Undercounting the Civilian Dead

During the “war on terror,” the U.S. government has understated the number of civilians killed (all the better to manage positive perceptions back home). But a new report underscores the truth, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Anyone willing to think carefully and critically about the use of armed force against a target such as Islamic State (ISIS) would do well to read the intensively researched piece in the New York Times by investigative journalist Azmat Khan and Arizona State professor Anand Gopal about civilian casualties from the air war waged by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The key conclusion is that those casualties are far higher — probably many times higher — than what the U.S. military acknowledges.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

Such a discrepancy has been suspected for some time, based on earlier work by private organizations that comb press reports and other publicly available information from afar. Khan and Gopal went beyond that work by selecting three areas in Nineveh province as samples in which they performed an exhaustive on-the-ground investigation, interviewing hundreds of residents and sifting through the rubble of bombed structures. They compared such direct evidence, incident by incident, with what the responsible U.S. military command said it had in its records about airstrikes it had conducted in the area and the results of those airstrikes.

The authors were given access to the operations center at a U.S. airbase in Qatar that has directed the air war, and their article includes the U.S. military’s side of this story, with a description of the procedures used to select targets and assess damage, including civilian casualties. The impression left is not one of willful deception or malfeasance. Rather, the problem is partly a matter of lacking the time and personnel to do the sort of detailed after-the-fact, on-the-ground investigation for every target that Khan and Gopal did with their sample.

It is partly a matter of deficient record-keeping. It is in large part a matter of the fog of this kind of war making much faulty and woefully incomplete information almost inevitable. Although some of the civilian casualties represent collateral damage in the form of people who were in the vicinity of bona fide ISIS targets, others were in places that the targeteers mistakenly identified as having an ISIS connection.

The conditions in which civilians were living when under ISIS control worked against accurate analysis by the military of potential targets, which relied heavily on aerial observation. The observing of people going in and out of buildings in what looked like normal everyday activity was taken as a sign either that the building itself was a normal civilian structure or that there were too many innocent people in the immediate vicinity to hit it.

The absence of such innocent-looking activity tended to be taken as confirmation of any other reason to suspect that malevolent ISIS operations were going on inside. But in the so-called caliphate of ISIS, many people who otherwise would have been moving around freely tended instead to stay indoors at home. They in effect had the choice of increasing their exposure to the vagaries and brutality of ISIS or of raising suspicion at that airbase in Qatar that their home had something to do with ISIS.

Khan and Gopal are unable to extrapolate from their data, being only a sample, to any comprehensive number of innocent civilians killed and wounded in this air war. They note, however, that the concentration of civilian casualties is likely to be even higher in some areas, such as the western part of Mosul, where ISIS held out longer against coalition bombardment than it did in the areas that the authors investigated.

Values and Morality

These findings provide disturbing food for thought in at least three respects. One concerns the values and morality involved in a U.S. military operation in which so many innocents suffer so much. The human faces that Khan and Gopal attach to some of the specific cases of suffering they have investigated underscore the fundamental wrongness of what has been occurring.

An Air Force C-17 Globemaster III pilot conducts combat airlift operations for U.S. and coalition forces in Syria, Nov. 4, 2017.   (Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook)

A second concerns the counterproductive aspects of an offensive that is supposed to be a combating of terrorism. The Donald Rumsfeld question — are we creating more terrorists than we are killing? — is still quite pertinent. The unsurprising resentment against the United States that results from U.S. aircraft killing and maiming innocent people, or destroying their homes, tends to create more terrorists.  At a minimum, it fosters the sort of sentiment that existing terrorists exploit and win them support.

A third implication involves the ability of the American public and political class to assess adequately what is going on with a military campaign of this sort. The biggest problem as always is an unwillingness to pay adequate attention to information at our disposal.

But in this case there is the added problem of bum information. Khan and Gopal write that the huge disparity between official numbers and probable actual figures of civilian casualties means this aerial offensive “may be the least transparent war in recent American history.”

There are important policy decisions ahead about a continued U.S. military role, if any, in the areas where the ISIS caliphate once stood. Civilian casualties, and the importance of having an accurate sense of the extent of casualties that our own forces cause, need to be part of any debate about those decisions. But probably the lessons of the anti-ISIS air war apply at least as much to other states and regions where the United States has assumed the role of aerial gendarme, using either manned or unmanned means, against groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda.

