The Silent Slaughter of the US Air War by Nicholas J S Davies
The U.S. mainstream media voiced moral outrage when Russian warplanes
killed civilians in Aleppo but has gone silent as U.S. warplanes
slaughter innocents in Mosul and Raqqa, notes Nicolas J S Davies.
By Nicolas J S Davies
April 2017 was another month of mass slaughter and unimaginable terror
for the people of Mosul in Iraq and the areas around Raqqa and Tabqa
in Syria, as the heaviest, most sustained U.S.-led bombing campaign
since the American War in Vietnam entered its 33rd month.
The Airwars monitoring group has compiled reports of 1,280 to 1,744
civilians killed by at least 2,237 bombs and missiles that rained down
from U.S. and allied warplanes in April (1,609 on Iraq and 628 on
Syria). The heaviest casualties were in and around Old Mosul and West
Mosul, where 784 to 1,074 civilians were reported killed, but the area
around Tabqa in Syria also suffered heavy civilian casualties.
In other war zones, as I have explained in previous articles (here and
here), the kind of “passive” reports of civilian deaths compiled by
Airwars have only ever captured between 5 percent and 20 percent of
the actual civilian war deaths revealed by comprehensive mortality
studies. Iraqbodycount, which used a similar methodology to Airwars,
had only counted 8 percent of the deaths discovered by a mortality
study in occupied Iraq in 2006.
Airwars appears to be collecting reports of civilian deaths more
thoroughly than Iraqbodycount 11 years ago, but it classifies large
numbers of them as “contested” or “weakly reported,” and is
deliberately conservative in its counting. For instance, in some
cases, it has counted local media reports of “many deaths” as a
minimum of one death, with no maximum figure. This is not to fault
Airwars’ methods, but to recognize its limitations in contributing to
an actual estimate of civilian deaths.
Allowing for various interpretations of Airwars’ data, and assuming
that, like such efforts in the past, it is capturing between 5 percent
and 20 percent of actual deaths, a serious estimate of the number of
civilians killed by the U.S.-led bombing campaign since 2014 would by
now have to be somewhere between 25,000 and 190,000.
The Pentagon recently revised its own facetious estimate of the number
of civilians it has killed in Iraq and Syria since 2014 to 352. That
is less than a quarter of the 1,446 victims whom Airwars has
positively identified by name.
Airwars has also collected reports of civilians killed by Russian
bombing in Syria, which outnumbered its reports of civilians killed by
U.S.-led bombing for most of 2016. However, since the U.S.-led bombing
escalated to over 10,918 bombs and missiles dropped in the first three
months of 2017, the heaviest bombardment since the campaign began in
2014, Airwars’ reports of civilians killed by U.S.-led bombing have
surpassed reports of deaths from Russian bombing.
Because of the fragmentary nature of all Airwars’ reports, this
pattern may or may not accurately reflect whether the U.S. or Russia
has really killed more civilians in each of these periods. There are
many factors that could affect that.
For example, Western governments and NGOs have funded and supported
the White Helmets and other groups who report civilian casualties
caused by Russian bombing, but there is no equivalent Western support
for the reporting of civilian casualties from the Islamic State-held
areas that the U.S. and its allies are bombing. If Airwars’ reporting
is capturing a greater proportion of actual deaths in one area than
another due to factors like this, it could lead to differences in the
numbers of reported deaths that do not reflect differences in actual
Shock, Awe … and Silence
To put the 79,000 bombs and missiles with which the U.S. and its
allies have bombarded Iraq and Syria since 2014 in perspective, it is
worth reflecting back to the “more innocent” days of “Shock and Awe”
in March 2003. As NPR reporter Sandy Tolan reported in 2003, one of
the architects of that campaign predicted that dropping 29,200 bombs
and missiles on Iraq would have, “the non-nuclear equivalent of the
impact that the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had
When “Shock and Awe” was unleashed on Iraq in 2003, it dominated the
news all over the world. But after eight years of “disguised, quiet,
media-free” war under President Obama, the U.S. mass media don’t even
treat the daily slaughter from this heavier, more sustained
bombardment of Iraq and Syria as news. They cover single mass casualty
events for a few days, but quickly resume normal “Trump Show”
As in George Orwell’s 1984, the public knows that our military forces
are at war with somebody somewhere, but the details are sketchy. “Is
that still a thing?” “Isn’t North Korea the big issue now?”
