Hidden Costs of US Air War

When Russian air strikes kill civilians in Syria, it is big news in U.S. newspapers, but there is near-total silence when U.S. bombs kill civilians in Iraq or Syria, a human rights dilemma addressed by Nicolas J S Davies.

 By Nicolas J S Davies

USA Today reported on April 19 that U.S. air forces bombing Syria and Iraq have been operating under new, looser rules of engagement since last fall. The war commander, Lt Gen Sean McFarland, now orders air strikes that are expected to kill up to 10 civilians without prior approval from U.S. Central Command, and U.S. officials made it clear to USA Today that U.S. air strikes are killing more civilians as a result of the new rules.

Under these new rules of engagement, the U.S. has conducted a major escalation of its bombing campaign against Mosul, an Iraqi city of about 1.5 million people, which has been occupied by Islamic State since 2014. Reports of hundreds of civilians killed in U.S. air strikes reveal some of the human cost of the U.S. air war and the new rules of engagement.

Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the White House.

Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the White House.

Previous statements by U.S. officials have absurdly claimed that over 40,000 U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria have killed as few as 26 civilians. Speaking to USA Today, a senior Pentagon official who is briefed daily on the air war dismissed such claims, noting that heavier civilian casualties were inevitable in an air war that has destroyed 6,000 buildings with over 40,000 bombs and missiles.

Professor Souad Al-Azzawi, the award-winning Iraqi environmental scientist from Mosul who conducted the first studies of the health effects of depleted uranium after the First Gulf War, has compiled a partial list of air strikes that have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure in Mosul, most of them since the new U.S. rules of engagement went into effect. The list is based on reports by Mosul Eye, Nineveh Reporters Network, Al Maalomah News Network, other local media and contacts in Mosul and is not intended as a complete list of civilian casualties or civilian infrastructure destroyed.

Missing a Crisis

As I reported for ConsortiumNews in January, this kind of “passive reporting” from war zones can only capture a fraction of actual civilian casualties, and an even smaller fraction in areas outside government control and beyond the reach of conventional media:

-Many government buildings have been destroyed. As U.S. officials told USA Today, such attacks are often conducted at night to minimize civilian casualties, but they have killed night-time security guards and civilians in neighboring buildings.

-Telephone exchanges have been systematically bombed and destroyed.

-Two large dairies were bombed, killing 100 civilians and wounding 200 more, including local people lining up outside to buy milk and dairy products.

-Multiple daytime air strikes on Mosul University on March 19 and 20 (the 13th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq) killed 92 civilians and wounded 135, mostly faculty, staff, families and students. Targets included the main administration building, classroom buildings, a women’s dormitory and a faculty family apartment building from which only one child survived.

-50 civilians (including entire families) were killed and 100 wounded by air strikes on two apartment buildings, Al Hadbaa and Al Khadraa.

-A mother and her four children were killed in an air strike on a house in the Hay al Dhubat district in East Mosul on April 20, next door to a house used by Islamic State that was undamaged.

-22 civilians were killed (including 11 members of one family) in an air strike on houses in front of the Mosul Medical College.

-20 civilians were killed and 70 wounded by air strikes on the Sunni Waquf building and surrounding houses and shops.

-The Nineveh Plains water treatment plant was bombed in October 2014, and another water treatment plant and a hospital were shut down by an air strike on a power station in northeast Mosul in July 2015.

-Flour mills, a pharmaceutical factory, auto repair shops and other workshops have been bombed, with civilian casualties, all over Mosul.

-The Central Bank of Mosul in Ghazi Street and the main and local branches of two other banks, Rafidain and Rasheed, have been bombed, with heavy damage and civilian casualties in the areas surrounding each of them. After the first bank was struck, all the cash was removed from the others before they were bombed a few weeks later.

F-15 Eagles from the 493rd Fighter Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, taxi to the runway during the final day of Anatolian Eagle June 18, 2015, at 3rd Main Jet Base, Turkey. The 493rd FS recently received the 2014 Raytheon Trophy as the U.S. Air Force's top fighter squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Eric Burks)

F-15 Eagles from the 493rd Fighter Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, taxi to the runway during the final day of Anatolian Eagle June 18, 2015, at 3rd Main Jet Base, Turkey. The 493rd FS recently received the 2014 Raytheon Trophy as the U.S. Air Force’s top fighter squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Eric Burks)

-Three workers were killed and 12 wounded in an air strike on the former Pepsi bottling plant.

