By Mehlaqa Samdani
Earlier this month, two U.S.-led airstrikes, including one that targeted a makeshift hospital in Al-Bahra village in Syria, reportedly killed dozens of innocent civilians including women and children. These bombings were the latest in over 10,000 coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq over the past year, where civilian casualties have increased by 215 percent. In Somalia, there has been a similar, dramatic increase in aerial bombings in America’s counterterrorism campaign that have resulted in numerous civilian deaths.
President Donald Trump’s racist remarks about people from “shithole countries” outraged Americans across the country. And yet, when innocent civilians are killed by U.S. drone strikes and aerial bombing campaigns in far-flung countries, nobody seems to notice. We as a nation, it seems, are more offended by racist rhetoric than we are by racist policies.
If similar public and media outrage were directed against government policies that kill innocent civilians, we would not only see a far more humane foreign policy agenda but one that would actually make Americans safer.
After the war in Iraq began, many Americans could correctly estimate the number of American soldiers who had died in the war, but were off by tens of thousands when it came to the number of Iraqis killed. What explains this lack of awareness, and what are its implications?
Part of the reason is underreporting of civilian casualties by the U.S. military in the countries in which it operates. An investigative report by The New York Times found that civilian casualties by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria between April 2016-June 2017 were 31 times more than what had been revealed or acknowledged by coalition authorities, and that one in every five coalition airstrikes resulted in civilian casualties. In November, the coalition released a report claiming 800 civilians had died over the three-year military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Airwars, a human rights watchdog, put the number of civilians killed close to 6,000 during that same period.
Another factor that contributes to the public’s ignorance of civilian deaths is the lack of corporate media coverage. When an Amnesty International report last summer revealed that American-backed forces in Mosul, Iraq, had caused the death of 3,700 civilians, none of the mainstream TV news channels (including CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS) covered the report’s findings. According to FAIR, a media watchdog, even when civilian deaths are mentioned in news reports, the U.S. role in those deaths is often left out of the coverage.
John Tirman of MIT identified the “frontier myth narrative” as another possible explanation for the American public’s lack of concern around the civilian toll of American-backed wars. He described that racism inherent within the frontier myth narrative justifies “righteous violence” to subjugate what we consider barbaric populations. He explained:
The same was true for Iraq and Afghanistan, with the news media and politicians frequently portraying Islamic terrorists as frontier savages. By framing each of these wars as a battle to civilize a lawless culture, we essentially typecast the local populations as the Indians of our North American conquest.
Perhaps this is why a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that a majority (58 percent) of Americans supported the use of drone strikes targeting extremists, despite concerns that these would cause civilian deaths.
Indifference or lack of awareness about civilian deaths among the American public does three things. First, it allows the U.S. government to further expand its “military footprint” around the world, resulting in increased civilian casualties without much fear of accountability. Second, it makes Americans increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks by those who hold U.S. citizens accountable for their government’s tactics in other countries. Finally, it erodes the moral character of our nation and makes a mockery of our claim to be the shining “city upon the hill.”
Concerned citizens must bring more attention to human rights violations committed in their name and call for greater government transparency when it comes to counterterrorism operations abroad.
It is important for constituents to demand greater congressional oversight with respect to civilian casualties. Civilian deaths are likely to increase under the Trump administration, which has substantially intensified bombing campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. This comes in parallel to the administration having reduced “oversight, investigation and accountability on civilian casualties,” according to an op-ed by Micah Zenko in The New York Times.
“Congress has shown little interest in identifying the root causes of civilian deaths, holding commanders or lower-level officers accountable, or ensuring that the lessons learned from mistaken strikes are integrated into future operations,” Zenko wrote.
It is also important to urge members of Congress to initiate legislation that creates greater transparency in national security matters. One example of this is H.R. 700, which calls for an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act to include decision-making at the National Security Council, which is currently exempt from FOIA requests.
With the U.S. military currently involved in counter-terror activities in 76 different countries around the world, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project, it is critical for the American public to increase its knowledge about the government’s military actions abroad and the resulting civilian toll. A good place to start is to subscribe to monitoring organizations and human rights watchdogs that report on civilian casualties in foreign countries. These include CIVIC (Civilians in Conflict), Air-wars, The Intercept, Action on Armed Violence, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Engaged citizens can raise awareness on their social media platforms by sharing news and updates from these monitoring agencies.
For far too long, we have remained oblivious to the suffering of innocent civilians caused by our government. It is time we held our leaders and ourselves accountable for the mayhem committed in our name.
Mehlaqa Samdani is the executive director of Critical Connections, a nonprofit organization that offers analysis and opportunities for dialogue around issues related to Muslim communities in the U.S. and beyond.