It was a question put to me that neither I nor, it seems, any elected representative nor any member of the defence forces is accurately able to answer. Why? If we participate in illegal military incursions into sovereign nations what responsibilities do we have for documenting the loss of life? If we honour lives shouldn’t we also value them? Lest we forget the innocents?
A 2016 report by Airwars, ‘Limited Accountability A transparency audit of the Coalition air war against so-called Islamic State’, found that Australia was one of a group of countries that has ‘chosen to wage semi-secret ‘conventional wars – with affected civilians on the ground, citizens at home – and monitoring agencies unable to hold these governments to account. The most widely cited reason given by nations when refusing to disclose the dates and location of their airstrikes is national security or domestic security concerns. While these are legitimate worries, other states have made clear that improved public reporting has not led to an increase in such security concerns. British and Canadian defence officials in particular argue that greater public transparency on military actions can be beneficial when engaging domestic populations. The adoption of similar good practice by all Coalition partners can and should be pursued with some urgency.’
In response to a Freedom of Information request issued on the Department of Defence calling for information relating to civilian casualties – rather crudely referred to as ‘civcas’ – together with information about the dates and locations of airstrikes the Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) provided the following advice:
‘The Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics. The Battle Damage Assessments received from the Coalition HQ focus specifically on the achievement of the “commander’s intent” and while this reporting does reflect any assessed collateral damage, this is normally material in nature and not specific WRT casualties. Authoritative and accurate casualty statistics would need to be sought from the coalition HQ in theatre (run by the US) and any such requests are highly unlikely to be successful.
In summary, the Department does not hold or track the statistics requested and would need to source such data from the US-run coalition HQ in theatre. Any such request is beyond third-party/international partner consultation and would require dedicated effort in theatre from the US. We would anticipate that any such request, under FOI, would be dismissed by the US and, if provided, would require excessive time and effort to collate especially within an active, operational HQ.’
A chilling response, is it not?
In contrast the Airwars report noted that ‘Canada was an active member of the Coalition between November 2nd 2014 and February 10th 2016, at which point Justin Trudeau’s new government ended kinetic involvement. In total, the Hornets and Super Hornets of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) reported 251 airstrikes during a 15-month campaign against ISIL – all but five of which took place in Iraq. For the duration of its campaign, Canada was consistently the most publicly accountable member of the Coalition – setting a good benchmark against which to measure other partners. As a matter of routine, CAF reported the location, target and date of all airstrikes conducted in both Iraq and Syria.’
It went on to state ‘By identifying in a timely manner not only the nation, region and locale bombed – but also the targets believed struck – CAF provided enough information to enable Airwars and others to cross-reference whether Canadian aircraft may (or may not) have been potentially involved in any alleged civilian casualty incident….there were no common rules within the Coalition for the monitoring or reporting of civilian casualties by member nations, leading to troubling variations between allies when it came to being held publicly to account for their actions….The final and most troubling cluster includes Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Belgium, along with Jordan and the Netherlands. While each has issued very limited information on their military actions against ISIL – for example some overarching data, or reports on occasional single incidents – in effect these six nations have waged war without any real public accountability for their actions. And while each claims to have killed no civilians [with the exception of members of the Syrian military] in the air war against ISIL, it remains impossible to verify this against the public record.
On the back of this the Government – with the support of the Opposition – has now weakened domestic Australian law so that airstrikes could now target “those who may not openly take up arms but are still key to Daesh’s fighting capability. The objective was to “clarify that certain war crimes offences applicable in non-international armed conflict do not apply to members of organised armed groups.”
More recently Aaron Glantz, a senior reporter at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting – who was an unembedded journalist during the April 2004 siege of Fallujah (a battle in which Australia was involved) gave this account in response to Donald Trump’s appointment of James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as Defence Secretary: “This was a battle that I covered as an unembedded journalist, where the U.S. Marine Corps killed so many people, so many civilians, that the municipal soccer stadium of that city had to be turned into a graveyard. U.S. Marines there shot at ambulances. They shot at aid workers. They cordoned off the city and prevented civilians from fleeing. Some marines posed for trophy photos with the people that they killed. I remember walking through the city shortly after the Marines pulled out, and there were rotting bodies all over the streets, because during the actual siege, U.S. Marine snipers would shoot at anyone who was outside, so people were afraid to go and bury the dead. Shopping centres were destroyed. And this gets to an important issue of disproportionality…. This whole assault was launched because of the killing of four Blackwater security contractors. And, you know, in response, James Mattis levelled the city.
This correlates with the account provided by Christopher Doran, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Political Economy at Macquarie University, in his 2008 article ‘The reality of Australia’s collateral damage in Iraq’. General [Jim] Molan’s excerpt is a highly sanitised version of what actually occurred under his command. Molan’s account suggests that the attack on Fallujah, codenamed Operation Fury, was little more than a few surgical missile strikes which unfortunately and only occasionally resulted in civilian deaths. He conveniently omits the fact that an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians still remained in Fallujah when the attack began. Citizens had been instructed to evacuate the city, population 250,000, before bombing began in October 2004, but any and all men aged 15 to 45 were prohibited from leaving. Many family members understandably chose to stay with their fathers and brothers. Once the bombing began, all exits out of the city were sealed off. On October 16, the Washington Post reported that “electricity and water were cut off to the city just as a fresh wave of [bombing] strikes began Thursday night, an action that US forces also took at the start of assaults on Najaf and Samarra”. The Red Cross and other aid agencies were also denied access to deliver the most basic of humanitarian aid – water, food, and emergency medical supplies to the civilian population. The situation was so severe that the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, stated that the Coalition had used “hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population [in] flagrant violation” of the Geneva Conventions. Specifically Article 14, which clearly states that cutting off water, electricity, and denying access to humanitarian aid is considered to be a war crime. But it gets worse, much worse. On November 7, a New York Times front page story detailed how the Coalition’s ground campaign was launched by seizing Fallujah’s only hospital: “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of the rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” The story also revealed the motive for attacking the hospital: “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital with its stream of reports of civilian casualties”. The city’s two medical clinics were also bombed and destroyed.’
So not only do some countries involved in these illegal incursions conceal whatever data they may have, and others deliberately avoid collecting data and even take active steps to prevent data being collected. If these wars were and are being fought in pursuit of the lofty moral objectives espoused by the invading nations what possible excuse could they have for burying data relating to what they did and what occurred as a result. No-one can assess the benefits of what is being done when the costs are concealed.
Why hide the extent of the death and injury they inflict on an innocent population? Perhaps the perpetrators feel some semblance of shame or remorse for the innocent lives lost or ruined as a result of their actions? The most likely explanation, however, is that those in power at home foresee the extent of public outrage they would face if the facts were made known, and particularly if they were illustrated by photos or videos of what lies behind cold and depersonalised statistics. The United States has already experienced that : any public support for the Vietnam war was lost overnight with the publication of the photograph of the nepalmed girl running naked down the road, and a similar public reaction would follow similar publications today. But a complete lack of any real information – from the general to the particular – obviates the risk of that happening.
Copyright Kellie Tranter 2017