-The Governor’s residence and guest houses and the Turkish consulate were hit by air strikes.

-An air strike on a fuel depot in an industrial area ignited an inferno that caused 150 casualties on April 18.

-Urban planning and engineering planning offices were bombed in Hay Al Maliyah.

-Air strikes targeted a food warehouse, power plants and electric sub-stations across West Mosul.

-The Al Hurairah Bridge was destroyed by air strikes.

Punishing Civilians

At the very least, U.S. air strikes have killed hundreds of civilians in Mosul, as well as destroying much of the civilian infrastructure that people depend on for their lives in already dire conditions. And yet this is, by all accounts, only the beginning of the U.S.-Iraqi campaign to retake Mosul.

One and a half million civilians are trapped in the city, 30 times the United Nation’s estimate of the number of civilians in Fallujah before the November 2004 assault by U.S. Marines that killed 4,000 to 6,000 people, mostly civilians.  Meanwhile Islamic State (also known as ISIS,ISIL and Daesh) is preventing civilians from evacuating the city, believing that their presence protects its forces from even heavier bombardment.

International humanitarian law is absolutely clear that military attacks on civilians, civilian areas and civilian infrastructure are strictly prohibited. The presence of several thousand ISIS militants in a city of 1.5 million people does not justify indiscriminate bombing or attacks on civilian targets.

As the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq warned U.S. officials in a Human Rights Report in 2007, “The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian nature of an area.”

Bombing food warehouses, flour mills and water treatment plants is also a war crime.

As Jean Ziegler, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, protested in 2005, as U.S. forces besieged other cities in Iraq, “A drama is taking place in total silence in Iraq, where the coalition’s occupying forces are using hunger and deprivation of food and water as a weapon of war.” He called this, “a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

The controlled leak of the new rules of engagement to USA Today appears to be an “information operation” to provide political cover for air strikes that violate the laws of war and are killing large numbers of civilians, as the U.S. escalates its air strikes against Mosul and other cities occupied by Islamic State.

Controlling Information

Post-Cold War U.S. military strategists have theorized that sophisticated U.S. “information warfare” can shape public perceptions to remove political constraints on the use of U.S. military force.

As Major Ralph Peters, an officer responsible for “future warfare” in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, wrote in a 1997 military journal article, “We are already masters of information warfare … we will be writing the scripts, producing (the videos) and collecting the royalties.”

Peters also predicted that U.S forces would “do a fair amount of killing … to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault.”

On the domestic front, the U.S.’s information warfare has proven so effective that most Americans know almost nothing of the real impacts of U.S. military operations. The median response to a 2007 AP-Ipsos poll that asked Americans how many Iraqis had died as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was 9,890, or 1.5 percent of the total revealed in 2006 by a comprehensive mortality study. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Victory of ‘Perception Management.’”]

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office about terrorism on Dec. 6, 2015. (Image from Whitehouse.gov)

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office about terrorism on Dec. 6, 2015. (Image from Whitehouse.gov)

But internationally, the wartime conditions now afflicting people from Afghanistan to Nigeria to Ukraine have created new realities that render Western narratives increasingly suspect and drive an urgent quest for other ones that can better explain the violent and chaotic world in which more and more people are forced to live.

The presumption that U.S. information warfare could brainwash the world to provide political cover and impunity for systematic U.S. aggression and other war crimes is collapsing under the real-world impacts of U.S. policy.

Spreading Extremism

Wahhabi jihadism is thriving in the new reality born of the U.S. government’s hubris and aggression. The fundamental contradiction of the militarized “war on terror” has always been that U.S. aggression and other war crimes only reinforce the narratives of jihadi groups who see themselves as a bulwark against foreign aggression and neocolonialism in the Muslim world.

Meanwhile U.S. wars and covert operations against secular enemies like Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad keep creating new zones of chaos where the jihadis can set up shop.

U.S. officials, not least President Barack Obama, have acknowledged publicly that there is therefore “no military solution” to jihadism. But successive U.S. administrations have proven unable to resist the lure of military expansion and escalation at each new stage of the crisis, unleashing wars that have killed about 2 million people, plunged a dozen countries into complete chaos and exploded Wahhabi jihadism from its original safe havens in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan to countries across the world.

