Death from a Distance

January 9, 2008

Three student readings include conflicting accounts of air attacks by the U.S. military and by survivors; media coverage of the attacks; and a brief overview of the growing lethality of air assaults since World War I and the devastating effect on civilians.

The media devotes little attention to U.S. air attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and their impact on civilians. The student readings below explore conflicting accounts of air attacks by the U.S. military and by survivors; media coverage of the attacks; and a brief overview of the growing lethality of air assaults since World War I and the devastating effect on civilians.

Student Reading 1:

American attack helicopters at al-Khalis, Iraq

" U.S. and Iraqi forces continued a new offensive against the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq in and around the city of Baqubah on Friday, killing 17 insurgents in a helicopter attack."
—Washington Post, 6/22/07

"Air Strikes Kill 17 Iraqi Al Qaeda Fighters"
—CBS News, 6/22/07

"Al-Qaeda gunmen killed in Iraq"
BBC, 6/22/07

These reports and others like them in the U.S. and British media last June accepted as fact a U.S. military release from the Public Affairs Office of Camp Victory in Iraq. It declared: "Coalition forces attack helicopters engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen and destroyed the vehicle they were using." It offered no supporting evidence for its claim that the 17 people killed were "al-Qaeda gunmen."

Only BBC sent investigators to the scene. BBC's interviews with villagers produced a very different story: "A group of villagers in Iraq is bitterly disputing the U.S. account of a deadly attack on 22 June, in the latest example of the confusion surrounding the reporting of combat incidents there. [The villagers] say that those who died had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. They say they were local village guards trying to protect the township from exactly the kind of attack by insurgents the U.S. military says it foiled."

"If the villagers' account is true, the incident would raise many questions, including: On what basis did the U.S. helicopters launch their attack that night? How many other coalition reports of successes against 'al-Qaeda fighters' are based on similar mistakes, especially when powerful remote weaponry is used?

"The incident also highlights the problems the news media face in verifying such combat incidents in remote areas where communications are disrupted, where direct independent access is impossible because of the many lethal dangers they would face, and where only the official military version of events is available." (, 6/26/07)

The June assault by American attack helicopters was on the village of al-Khalis near Baqubah, whose residents are almost all Shi'a Muslims. Al-Qaeda forces are Sunni Muslims—which makes it unlikely that that the villagers would cover up for al-Qaeda. U.S. military officials have not denied the results of the BBC investigation.

Helicopter attacks in Iraq are commonplace. One occurred on October 23, 2007, near Djila, a village north of Samarra. The U.S. military claimed that the attack killed 11 among "a group of men planting a roadside bomb." Later, it revised the report, declaring that 6 civilians had mistakenly been killed and sending "condolences to the families. We regret any loss of life."

But villagers denied the military's account of the October 23 attack. A relative of some in the "group of men" said three farmers had left their homes at 4:30 a.m. to irrigate their fields. Two were killed in an initial attack. The survivor ran home, where, according to a local Iraqi policeman, 16 were killed-7 men, 6 women and 3 children. The U.S. military said, as it usually does after such events, "An investigation is underway." (, 11/16/07)
Public reports of the results of such investigations are rare.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What difficulties do reporters have in reporting on bombings like the ones at al-Khalis and Djila?

3. What difficulties do you think there would be in answering the questions raised by the BBC investigators?

4. Which report of the al-Khalis or Djila bombings—that of the U.S. military or of the villagers—seems more accurate to you? Why?

Student Reading 2:

Inevitable civilian deaths, with regrets, in Iraq and Afghanistan

Reporting on air attacks seems to pose a challenge for the news media. "The American air war inside Iraq today is perhaps the most significant—and underreported—aspect of the fight against the insurgency," the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote more than two years ago. "The military authorities in Baghdad and Washington do not provide the press with a daily accounting of missions that Air Force, Navy, and Marine units fly or of the tonnage they drop."

A fall 2004 Marine press release offered insight into the scope of bombing in Iraq. It said that since the beginning of the war in March 2003 "the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than five hundred thousand tons of ordnance U.S. officials did not release estimates of civilian dead, but press reports told of women and children killed in the bombardments." ( The New Yorker, 12/5/05)

We also know that between April 2003 and June 2007, the U.S."dropped at least 59,787 pounds of cluster bombs in Iraq" (Nick Turse, "The Secret Air War in Iraq," The Nation, 6/11/07). Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, called cluster bombs "the single greatest risk civilians face with regard to a current weapon that is in use." Cluster bombs burst above the ground, releasing hundreds of "bomblets." The weapon, says Garlasco, "cannot distinguish between a civilian and a soldier when employed because of its wide coverage area. If you're dropping the weapon and you blow your target up, you're also hitting everything within a football field. So to use it in proximity to civilians is inviting a violation of the laws of armed conflict."

