Without question, the beheading of US journalist James Foley was an inexcusable and savage act of violence by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The killing of non-combatants should always be condemned. But there is a clear discrepancy in the response of both the Western media and the general public with regard to the killing of Western civilians compared to Islamic civilians. The number of Western civilians killed by Islamic militants pales in comparison to the number of non-combatants that have died at the hands of the US and its military allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And yet, the outrage at the killing of these innocent Muslims, many of who are women and children, is virtually non-existent in the West.
According to several studies, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians were killed by the US military in the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom. The number of non-combatants killed by coalition forces surpassed 3,000 by the end of the third year of the occupation. The killing of civilians by the US military continued thereafter with drone strikes accounting for most of the deaths in recent years. According to the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 2,400 people were killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during the first five years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The study claims that as many as 951 of these deaths were civilians and that almost 200 of the victims were children.
These numbers are corroborated by another study conducted by the Columbia Law School which reports that approximately 600 people were killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011. According to the report, as many as 155 of those killed were civilians. Together, these two reports suggest that 30 to 40 percent of people killed by US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are civilians. This percentage corresponds with that reported in a study headed by public health expert Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington. Hagopian’s comprehensive study of civilian deaths during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) reveals that Baghdad was at the epicenter of the violence and that 35 percent of those killed in that city by US coalition forces were civilians.
Some may argue that civilian deaths are inevitable in a war and that militants, not civilians, are the intended target of US operations. In accordance with such arguments we use terms like “collateral damage” to diminish the human factor and to justify the deaths of these innocents. But the rate of so-called collateral damage is extremely high if, as these studies suggest, civilians constitute 30 to 40 percent of those killed in US military operations over the past 13 years. This means that when the US military plans an operation it can assume that approximately one out of every three people it kills will be a non-combatant. It is difficult to dismiss such a high rate of civilian deaths over such an extended period of time as merely accidental; clearly, military commanders are authorizing operations with the full knowledge that a significant number of civilians will be killed by US forces.
President Obama addressed the issue of civilian casualties earlier this year when he stated that “we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions.” There are two troubling aspects to Obama’s statement. Firstly, the “risks involved” are not borne by Americans, they are almost 100 percent assumed unwillingly by civilians on the ground when operations involve drone strikes or aerial bombing, which have constituted the majority of US operations in recent years. And secondly, Obama’s use of the word “fallout” suggests that his primary motivation for reducing the number of innocents killed is the avoidance of bad press that might result from military actions rather than saving human lives.
But the conscious killing of civilians by the US military cannot always be easily dismissed with Orwellian doublespeak such as “collateral damage,” there have been many cases in Iraq and Afghanistan where there was no question regarding the intention of US troops to murder civilians. In his book, Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, Jim Frederick describes one such incident: the 2006 extrajudicial execution of an Iraqi family of four—a father, mother and two daughters. According to Army Specialist Paul Cortez, his unit was on patrol south of Baghdad when Army Specialist James Barker suggested that they find an Iraqi woman to rape. “We’ve all killed Hadjis, but I’ve been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches,” Barker stated.
Having chosen their target, the soldiers entered the house and locked three members of the Janabis family in the bedroom with Private First Class Steven Green standing guard over them. Meanwhile, Cortez took the 14-year-old daughter Abeer into the living room and began raping her. According to Frederick’s account:
In the bedroom, Green was losing control of his prisoners. The woman made a run for the door. Green shot her once in the back and she fell to the floor. The man became unhinged. Green turned his own AK on him and pulled the trigger. It jammed. Panicking, as the man advanced on him, Green switched to his shotgun. The first shot blasted the top of the man’s head off. Then Green turned to the little girl, who was running for a corner. This time the AK worked. He raised the rifle and shot Hadeel in the back of the head. She fell to the ground. …
As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, “They’re all dead. I killed them all.” Cortez held Abeer down and Green raped her. Then Cortez pushed a pillow over her face, still pinning her arms with his knees. Green grabbed the AK, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired one shot, killing Abeer.
While the soldiers responsible for the slaughter of the Janabis family were convicted of their crime, this has proved to be a rare case of justice being served. In November 2005, a Marine Corps unit massacred 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in the city of Haditha. Eight Marines were charged with the crime but the charges against six of them were later dropped. Meanwhile, a seventh was found not guilty and the eighth Marine was eventually, seven years after the massacre, convicted of “dereliction of duty.” His punishment was a reduction in rank and a cut in pay but no jail time.
A recent report by Amnesty International examines dozens of war crimes perpetrated by US troops in Afghanistan that have gone uninvestigated. In one case, US troops entered the village of Khataba in February 2010 and massacred five civilians. The victims included two pregnant women and a 17-year-old girl. The soldiers then removed evidence by cutting the bullets out of the corpses and burying the bodies of the women before reporting them as victims of “honor killings.” According to Richard Bennett, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director, “The US military justice system almost always fails to hold its soldiers accountable for unlawful killings and other abuses. None of the cases we looked into were prosecuted by the US military. Evidence of possible war crimes and unlawful killings has seemingly been ignored.”
There is a term that US presidents love to use in their efforts to assume the moral high ground in international affairs. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have used it repeatedly in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. That term is “the civilized world.” It is used to portray us Westerners as sophisticated and “civilized” and Islamic militants as barbaric “savages.” As with the term collateral damage, it is used to appease our conscience with regard to the brutal acts of violence that we repeatedly inflict on innocent people. After all, if we represent the civilized world then we must stand for all that is good. And if we stand for all that is good then any innocent women and children that die from our actions must merely be unfortunate victims of a tragic accident. While we may be comforted by such rhetoric and self-agrandization, I doubt our self-serving attitude provides much solace to a Pakistani mother who has watched her child get blown to pieces by a missile fired from one of our drones.
Every form of colonialism throughout history has given birth to a violent resistance movement. So it should not be surprising that the current imperialist model in the form of capitalist globalization has also spurred a violent response. There were no extremist groups in Iraq before the US invasion. It was the US invasion and occupation that opened the door to al-Qaeda’s entry into Iraq as part of the broader insurgency that rose up to liberate the country from its foreign occupiers. And it was this insurgency that gave birth to ISIS. Therefore, it could be argued that our widespread killing of Iraqi civilians helped to create a fertile recruiting ground for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and contributed to the emergence of ISIS.
There is no question that the beheading of James Foley was a barbaric and savage act. But was Foley’s death any more barbaric and savage than the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer? Is it any more tragic than the deaths of the many other Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been summarily executed by US troops? Is it any more heartbreaking than the killing of thousands of civilians in aerial bombardments ordered by US military commanders fully aware that the targeting of residential areas would result in the deaths of many innocents?
The lack of graphic video footage of the killing of innocent people by our bombs, missiles and soldiers does not make these deaths any less brutal or horrific. So while we must condemn the tragic and gruesome killing of James Foley, we also need to take a good look in the mirror and reflect on our own complicity in the slaughter of innocent civilians. Perhaps then we will realize that we are not so civilized after all.
A different version of this article was previously published by CounterPunch.