because they’re letting insurgents hide in their house.”

This is, by the way, the textbook definition of terrorism — attacking a civilian population to get it to withdraw support from the enemy. What this strategic orientation, applied wherever American troops fight the Iraqi resistance, represents is an embrace of terrorism as a principle tactic for subduing Iraq’s insurgency.

Escalating the War Against Iraqi Civilians

Baiji, a loosely settled village, is not typical of the locations where American air power is regularly loosed. In Iraq’s densely packed cities, where much fighting takes place, buildings usually house several families with other multiple-occupancy dwellings adjacent. Moreover, city battles often involve larger units of guerrillas, who ambush U.S. patrols and then disperse into several nearby dwellings, or snipers shooting from several locations. As a consequence, when U.S. F-14s, helicopter gunships, or other types of aircraft arrive, their targets are larger and more dispersed. Liquidating guerrillas can then require the “precise” leveling several buildings (with “collateral damage”), or even a whole city block. Instead of 100 cannon rounds and one five hundred pound bomb, such an attack can (and often does) involve several thousand cannon rounds and a combination of 500 and 2000 pound bombs.

Needless to say, the casualties in such attacks are likely to be magnitudes greater, though we hardly read about them in the American press, since reporters working for American newspapers are rarely present before, during, or after the attack. This has started to change since “Up in the Air,” a New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh garnered much attention for outlining a Bush administration draw-down strategy in which air attacks are to be increasingly relied upon. One particularly vivid recent account by Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer discussed the impact of air power during the American offensive in Western Anbar province last November. Using testimony from medical personnel and local civilians, Knickmeyer reported that 97 civilians were killed in one attack in Husaybah, 40 in another in Qaimone, 18 children (and an unknown number of adults) in Ramadi, and uncounted others in numerous other cities and towns. (The U.S. military typically denied knowledge of these casualties.) All of these resulted from the same logic and the same rules of engagement as the Baiji attack and in most cases the attacks seem to have been chosen in place of mounting ground assaults. In each case, “precision guided munitions” were used, and — for the most part, as far as we can tell — American forces destroyed mainly the targets they intended to hit. In other words, this mayhem was not a matter of dumb munitions, human error, carelessness, or gratuitous brutality. It was policy.

These same principles apply to all engagements undertaken by the U.S. military. There are about 100 violent encounters with guerrillas each day, or about 3,000 engagements each month, most of them triggered by IEDs, sniper fire, or low-level hit-and-run attacks. (Only a relative handful of these — never more than 100 in a month and recently far fewer — involve suicide bombers). The rules of engagement call for the application of overwhelming force in all these situations. The hiding places of the attackers — houses, commercial shops, even mosques and schools — essentially become automatic targets for attack. For the most part, rifles, tanks, and artillery are sufficient to eradicate the enemy, and air power is only called in as a last resort (though with a recent surge in air missions reported, that “last resort” is evidently becoming an ever more ordinary option). Instead of body counts ranging as high as 100 per incident, only a small minority of these daily engagements produce double-digit mortality rates. Nevertheless, the 3,000 small monthly engagements often involve attacking structures with civilians in them, and the lethality of these battles, combined with the havoc and destruction wrought by the air attacks, does add up to possibly thousands and thousands of civilian deaths each year.

Seymour Hersh’s article made the new Bush administration policy of relying on air power public. It involves, in the near future, substituting Iraqi for U.S. foot patrols as often as possible (which means an instant drop in the quality of the soldiering involved); and, since the Iraqi military do not have tanks, artillery, or other heavy weaponry, the U.S. plans to compensate both for weaker fighting outfits and lack of on-the-ground firepower by increasing its use of air strikes. In other words, in the coming months those 3,000 encounters a month are likely to produce even more victims than the already staggering civilian casualty rates in Iraq. Each incident that previously might have killed a few civilians will now be likely to kill many more.

The Washington Post, along with other major American media outlets, has confirmed that a new military strategy is being put in place and implemented. Quoting military sources, the Post reported that the number of U.S. air strikes increased from an average of 25 per month during the Summer of 2005, to 62 in September, 122 in October, and 120 in November. The Sunday Times of London reports that, in the near future, these are expected to increase to at least 150 per month and that the numbers will continue to climb past that threshold.

Consider then this gruesome arithmetic: If the U.S. fulfills its expectation of surpassing 150 air attacks per month, and if the average air strike produces the (gruesomely) modest total of 10 fatalities, air power alone could kill well over 20,000 Iraqi civilians in 2006. Add the ongoing (but reduced) mortality due to other military causes on all sides, and the 1,000 civilian deaths per week rate recorded by the Hopkins study could be dwarfed in the coming year.

The new American strategy, billed as a way to de-escalate the war, is actually a formula for the slaughter of Iraqi civilians.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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