Can America Credibly
for Doing What
Pentagon Has Long Done?
Putin’s raids on civilians yet does likewise:
In return for
military gain, like hitting a few ‘bad guys,’
DoD condones killing of innocents — if not ‘excessive’
|A mural in Sanaa, Yemen, depicts a
U.S. drone and asks, "Why did you kill my family?"
Biden and his Secretaries of State and Defense have all
condemned Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine.
Before the Ukraine war took over public attention, the
issue of civilian
casualties in recent U.S. actions in the Mideast
became major news. The reliability of official
statements had been questioned in press conferences.
The issue was not novel. Fifteen years ago, CBS’s “60
Minutes” ran a sequence on the slaying of civilians by
the U.S. military.
The TV program showed that innumerable civilian
fatalities were not “accidents,” contrary to published
reports. Rather, the military had made calculated
attacks on innocent people in hopes of hitting a few
“bad guys.” When raids were not calculated, commanders
decided if they were worth the cost in civilian lives.
Marc Garlasco, former “chief of high value targeting,”
was the main source. “There’s this macabre kind of calculus that the
military goes through on every air strike, where they
try to figure out how many dead civilians is a dead bad
guy worth,” Garlasco told interviewer Scott Pelley on
“Our number was 30. So, for example … if you’re
gonna kill up to 29 people in a strike against Saddam
Hussein, that’s not a problem. But once you hit that
number 30, we actually had to go to either President
[George W.] Bush or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld” (for
Garlasco said he recommended 50 “high value” targets.
None got hit, only “a couple of hundred civilians
at least.” (He worked at the Pentagon seven years,
joining Human Rights Watch in 2003, later advising UN
Pelley queried Air Force Col. Gary Crowder, deputy
director of the Combined Air Operations Center, for
Afghanistan and Iraq: “Two men with AK-47s run into
a house. Do you bomb the house?” Crowder: “In some
circumstances we will bomb the house.” The ground
commander decides if it’s “worth the cost.”
In December 2017 Garlasco wrote that bombing was taking
civilian tolls. Example: attacking a Mosul sniper
doomed 105 civilians. The military was “more tolerant of
killing civilians,” no longer finding it strategically
beneficial to protect them. (The Trump Administration
had taken over in January 2017.)
While seeking zero tolerance for civilian killings, he
realized they “will never be zero as long as bombs are
dropped.” (The obvious solution [not Garlasco’s] is to
stop dropping bombs.)
Last January 27, RAND
Corporation issued a report faulting the
Department of Defense (DoD) for mishandling matters of
civilian protection. The same day, Defense
Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered an “action plan”
for limiting and responding to civilian casualties.
International law? What’s that?
Asked about Iraq and international law, in late 2003,
President George W. Bush answered, “International
law? I better call my lawyer. He didn’t bring that
up to me.”
The illegality of aggressive war mattered none to Bush
when he unleashed “shock and awe” on Iraqis (supported by
Joe Biden as Senate Foreign Relations chairman).
Nor does law enter into most military decisions.
A 2007 Salon
article (preceding the “60 Minutes” telecast)
described efforts to minimize “collateral damage”
(civilian casualties) by carefully planned aerial
missions, reviewed by attorneys. But those, it said,
constituted a minority of attacks. Most were hastily
ordered and deadlier for civilians. Development of
precision arms encouraged the writer.
By the way, following the 2003 attack on Iraq, officials
and media emphasized its “surgical precision.” Yet
innocents were struck and some bombs landed in Arabia,
Syria, and Turkey.
However the system is refined, the fact remains that DoD
knowingly kills civilians.
The Geneva Conventions’ two Protocols Additional (1977)
ban any military attack on civilians, or any
indiscriminate attack on both civilians and a military
target. Although signed by the U.S., they never
reached the Senate for ratification yet are customarily
considered part of international
A 2019 DoD manual, The Commander’s Handbook on the
Law of Land Warfare, disregards them. It does not
forbid indiscriminate attacks. Instead it tells
commanders to “refrain from attacks in which the
expected loss or injury to civilians and damage to
civilian objects would be
excessive in relation to the concrete and direct
military advantage to be gained….
“Civilians might be killed incidentally,” however
“feasible efforts” should be made to reduce the risk.
“Military necessity cannot justify excessive civilian
“Excessive” is left to each commander to define.
In other words (mine): It’s OK to kill a few civilians,
applying this rule: The greater the strike’s value, the
less civilians are worth. (The civilians are foreign, of
course. Slaying an American is murder.)
How to reduce risks to civilians yet drop bombs on
cities is not explained.
What is ‘excessive’?
In Korea, Indochina, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, I
figure that as many as 10 million civilians may have
succumbed to U.S. force. If that toll is not excessive,
what on earth is?
Did the alleged war crimes below not cause excessive
• The Air Force’s attack on a Baghdad shelter
killed at least 408 civilians with “smart bombs” in 1991
during the first U.S. war on Iraq, under President Bush
• In two 2004 battles in Fallujah, Iraq,
U.S.-led forces were accused of (1) killing 3,000+
civilians by targeting homes, those fleeing the city,
and anything moving; (2) bombing a hospital and barring
medical aid to the wounded; (3) imposing collective
punishment for four contractors’ deaths.
• The predominantly U.S. bombing of
Raqqa, Syria, in 2017, killed or wounded thousands
of civilians. Many thousands of air raids and 30,000
artillery rounds, supposedly directed at ISIS, laid
waste the city.
The Constitution (Article 6) regards U.S. treaties as
federal law. They include The Hague rules of war on land
(1907). These prohibit, among other misdeeds, “the
attack or bombardment by whatever means of towns,
villages, dwellings, or buildings which are
It did not stop the U.S. and its NATO underlings from
two decades of air and ground attacks on peaceful Afghan
communities and their unarmed residents. Starting
with bombing raids on major cities (10/7/01), that
undeclared war climaxed with the aerial slaughter of a
family of 10 in Kabul (8/29/21). Reaction to it may have
awakened DoD to the need for reform.
The main Geneva Conventions (1949) prohibit murder of
civilians, among other atrocities. Yet wars result in
massacres, and they go largely unpunished.
To rely on military commanders for decisions affecting
human rights is to accept orders like “Fire on all
taxicabs” (in Iraq), Shoot anything
that moves” (in Vietnam and Iraq), and “Kill ‘em all”
By Paul W. Lovinger, April 3, 2022