One thinks in particular of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in the absence of any geographically defined Congressional authorization for such use of force, there is no limit to where the United States will bombard from the sky and where, given the intrinsic difficulties in assembling accurate targeting information against such shadowy adversaries, more innocent civilians will die. This is one of the continuing dark sides of a “war on terror” that has been militarized to the extent that ill-chosen metaphor implies.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

32 comments for “Undercounting the Civilian Dead

  1. November 22, 2017 at 18:20

    A couple of thoughts…. only a fool records their own crimes and anyone who has looked at the Nuremberg trials knows the Allied crimes were to be hidden so the bombing of London was as Jesse the Body Ventura used to say “perfect legal Mcmahon!” in order keep the Dresden bombings legal. Such angels we our :). Second… our we creating terrorists by dropping bombs on the hand of the innocent? When in the land of myth believers (US) the residents appear to be totally unaware of reality that our bombs kill innocent people because we have ‘smart bombs’ that can do no wrong which is just beyond hysterical. I mean really I just laugh right at people when they try to make this claim. It is funny what people actually believe. The people of this republic believe such non sense and apparently when 50,000 bombs are dropped on Syria and Iraq no civilians are apart of the carnage and god bless us for having such amazing technology but in the real world where people understand who is killing there sister, brother, son, daughter…. they know and they understand what the delusional person in this land do not. There is no doubt that killing innocent does not only create anger and hatred which is probably justified. Is one actually a terrorist for simply responding to the killing of the innocent in there society by killing the innocent of another? Probably so… If someone were to bomb your society and kill 40,000 as in Mosul Iraq. You may just respond in a violent manner yourself. All these deaths… shameful

  2. Herman
    November 21, 2017 at 14:02

    “A second concerns the counterproductive aspects of an offensive that is supposed to be a combating of terrorism. The Donald Rumsfeld question — are we creating more terrorists than we are killing? ”

    Does anyone doubt that?

    While examining the question of killing innocents, it is surprising, perhaps not, there is similar concern about sanctions. They are criminal acts. Who can forget Madame Albright’s comment that 500,000 deaths in Iraq, most women and ;children was worth it.

  3. Igor Slamoff
    November 20, 2017 at 22:47

    No interest in counting the people killed by Islamic terrorists, I see.

    • Jonathan
      November 21, 2017 at 11:47

      You are correct and the reason for this is that with great power comes the need for great responsibility.

    • Jonathan
      November 21, 2017 at 12:05

      The almost complete absence of any political responsibility from the Western nations and most particularly the US, going back decades, has caused untold suffering and is what underlies the sense of frustration boiling over into outrage and anger found in the above comments.

    • TS
      November 20, 2017 at 19:26

      – But note that the illustration captioned “Nazi propaganda” is actually an advertisement for US-made office adding machines…

  4. Mild - ly Facetious
    November 20, 2017 at 14:04

    As the Cold War progressed, the program expanded and got stranger still. In 1948, Operation Paperclip’s Brigadier General Charles E. Loucks, Chief of U.S. Chemical Warfare Plans in Europe, was working with Hitler’s former chemists when one of the scientists, Nobel Prize winner Richard Kuhn, shared with General Loucks information about a drug with military potential being developed by Swiss chemists. This drug, a hallucinogen, had astounding potential properties if successfully weaponized. In documents recently discovered at the U.S. Army Heritage Center in Pennsylvania, Loucks quickly became enamored with the idea that this drug could be used on the battlefield to “incapacitate not kill.” The drug was Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.

    It did not take long for the CIA to become interested and involved. Perhaps LSD could also be used for off-the-battlefield purposes, a means through which human behavior could be manipulated and controlled.


  5. Mild - ly Facetious
    November 20, 2017 at 13:44

    During the “war on terror,” the U.S. government has understated the number of civilians killed
    (all the better to manage positive perceptions back home).
    But a new report underscores the truth, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.


    Hypnotic induction (AKA; management of perception) may be defined as whatever is necessary to get a person into the state of trance – a state of increased suggestibility, during which critical faculties are reduced and subjects are more prone to accept the commands and suggestions of the hypnotist.