There is almost no political debate in the U.S. over the rights and
wrongs of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. Never mind that
bombing Syria without authorization from its internationally
recognized government is a crime of aggression and a violation of the
U.N. Charter. The freedom of the United States to violate the U.N.
Charter at will has already been politically (not legally!) normalized
by 17 years of serial aggression, from the bombing of Yugoslavia in
1999 to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to drone strikes in
Pakistan and Yemen.
So who will enforce the Charter now to protect civilians in Syria, who
already face violence and death from all sides in a bloody civil and
proxy war, in which the U.S. was already deeply complicit well before
it began bombing Syria in 2014?
In terms of U.S. law, three successive U.S. regimes have claimed that
their unconstrained violence is legally justified by the Authorization
for the Use of Military Force passed by the U.S. Congress in 2001. But
sweeping as it was, that bill said only,
“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate
force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines
planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that
occurred on September 11th, 2001, or harbored such organizations or
persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international
terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or
How many of the thousands of civilians the U.S. has killed in Mosul in
the past few months played any such role in the September 11th
terrorist attacks? Every person reading this knows the answer to that
question: probably not one of them. If one of them was involved, it
would be by sheer coincidence.
Any impartial judge would reject a claim that this legislation
authorized 16 years of war in at least eight countries, the overthrow
of governments that had nothing to do with 9/11, the killing of about
2 million people and the destabilization of country after country –
just as surely as the judges at Nuremberg rejected the German
defendants’ claims that they invaded Poland, Norway and the U.S.S.R.
to prevent or “preempt” imminent attacks on Germany.
U.S. officials may claim that the 2002 Iraq AUMF legitimizes the
bombardment of Mosul. That law at least refers to the same country.
But while it is also still on the books, the whole world knew within
months of its passage that it used false premises and outright lies to
justify overthrowing a government that the U.S. has since destroyed.
The U.S. war in Iraq officially ended with the withdrawal of the last
U.S. occupation forces in 2011. The AUMF did not and could not
possibly have approved allying with a new regime in Iraq 14 years
later to attack one of its cities and kill thousands of its people.
Caught in a Web of War Propaganda
Do we really not know what war is? Has it been too long since
Americans experienced war on our own soil? Perhaps. But as thankfully
distant as war may be from most of our daily lives, we cannot pretend
that we do not know what it is or what horrors it brings.
This month, two friends and I visited our Congresswoman’s office
representing our local Peace Action affiliate, Peace Justice
Sustainability Florida, to ask her to cosponsor legislation to
prohibit a U.S. nuclear first strike; to repeal the 2001 AUMF; to vote
against the military budget; to cut off funding for the deployment of
U.S. ground troops to Syria; and to support diplomacy, not war, with
When one of my friends explained that he’d fought in Vietnam and
started to talk about what he’d witnessed there, he had to stop to
keep from crying. But the staffer didn’t need him to go on. She knew
what he was talking about. We all do.
But if we all have to see dead and wounded children in the flesh
before we can grasp the horror of war and take serious action to stop
it and prevent it, then we face a bleak and bloody future. As my
friend and too many like him have learned at incalculable cost, the
best time to stop a war is before it starts, and the main lesson to
learn from every war is: “Never again!”
Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump won the presidency partly by
presenting themselves as “peace” candidates. This was a carefully
calculated and calibrated element in both their campaigns, given the
pro-war records of their main opponents, John McCain and Hillary
Clinton. The American public’s aversion to war is a factor that every
U.S. president and politician has to deal with, and promising peace
before spinning us into war is an American political tradition that
dates back to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
As Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering admitted to American military
psychologist Gustave Gilbert in his cell at Nuremberg, “Naturally, the
common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in
America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But,
after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy
and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it
is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a
“There is one difference,” Gilbert insisted, “In a democracy, the
people have some say in the matter through their elected
representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare
Goering was unimpressed by Madison‘s and Hamilton’s cherished
constitutional safeguards. “Oh, that is all well and good,” he
replied, “but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to
the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell
them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack
of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same
way in any country.”
Our commitment to peace and our abhorrence of war are too easily
undermined by the simple but timeless techniques Goering described. In
the U.S. today, they are enhanced by several other factors, most of
which also had parallels in World War Two Germany:
–Mass media that suppress public awareness of the human costs of war,
especially when U.S. policy or U.S. forces are responsible.
–A media blackout on voices of reason who advocate alternative
policies based on peace, diplomacy or the rule of international law.
