The casualties of war: Libya and beyond

First published 20th Oct 2011

The architects of a decade of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya devote great efforts to assessing the military aspects of their operations – yet are silent on the human damage. Paul Rogers discusses this damage and the Costs of War project of everycasualty programme advisor, Neta Crawford.

A key contribution of this article, which deals extensively with issues at the heart of the everycasualty project and from which we quote at length, is to indicate the disparity between the amount of discussion afforded to military/political considerations around armed interventions and the consequences for ordinary people who live – or lived – where these interventions take place.

The international military intervention in Libya, launched on 19-20 March 2011, is now well past its 100-day landmark without clear signs of an immediate resolution. Amid the daily calculations of military advantage and political progress, however, there is a larger silence over the human costs of this conflict.

This is part of a decade-long pattern in which the forces waging war in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya have been very reluctant to disseminate precise details of the damage their operations have inflicted. But the number of civil-society initiatives seeking to address this deficit is growing, and the quality and depth of their work make a compelling case for change (see John Sloboda, The Human Cost of War: Name Before Shame, 29 July 2009). 

A particularly conspicuous example of the disparity comes from Nato's Libya briefs for the press:

A Nato briefing says that in the war’s first ninety days a “total of 13,184 sorties, including 4,963 strike sorties have been conducted. We have damaged or destroyed more than 2,500 legitimate military targets. This includes approx. 460 military facilities; 300 radar systems and storage facilities; 170 command and control sites; approx. 450 tanks and other armoured vehicles; 230 other military vehicles; approx, 150 artillery and rocket launchers; more than 700 ammunition facilities; approx. 10 aircraft and 10 ships” (see Nato’s rolling-script Libya brief, 28 June 2011, 17.30 hrs).

A striking aspect of this extensive list is that it doesn't mention anyone being killed - almost  as though all these targets have been thoughtfully left unattended, all ready to be hit by Nato's planes and missiles.

But in all of this detailed, enumerated destruction - warehouses, a command post, tanks and trucks - there is no reporting of human casualties, of people killed or injured. Nato will not publicise such outcomes, and neither will the Gaddafi regime admit to them (unless it seems expedient). This is an aspect of the war that remains largely hidden. The intended implication seems to echo a TV series of the 1980s, The A-Team, where in each episode a great array of weapons was used to wreak destruction on the bad guys, yet they all got up and walked away - a little shaken but otherwise unharmed.

The reality is that - in this and in preceding and current wars - the human costs are immense. In this respect, a report published on 28 June 2011 by the Costs of War programme - undertaken by the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies - is timely. This estimates that in all the post-9/11 wars 225,000 people have been killed and 365,000 wounded. The 37,000 soldiers killed include 6,000 Americans, 1,200 coalition troops, 9,900 Iraqis, 8,800 Afghans, 3,500 Pakistanis, as well as 2,300 private-security contractors.

The civilian suffering is hugely greater: 172,000 dead, which includes 125,000 Iraqis, 35,000 Pakistanis and 12,000 Afghans. The Costs of War emphasises that these figures represent an “extremely conservative estimate”; the number of insurgents killed, it suggests, would increase the totals by anything from 20,000 to 51,000. The report does, however, propose a cautious assessment of the number of people displaced and made refugees (mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan): A staggering 7.8 million.

The Eisenhower Research Project study builds on the groundbreaking work by Iraq Body Count and other groups working “to collect, record and ultimately memorialise the casualties of conflict”. There are now are more than twenty-five such casualty-counting initiatives,  gathered in an International Practitioner Network and working with the Oxford Research Group's Every Casualty programme. The strength of their work and their increasing collaboration are helping to change public attitudes (see "The Harvest of War: From Pain to Gain", 27 October 2010).

Rogers concludes that reality-avoidance as indulged in today can hardly be indulged in forever, given changing public attitudes and technical capacities:

The experience of Libya reinforces the importance of such projects. Few western Europe citizens are surprised by the Gaddafi regime’s lack of any reference to losses among its military personnel, or to Libyans in rebel areas killed or wounded by its actions. But many do note - and many more are being persuaded of the need to recognise - Nato's refusal to publicise the human costs of its actions.

This is even more the case as, Nato's partial reporting of its military forays in Libya notwithstanding, there is so often clear information about these costs. The Nato operations involve substantial intelligence-gathering wherein copious digital records enable comprehensive bomb-damage analysis. This form of assessment can readily identify evidence of people being killed; there is no doubt that Nato could release much of the evidence without compromising its operations.

The failure of Nato and its leading states to do so in Libya is consistent with their behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan (to the echoing mantra, “we don't do body-counts”) (see Drone Warfare: Cost and Challenge, 23 June 2011). But the pressure to acknowledge the casualties of these wars - and parallel campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere - is escalating: from activist groups, think-tanks, research bodies, and other parts of civil society.

The road will be long and difficult, but this process of human accounting is essential. A time will come when it seems so normal as to cause amazement that it wasn’t done before.