    Theodore X. Barber argued however that techniques of hypnotic induction were merely empty but popularly expected rituals, inessential for hypnosis to occur: hypnosis on this view is a process of influence, which is only enhanced (or formalized) through expected cultural rituals. – (as in pledging allegiance to a ‘flag’.)

    Oliver Zangwill pointed out in opposition that, while cultural expectations are important in hypnotic induction, seeing hypnosis only as a conscious process of influence fails to account for such phenomena as posthypnotic amnesia or post-hypnotic suggestion.
    Evidence of changes in brain activity and mental processes have also been associated experimentally with hypnotic inductions.

    Faster methods of hypnotic induction [— As In Repeated Broadcast Visuals of the World Trade Tower induced implosion, airplanes hitting the buildings/with explosions and the death of Thousands —]

    In early hypnotic literature a hypnosis induction was a gradual, drawn-out process. Methods were designed to relax the hypnotic subject into a state of inner focus (During Which Their Imagination Would Come To The Forefront) and the hypnotist would be better able to Influence Them And Help Them Effect Changes at the Subconscious Level. [Brainwashing 101]

    These are still used, notably in hypnotherapy, where the gradual relaxation of a client may be preferred over faster inductions.

    Generally, a hypnotherapist will use the induction they find most appropriate and effective for each individual client.

    However, through development of the modern Western understanding of hypnosis, newer and faster methods have been formed.

    However, there are even faster instant hypnosis inductions (such as ‘snap’ inductions) which employ the principles of shock and surprise. A shock to the nervous system of the subject causes their conscious mind to be temporarily disengaged. During this brief window of distraction the hypnotist quickly intervenes, allowing the subject to enter the state of intense, hyper imagination and inner focus — AKA – “Shock and Awe” which clouds the mind with a sense of dreadfulness and foreboding.

    Hypnotic Induction is also being used in the replacement of Gov’t By and For the people into by and for the Robber Barons.
    How can we escape if we choose to ignore the realities we choose to Not See…?

    (don’t be fooled by love songs and lonely hearts – We’re Living in a Twilight World… .)

  6. Joe Tedesky
    November 20, 2017 at 09:02

    What Saudi Arabia is doing to the people of Yemen is without a doubt a war crime of the highest order, and the U.S. is apart of that, NOW STAND for our National Anthem.

  7. Zachary Smith
    November 19, 2017 at 16:14

    I see that the word “Yemen” is mentioned nowhere on the page, so I’m going to speculate that an even better way than “undercounting” civilian dead is to ignore them entirely.

    The first “quote” is to a Saudi Gazette story’s original headline and beginning text:

    Bill Gates praises Kingdom’s humanitarian work in Yemen

    Riyadh — Bill Gates, Co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has praised the Kingdom’s effective humanitarian work, particularly in Yemen and countries affected by humanitarian crises, and projects being carried out by King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief).

    Next is the “corrected” version.

    Dr. Al-Rabeeah meets Co-Chair of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

    RIYADH — Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, Advisor to the Royal Court and Supervisor General of the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid, received Mr. Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the Center’s headquarters in Riyadh.

    Dr. Al-Rabeeah presented Mr Gates with an overview of the relief work and humanitarian aid program delivered by the Center on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Yemen and countries affected by humanitarian crises, as well as the King Salman Center’s specialist programs such as environmental sanitation, health, and education…..

    I’ve no idea what Bill Gates said or didn’t say, for the entire story of his visit is barely reported. What I’d like to know is why he was playing kissy-face with the Saudis at all. The man could have moved his big conference to a less barbaric place, but he chose not to.

    The only viable conclusion I can make is that Bill Gates and his sort don’t give a damn about Yemen.

  8. mike k
    November 19, 2017 at 15:27

    More lies. The State trying to cover up it’s murders and crimes against Humanity.

  9. Joe L.
    November 19, 2017 at 12:14

    I am guessing that the death toll from the War “of” Terror has to be in the millions at this point (I believe that I read about 1/2 Million to 1 Million in Iraq alone not including the people dying from exposure to depleted uranium). But we still cannot make the connection to murdering people in foreign lands and refugees – must be the Russians fault. I still don’t know how people are so stupid or ignorant of even recent history to believe anything coming out of the MSM – the Iraq War, babies being thrown from incubators etc. And now, on top of all of that misery, the US (and western governments) want to silence the voices that dispute their claims, outright censorship.

    • November 19, 2017 at 13:53

      Going on 50 years ago Bob Dylan wrote it and Joan Baez sang it better “you don’t count the dead when God”s on your side.”


      I picked the version sung by Joan Baez with the lyrics on screen, not realizing it has both English and Russian lyrics.

      • Joe L.
        November 20, 2017 at 02:29

        One song that I always like the lyrics to is “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, it is very appropriate to the times that we live in.

        • November 21, 2017 at 08:19

          I admire the thoughtful words of Bob Dylan from “With God On Our Side” as a bit like Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,”

          BUT at times

          I do like MILITANTLY ANTI WAR SONGS such as

          “Chicken Wolf’ by Steppenwolf (a very anti war band from the 60s)


          Eugene Pratt by Mason Proffit (best known song, for a basically unknown band, being “Two Hangmen” – the original version from the late 60’s / early 70’s not the toned down secoond version you can find at Amazon – If the Marshall isn’t named “Uncle Sam” you have the toned down version


          AH – here is the original “Two Hangmen”

          “Rocket Launcher” by Bruce Cockburn


        • Jonathan
          November 21, 2017 at 11:34

          Come, you masters of war
          You that build the big guns
          You that build the death planes
          You that build all the bombs
          You that hide behind walls
          You that hide behind desks
          I just want you to know
          I can see through your masks
          You that never done nothin’
          But build to destroy
          You play with my world
          Like it’s your little toy
          You put a gun in my hand
          And you hide from my eyes
          And you turn and run farther
          When the fast bullets fly
          Like Judas of old
          You lie and deceive
          A world war can be won
          You want me to believe
          But I see through your eyes
          And I see through your brain
          Like I see through the water
          That runs down my drain
          You fasten all the triggers
          For the others to fire
          Then you sit back and watch
          While the death count gets higher
          You hide in your mansion
          While the young peoples’ blood
          Flows out of their bodies
          And is buried in the mud
          You’ve thrown the worst fear
          That can ever be hurled
          Fear to bring children
          Into the world
          For threatenin’ my baby
          Unborn and unnamed
          You ain’t worth the blood
          That runs in your veins
          How much do I know
          To talk out of turn?
          You might say that I’m young
          You might say I’m unlearned
          But there’s one thing I know
          Though I’m younger than you
          That even Jesus would never
          Forgive what you do
          Let me ask you one question
          Is your money that good?
          Will it buy you forgiveness?
          Do you think that it could?
          I think you will find
          When your death takes its toll
          All the money you made
          Will never buy back your soul
          And I hope that you die
          And your death will come soon
          I’ll follow your casket
          On a pale afternoon
          I’ll watch while you’re lowered
          Down to your deathbed
          And I’ll stand over your grave
          ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

          Bob Dylan 1963
          Enough said

    • mike k
      November 19, 2017 at 15:45

      They depend on people believing their lies, Joe. Otherwise we would come together and oust them from power. The bastards have people buying their bullshit reasons for their crimes. We have to work to help our friends see them for what they are. Tell everyone you know to check out CN, Counterpunch, Chris Hedges
      at truthdig.com)

      • Joe L.
        November 20, 2017 at 02:23

        mike k… I actually do try and show people that I know the other side of the news that likely they do not know about. I was having a discussion with a neighbour about how twisted this war on terror truly is. I even went as far as borrowing his phone and showing him Wesley Clark speaking about 7 countries in 5 years and Joe Biden speaking about Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey so hellbent on regime change in Syria that they were training terrorists. I even went as far as to point out that the US could not even pass a “Stop Funding Terrorism” Bill which speaks volumes in my mind. So I do try to expand the thinking of the people that I know especially when it comes to foreign policy.

  10. Babyl-on
    November 19, 2017 at 11:22

    I’d like to dispense with all the romantic and self-delusional clap trap about “values” and “morality” when it comes to the behavior of the Feudal Empire fronted by the US. The only value is money, money and the power it provides. The only morality is the force of power.

    The Saud family, the Zionist oligarchy, the US/German/Japanese oligarchies – about 200,000 people are at the top of the Feudal order, they own the earth’s resources and all of the most powerful computers and they will have exclusive use of quantum power while the general population will have no access making the Feudal lords hundreds of times more powerful.

    This is about the demands of the Saud family for more markets expanding power and control of the earth. “Global full spectrum domination.” pursued relentlessly with slaughter of innocent people day in and day out – 20 million starving – so what when you are taking over the world causalities don’t matter.

    Remember Margret Thatcher: “Society doesn’t matter,.” what more evidence does one need to know she meant exactly what she said.

    • mike k
      November 19, 2017 at 15:36

      What is politely called the US Government is nothing more than a tool of an international Mafia, which cares nothing for human values or lives. These ghouls worship an Evil God of Greed and Violence. They will destroy everything worth loving on Earth if they are not stopped. To imagine these Fiends have even a scrap of human decency will only enable them to more easily destroy you…….

    • Anon
      November 19, 2017 at 18:02

      Oligarchies do control the West, but the Mideast wars are clearly not “about the demands of the Saud family for … control of the earth.” The Saudis have always been very weak, with no prospect of “expanding power,” and have only made themselves weaker; they can buy weapons to attack the destitute in Yemen, but little more. Their sole power has been in sending Wahhabi jihadists to make trouble elsewhere, whose return they fear.

      It is the zionists who control the US government with bribes to nearly all politicians and control of nearly all mass media. The Saudis have relatively little US political influence and no effect upon mass media.

  11. November 19, 2017 at 11:18

    In outbushing Bush, Obama normalised militarism. His consumption of the antiwar movement may be known to future historians as a kind of turning point Versailles Treaty moment before the dreadful nuclear storm.

  12. Tom Welsh
    November 19, 2017 at 10:39

    Mr Pillar’s well-informed and logical analysis is welcome. But, like so much of the opinion uttered by US citizens, it vastly understates the enormity of the crimes that have been committed and are continuing to be committed.

    The US government takes upon itself the right to attack any nation on Earth, to destroy any cities, villages, factories and other infrastructure, to overthrow governments and render countries chaotic and lawless, and to kill – quite literally – millions of civilians. It does these things whenever it, alone, decides to do so. It completely ignores the UN, the Nuremberg Principles, international law, treaties, and the US Constitution itself.

    The crimes of the US government are not less than those of Nazi Germany – although, admittedly, they have been committed over a far longer period. The Nazis are accused of having murdered 6 million Jewish people on ideological principle – a number which, of course, does not include others such as homosexuals, Roma, and those deemed mentally subnormal, as well as the vast numbers killed in combat.

    The USA is known to have killed at least 3 million people in Korea, 3 million in South-East Asia, and 3 million in Iraq. Some or all of those totals may be substantial underestimates; none of them is an overestimate. Then there are the other 50 or so countries that the USA has attacked without any legal pretext, let alone justification.

    It really isn’t a question of whether the US government creates more terrorists than it kills. The US government has no right to kill anyone, except US citizens after due process of law – and most civilized nations have long ago abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

    Moreover, the so-called “terrorists” are mostly patriots fighting in defence of their countries and people after violent, unprovoked wars of aggression launched by the US government. Inasmuch as there are “real” terrorists, most of them seem to be working for the US government, which is known to have created, supported, armed, advised and directed both Al Qaeda and ISIS.

    • November 19, 2017 at 11:22

      US terrorism induces yawns in the US public, but they’re indignant when a chicken or two come home to roost. Good Germans much?

    • Eddie
      November 19, 2017 at 11:50


    • mike k
      November 19, 2017 at 15:38

      Excellent post Tom. I am in total agreement with you.

    • Anon
      November 19, 2017 at 17:46

      Exactly. The “absence of any geographically defined Congressional authorization” is matched by the absence of any definition of terrorism which does not apply more to the US than anyone else. All three branches of the USG and its mass media are controlled by the zionists; the US is a tyranny concealed in a fake democracy.

    • November 20, 2017 at 11:23

      Tom Welsh – thank you for an excellent and unfortunately quite accurate post.

      • eyesspy
        November 22, 2017 at 02:40

        Gary i saw your post after I posted mine…see we are growing

    • eyesspy
      November 22, 2017 at 02:39

      Thank you for your honest and realistic comment…we are growing

    • Dr. K
      November 25, 2017 at 11:43

      Tom, you are a genius. Amen.

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