Few reports supply specific information about U.S. air attacks on Iraq. The Associated Press supplied one story headlined "U.S. Attack Kills 34, Including 15 Civilians" and datelined Baghdad, October 11, 2007:

"An attack by American forces killed 19 insurgents and 15 civilians, including 9 children, northwest of the capital on Thursday, the United States military reported.

"The military said its targets were senior leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the home-grown Sunni militant group that American intelligence believes has foreign leadership. 'We regret the civilians are hurt or killed while coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism,' said Maj. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for American forces in Iraq, in reference to the deadly airstrike on Thursday."

The Center for Strategic and International Studies released a report on December 13, 2007, entitled "U.S. Airpower in Iraq and Afghanistan 2004-2007" (, using information from the U.S. Combined Air and Space Operations Center. The report said there had been "sharp increases" in "the levels of delivery of major munitions" in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2007 with "very sharp rises between 2006 and 2007." For example, during 2007 (as of December 5), the U.S. had dropped bombs and delivered missiles on targets in Iraq 1,129 times. The largest previous number was 404 times in 2005. In Afghanistan the increases were even higher. The U.S. dropped bombs or missiles 2,996 times as of December 5, 2007, compared with 1,770 times in 2006.

At the same time, the number of civilian Iraqi casualties from U.S. airstrikes appears to have risen sharply, according to Iraq Body Count, a London-based anti-war research group that maintains a database compiling news media reports on Iraqi civilian deaths. The count is regarded as conservative, since it doesn't include deaths missed by the international media.

Reporting on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Evan Wright pointed out that "The fact is the Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment....During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. The impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating." Entering the city later, "we pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There's a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She's wearing a dress and has no legs." ( Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright)

In an interview Evan Wright said, "The problem with American society is we don't really understand what war is." The view Americans get "is too sanitized." (Quoted in Michael Massing, "Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs," New York Review, 12/20/07)

A year ago, Senator Patrick Leahy, now head of the Judiciary Committee, complained that a Pentagon report on its procedures for recording civilian casualties was "an embarrassment." He said the report, which "totals just two pages," shows that "the Pentagon does very little to determine the cause of civilian casualties or to keep a record of civilian victims." The U.S. military has said repeatedly that it doesn't track civilian casualties.

There are many conflicting or unclear reports of civilian deaths in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. For instance, on May 13, 2007, the New York Times reported that in the western village of Zerkoh, "American airstrikes left 57 villagers dead, nearly half of them women and children, on April 27 and 29." According to the story: "The United States military says it came under heavy fire from insurgents as it searched for a local tribal commander and weapons caches and called in airstrikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters".

"But the villagers denied that any Taliban were in the area. Instead, they said, they rose up and fought the Americans themselves, after the soldiers raided several houses, arrested two men and shot dead two old men on a village road." U.S. and NATO officials say air power is essential to compensate for a shortage of troops.

"On Tuesday, barely 24 hours after American officials apologized publicly to President Karzai for a previous incident in which 19 civilians were shot by marines in eastern Afghanistan, reports surfaced of at least 21 civilians killed in an airstrike in Helmand Province, though residents reached by phone said the toll could be as high as 80."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that the military do not regularly report air force missions?

3. According to a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, "cluster-bombs are banned by most nations. I don't see how any use of the current U.S. cluster-bomb arsenal in proximity to civilian objects can be defended in any way as being legal or legitimate." (Turse, 6/11/07) Based on what you know, do you think this is a reasonable criticism of U.S. practice? Why or why not? If you wanted to learn more about cluster-bombs, how might you find out?

4. Why do you suppose Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths in bombing attacks appear to be rising?

5. Do you think, as Evan Wright charges, that Americans get a view of war that "is too sanitized"? Why or why not?

6. Why do you suppose that the U.S. military does not track civilian casualties? Should it? Why or why not?

7. Why do you think there are so many civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Student Reading 3:

"A peculiar and effective form of communication"

The potential of the airplane as a weapon of war became clear during World War I. British planes bombed German U-boat bases and factories. Recognizing the likely psychological effects of terror bombings, Germany attacked London and killed hundreds of civilians. This use of air power was an ominous prelude to what was to come.

In the 1930s, Japan bombed Chinese cities, killing countless civilians and leaving millions homeless. During the Spanish civil war, German planes bombed the defenseless town of Guernica. Early in World War II German bombers struck such major European cities as Rotterdam and London. Since these attacks were aimed not at military targets but at civilians, newspapers condemned them as barbaric.