In 2014, as I wrote at the time, the mostly Sunni Arab people of northern and western Iraq had been tortured, terrorized and murdered by U.S.- and Iranian-backed death squads for ten years and accepted the rule of Islamic State as the lesser of two evils.

If the U.S. and its Iraqi allies now follow through with their threatened assault on Mosul, the resulting massacre will join Fallujah, Guantanamo and Obama’s drone wars as a new, powerful symbol and catalyst for the next mutation of Wahhabi jihadism, which is likely to be more globalized and unified.

But although Al Qaeda and Islamic State have proven adept at manipulating U.S. leaders into ever-escalating cycles of violence, the jihadis cannot directly order American pilots to bomb civilians. Only our leaders can do that. So our leaders bear the moral and legal responsibility for these atrocities, just as Islamic State’s leaders bear the responsibility for theirs.

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.

10 comments for “Hidden Costs of US Air War

  1. Suzanna Scarlett Sladojevic
    May 3, 2016 at 06:53

    This article certainly reports a rather macro picture on the gruesome extent of damage in Syria’s war. Sadly, the rules of engagement (ROE) when entering and continuing combat with opposing forces do not seem to be so much abided, as the warfare in Syria is shockingly uncivilised. Also, both U.S.A and Russia have not displayed proportional of force as necessary. In fact, the warfare in Syria is appearing as a zone to showcase it’s military strength (http://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-listing.asp) and status power. I do know very well that war is something that is inevitable, as well as part and parcel of human civilisation, but war should not be conducted in any shape or form on turf housing historical monuments, places of worship, civilians, and hospitals. Perhaps for a change this war in Syria should be moved over to a free zone in the U.S.A and Russia…

  2. Baldurdasche
    April 29, 2016 at 15:37

    The US was dropping bombs for three years before it dawned on them the ‘terrorists’ were pumping, transporting and selling Syrian and Iraqi oil. After the Russians gave them the satellite images, it took the A-10’s less than a week to put the ‘ISIS oil industry’ out of business – hurting ‘friends’ in Turkey and Israel. Since then the Americans claim to have have destroyed ISIS stock of captured US greenbacks putting a crimp in ‘their payroll’.

    What America really needs is official UN approval for a humanitarian invasion to throughly disrupt Syria.

  3. Pter Loeb
    April 26, 2016 at 06:05


    In the US there will soon be “celebrations”, repetitions of the
    crime of an attack on US soil with the death of 3,000 innocents
    and so forth and so on.

    Does international law define crimes? Is there somewhere an
    agreement as to which countries can bomb, murder and
    destroy others with total impunity? Vladimir Jabotinsky’s
    article THE IRON WALL….is brilliant in its statement of
    Zionist/Israeli policy from the beginning. It also
    applies to all powerful nations. Jabotinsky writing in
    1923 expressed the viewpoints not of a faction but
    of the consensus of Zionist belief and also of
    war law as practiced. His article was brutal and
    prescient. (The entire article is in Lenni Brenner’s
    51 DOCUMENTS….p. 32 ff).

    “……either Zionism is moral and just, or it is immoral
    and unjust…We hold that Zionism is moral and just. And since
    it is moral and just, justice must be be done, whether
    Joseph or Simon or Ivan or Achmet agree or not…”

    While the focus is on Zionism and Palestinians, these
    words may be substituted for the US and the West
    in its continual battle for world hegemony.

    Why is it considered a crime for a foreign entity to
    murder and destroy civilians in the U (9-11) and
    not for the the US to destroy and murder in other
    (weaker) nations?

    It seems to be that Jabotinsky is saying with logic
    that since “we” are the US/West etc. “justice must
    be done” and it is “moral and just.”

    The agreements in the UN and its charter make
    sense but they are paper reflections of political
    compromise. They are not war law as practiced.

    This has always been the case..When on July 15. `1099
    Christian invaders overran Jeruselum it was
    considered a “victory’ not a crime. It was considered
    one observer to be wonderful to see so many “:infidels”
    beheaded, slaughtered…The streets were filled with
    infidel blood as Christians marched to give thanks
    to Christ for His divine leadership.

    To put contemporary war into a modern setting, if
    New York City or Tel Aviv or Paris were captured by
    foreign powers, this writer does not feel that
    any of the nations involved would hesitate to
    retake it because civilians would die and the
    Geneva Conventions would not be followed.

    Nicolas J.S. Davies continues to set the highest bar of
    excellence. In this case, the history of war over the
    millenia seems on its face to contradict international
    law and its conventions which are followed only
    when beneficial to a superpower which will do as it
    pleases in any case.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Robert Noval
    April 25, 2016 at 23:14

    “Post-Cold War U.S. military strategists have theorized that sophisticated U.S. “information warfare” can shape public perceptions to remove political constraints on the use of U.S. military force.”

    True, if the public referred to the is the American, which is skillfully misled by the MSM. But then those are the only public they need to manipulate.

    It’s all well and good to write informative articles such as this and make them available on the internet.

    But there must be more to the success of this manipulation than merely the possession of MSM wherewithal.

    After all, simply lying would not result in the widespread misunderstandings the majority of Americans display on these issues.

    I suspect that there must be other and better means, even working within our limitations, that could be used to turn the US public against the foreign policy of the US government…

  5. Zachary Smith
    April 25, 2016 at 21:48

    Bombing food warehouses, flour mills and water treatment plants is also a war crime.

    Is the author under the impression that this is something which just recently started happening? Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good and well-written piece, but it’s just too narrowly focused.


    During the Gulf War, coalition forces bombed Iraq’s eight multi-purpose dams, destroying flood control systems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water storage, and hydroelectric power. Major pumping stations were targeted, and municipal water and sewage facilities were destroyed.

    Article 54 of the Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”

    Nagy says that not only did the United States deliberately destroy drinking water and sanitation facilities, it knew sanctions would prevent Iraq from rebuilding, and that epidemics would ensue.

    Bush Daddy was plain evil, and he knew he could get away with these war crimes. And so he did.

    “War Crime: NATO Deliberately Destroyed Libya’s Water Infrastructure”


    Obama is every bit as much a criminal as Bush Daddy, Clinton, and Junior. Has he prosecuted the torture crimes of Junior? No. Will he be prosecuted for his own criminal behavior? No.

    “Israel’s armed forces have destroyed vital water and sewage infrastructure in their bombing campaign of the besieged territory, writes Mohammed Omer. This constitutes a severe breach of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the part of Israel and all those conceiving, planning, ordering and perpetrating the attacks.


    Conclusion: crimes only happen when somebody besides the US or Holy Israel does them.

    One of these days Bush Daddy is going to kick off and it’ll be just as bad as when that swine Nixon took the dirt nap. We’ll see his picture on a stamp, and honors will be heaped upon him. His crimes will be buried even deeper. (btw – one of my favorite conspiracy theories about Dallas involves bush daddy, but I don’t expect CBS or anybody else to spend a few hours on my peculiar notions)

  6. Sam
    April 25, 2016 at 16:03

    From the article:

    ” […] the mostly Sunni Arab people of northern and western Iraq had been tortured, terrorized and murdered by U.S.- and Iranian-backed death squads for ten years and accepted the rule of Islamic State as the lesser of two evils.”

    I think the author meant Iraki-backed death-squads as I found this sentence in the linked article from 2014:

    “As Iraq’s political crisis has exploded in the last year or two, the Interior Ministry has relaunched its death squads with a vengeance”

    • Baldurdasche
      April 29, 2016 at 15:40

      Both Iraq and Iran oppose, and shelter, different groups of Kurds. After the fall of Saddam, the Iraqis began to target anti-Iranian Kurds’ training camps in Iraq. Assad has Kurdish allies in Syria. The Turks don’t discriminate, they target all Kurds.

    April 25, 2016 at 15:08

    The dishonest, intransigent Pentagon and Neocons maintain that the failure of bombing campaigns is attributable solely to not enough bombs have been dropped. Mosul is the village {pop 1.5mm} that must be destroyed in order to save it.

  8. Tom Welsh
    April 25, 2016 at 10:09

    ‘Post-Cold War U.S. military strategists have theorized that sophisticated U.S. “information warfare” can shape public perceptions to remove political constraints on the use of U.S. military force’.

    In other words they don’t care at all about right and wrong, but only about what they can get away with. That is the morality of junior school boys – whose crimes are usually limited to breaking windows and stealing apples.

  9. Sally Snyder
    April 25, 2016 at 09:06

    Here is an article that looks at how much military support the United States supplies to one of the Middle East nations causing more unrest in the region:


    Apparently, the current Administration fails to see the connection between selling arms and the power imbalance in the region.

Comments are closed.