–In the ensuing silence regarding rational alternatives, politicians
and media present “doing something,” meaning war, as the only
alternative to the perennial straw man of “doing nothing.”
–The normalization of war by stealth and deception, especially by
public figures otherwise seen as trustworthy, like President Obama.
–The dependence of progressive politicians and organizations on
funding from labor unions that have become junior partners in the
military industrial complex.
–The political framing of U.S. disputes with other countries as
entirely the result of actions by the other side, and the demonization
of foreign leaders to dramatize and popularize these false narratives.
–The pretense that the U.S. role in overseas wars and global military
occupation stems from a well-meaning desire to help people, not from
U.S. strategic ambitions and business interests.
Taken altogether, this amounts to a system of war propaganda, in which
the heads of TV networks bear a share of responsibility for the
resulting atrocities along with political and military leaders.
Trotting out retired generals to bombard the home front with
euphemistic jargon, without disclosing the hefty directors’ and
consultants’ fees they collect from weapons manufacturers, is only one
side of this coin.
The equally important flip-side is the media’s failure to even cover
wars or the U.S. role in them, and their systematic marginalization of
anyone who suggests there is anything morally or legally wrong with
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The Pope and Gorbachev
Pope Francis recently suggested that a third party could act as a
mediator to help resolve our country’s nearly 70-year-old conflict
with North Korea. The Pope suggested Norway. Even more importantly,
the Pope framed the problem as a dispute between the United States and
North Korea, not, as U.S. officials do, as North Korea posing a
problem or a threat to the rest of the world.
This is how diplomacy works best, by correctly and honestly
identifying the roles that different parties are playing in a dispute
or a conflict, and then working to resolve their disagreements and
conflicting interests in a way that both sides can live with or even
benefit from. The JCPOA that resolved the U.S. dispute with Iran over
its civilian nuclear program is a good example of how this can work.
This kind of real diplomacy is a far cry from the brinksmanship,
threats and aggressive alliances that have masqueraded as diplomacy
under a succession of U.S. presidents and secretaries of state since
Truman and Acheson, with few exceptions. The persistent desire of much
of the U.S. political class to undermine the JCPOA with Iran is a
measure of how U.S. officials cling to the use of threats and
brinksmanship and are offended that the “exceptional” United States
should have to come down from its high horse and negotiate in good
faith with other countries.
At the root of these dangerous policies, as historian William Appleman
Williams wrote in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy in 1959, lies the
mirage of supreme military power that seduced U.S. leaders after the
allied victory in the Second World War and the invention of nuclear
weapons. After running headlong into the reality of an unconquerable
post-colonial world in Vietnam, this American Dream of ultimate power
faded briefly, only to be reborn with a vengeance after the end of the
Much as its defeat in the First World War was not decisive enough to
convince Germany that its military ambitions were doomed, a new
generation of U.S. leaders saw the end of the Cold War as their chance
to “kick the Vietnam syndrome” and revive America’s tragic bid for
“full spectrum dominance.”
As Mikhail Gorbachev lamented in a speech in Berlin on the 25th
anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2014, “the West, and
particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War.
Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders. Taking
advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they
claimed monopoly leadership and domination of the world, refusing to
heed words of caution from many of those present here.”
This post-Cold War triumphalism has predictably led us into an even
more convoluted maze of delusions, disasters and dangers than the Cold
War itself. The folly of our leaders’ insatiable ambitions and
recurrent flirtations with mass extinction are best symbolized by the
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, whose hands once
again stand at two and a half minutes to midnight.
The inability of the costliest war machine ever assembled to defeat
lightly-armed resistance forces in country after country, or to
restore stability to any of the countries it has destroyed, has barely
dented the domestic power of the U.S. military-industrial complex over
our political institutions and our national resources. Neither
millions of deaths, trillions of dollars wasted, nor abject failure on
its own terms has slowed the mindless spread and escalation of the
“global war on terror.”
Futurists debate whether robotic technology and artificial
intelligence will one day lead to a world in which autonomous robots
could launch a war to enslave and destroy the human race, maybe even
incorporating humans as components of the machines that will bring
about our extinction. In the U.S. armed forces and military industrial
complex, have we already created exactly such a semi-human,
semi-technological organism that will not stop bombing, killing and
destroying unless and until we stop it in its tracks and dismantle it?
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American
Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapters on
“Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack
Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.