But inhibitions about killing civilians eroded. British and American planes devastated Hamburg. U.S. incendiary bombs spread fires and incinerated 150,000 people in Dresden and Tokyo. But it took only a single American bomber to obliterate first Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki. These two attacks took the lives of some 200,000 people.

Later, in Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, U.S. air attacks inevitably brought death and destruction to civilians. The more contemporary U.S."precision bombing" or "surgical strikes" in Iraq are aimed at specific military targets. But no matter how precise or surgical, high explosive bombings in such cities as Baghdad, Falluja, and Ramadi are certain to kill and maim those not targeted.

Today, aerial bombing is a big business. In 2006, the U.S. Defense Department awarded contracts totaling more than $100 billion for military aircraft and their components to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, L-3 Communications Holdings, BAE Systems, and United Technologies, according to the Center for Defense Information ("The Defense Monitor," November/December 2007).

Tom Engelhardt and others at his website ( write repeatedly about U.S. air attacks in Iraq that are neglected by the media. "The airplane is a weapon of war, but it is also a weapon of terror. From World War II, through Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, our air wars have always visited death and destruction on civilians.

"We in the United States recognize butchery when we see it—the atrocity of the car bomb, the chlorine-gas truck bomb, the beheading. These acts are obviously barbaric in nature. But our favored way of war—war from a distance—has, for us, been precleansed of barbarism. Or rather its essential barbarism has been turned into a set of  'accidents,' of 'mistakes,' repeatedly made over six decades. It is in our interest not to see air war as a—possibly the—modern form of barbarism.

"It is time to be more honest. At the level of policy, civilian deaths from the air are not mistakes or they wouldn't happen so repeatedly. They are the very givens of this kind of warfare." (, 7/9/07)

Chris Hedges, a war correspondent for the New York Times for 15 years, wrote that the 9/11 attackers of the World Trade Center "illustrate that those who oppose us, rather than coming from another moral universe, have been well schooled in modern warfare. The dramatic explosions, the fireballs, the victims plummeting to their deaths, the collapse of the towers in Manhattan, were straight out of Hollywood.

"Where else, but from the industrialized world, did the suicide hijackers learn that huge explosions and death about a city skyline are a peculiar and effective form of communication? They have mastered the language. They understand that the use of disproportionate violence against innocents is a way to make a statement. We leave the same calling cards.

"We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects—eventually in the form of corpses.

"Men in modern warfare are in service to technology. To be sure, soldiers who kill innocents pay a tremendous personal emotional and spiritual price. But within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later. By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them."( War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges)

The price of this "service to technology" is already being paid by the 31,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 who have been diagnosed with what in World War I was called "shellshock," became "combat fatigue" in World War II, then "post-Vietnam syndrome," and is now called "post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (This figure is based on an analysis of 3 million disability-compensation claims by McClatchy newspapers,, 12/20/07.)

Terrifying flashbacks, feelings of shame and guilt, emotional numbness, violent anger, self-destructiveness, sleep and memory disorders are among the common symptoms of PTSD. GIs usually receive medical help and monthly compensation. What happens to the many more Iraqi and Afghan civilian victims, about whom we learn little or nothing, can only be imagined.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. If the World War II German attacks on Rotterdam and London were "barbaric," is that same word applicable to U.S. assaults on Dresden and Hiroshima? Why or why not?

3. Are civilian deaths from the air "mistakes"? Why or why not?

4. How would you explain why the media report so little about the results of U.S. air attacks?

5. Do you agree with Chris Hedges statement that "we demonize the enemy" and see ourselves "as the embodiment of absolute goodness"? Why or why not and on the basis of what evidence?

For inquiry

Students might explore the effects of such air attacks such as the following:

  • Guernica (also worthwhile might be a study of the Picasso painting)
  • Japanese assaults on Chinese cities in the 1930s
  • Rotterdam and London
  • Hamburg and Dresden
  • Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Bombings in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia
  • Official U.S. investigations of errant bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan

For reading

W. G. Sebald's article "On the Natural History of Destruction" in The New Yorker , 11/4/02, includes a powerful account of the bombing of Hamburg and the reactions of Germans to it.

Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five recounts the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden.

John Hersey's book Hiroshima describes the experience of six Hiroshima survivors and much ore.

Frank Harvey's book Air War: Vietnam, gives an eyewitness account.

William Shawcross's book Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia describes the effects of the U.S.'s attacks on that nation.

For citizenship

Organize students to produce a magazine for school distribution on the uses of air power and their impact on civilians.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: