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Counting Bodies (Or How To Effortlessly Minimize Civilian Casualties)

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Graffiti in Sanaa, Yemen, denouncing strikes by United States drones. Credit Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Graffiti in Sanaa, Yemen, denouncing strikes by United States drones. Credit Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Twitter compatriot and fellow foreign policy female Sarah Shoker was kind enough to join in to my discussion of civilian casualties from American airstrikes. Sarah is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. Her dissertation focuses on the intersection between gender, counterinsurgency, and drone warfare.

When media does not include numbers of civilian casualties, it is worth asking who is counting and who gets counted.

Sarah explains below:


The official American line is that there were no civilian casualties caused by the Mother of All Bombs, aka the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

The level of secrecy surrounding the blast makes this statement difficult to confirm. Recent news reports indicate that there’s some confusion about whether U.S forces have barred Afghan forces from being near the site, or if U.S forces have even been to the destroyed site at all.

A curiously cropped version of a Michael P Ramirez cartoon (link below)
A curiously cropped version of a Michael P Ramirez cartoon (link below)

In either case, before we accept that no civilians died from the bombings, we need to recall who ‘counts’ as a civilian to U.S. military strategists. By the end of his administration, Barack Obama had issued approximately 560 drone strikes. Recall that the Obama Administration kept the civilian death rate artificially low by omitting all ‘military aged males’ from the collateral damage count. What does this mean, practically speaking? If you are a boy or man who is aged sixteen or over—even if you are not armed—and you die in a conflict scenario, you were/are not included in the civilian death count. And yes, this is an utter violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and even U.S domestic law.

In IHL, a civilian is anyone who is not a combatant. Civilian status is not determined by gender, age, or race. But these factors are, increasingly, becoming central to American war fighting. The Bush Administration followed similar logic. Think of Operation Vigilant Resolve, sometimes called Fallujah 1, when the city’s civilian population was evacuated—unless you were a Military-Aged Male. This evacuation tactic happened again in Operation Al-Fajr (or Fallujah 2).

Consider the case of the CIA official who essentially said that simply being ‘near’ an insurgent meant that you were part of an insurgent network too, a claim which was used to substantiate claims that civilian deaths from drone strikes had been in the ‘single digits.’ Even senior policymakers had a hard time swallowing that one.
There are a host of these examples, which is why it’s worth taking the time to examine the claim that the MOAB caused zero civilian deaths.

  1. Who ‘counts’ as a civilian is important. How we collect data is important. The United States has repeatedly stated that it respects the ‘principle of distinction.’ But if boys and men aged 16+ are no longer counted as ‘civilians,’ then U.S data on civilian death rates has been undermined.
  2. This is precisely why we need 3rdparty groups to confirm/deny statements made by foreign policy officials. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, does not omit boys and men from the collateral damage count. This little definitional difference translates to a big difference in the numbers. By 2016, the Bureau’s civilian death count was 6 times higher than the number offered by the White House—even though the total number of individuals killed by drones was “remarkably similar.”  The White House, unfortunately, has a history of seeing insurgents where there may be none. There’s a joke, attributed to a senior state department official, that has now been told so often that it borders on stale: Whenever the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, they think it’s a terrorist training camp.

There’s a lot that can be said about how race, gender, and religion inform what types of bodies are deemed ‘risky’ in conflict situations. But I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

Maybe the Trump Administration is right, and no civilians died as a result of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. Given that the presence of ISIS in the area caused the majority Afghan civilians to flee their homes (Internal Displacement in Afghanistan has been a problem since the war began), these claims should be taken seriously instead of dismissed as typical Trump Administration bravado. But currently there’s not enough information to confirm whether this assessment is accurate.


Images

  1. Full cartoon from Michael P Ramirez here: http://michaelpramirez.com/bombing-from-behind.html
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