Militarism examinedAOAV: all our reports

“The coalition started to think about civilian casualties as a strategic problem” – Dr Thomas Gregory on how civilian casualties informed warfare

Dr Thomas Gregory is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He has specialised in International Politics, the war in Afghanistan, and humanitarian interventions, in particular focusing on drones, civilian casualties, and the ethics of war.

Here, he talks with Professor Mike Spagat about his article, Calibrating violence: Body counts as a weapon of war (European Journal of International Security), in which he reminds us that counting civilian casualties of war is not enough – why we record civilian casualties, and what we do with that information, are pivotal questions in addressing civilian harm from armed violence. 

Professor Mike Spagat

In your article, Calibrating violence: Body counts as a weapon of war, you argue that coalition forces used civilian casualty counts to “calibrate” their violence.  Can you elaborate on this idea?

Dr Thomas Gregory

My article focuses on the creation of the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell (CCTC) in mid-2008. I was interested in what prompted the coalition to start counting civilian casualties when it had been so reluctant to do so previously, and I was interested to see what coalition officials started doing with the data they collected.

At first, the CCTC was mostly concerned with managing the consequences of civilian harm. Having instant access to this data enabled coalition officials to respond immediately to any allegations. They could dismiss those they did not consider credible. They could correct the numbers when they believed that claims had been exaggerated. And they could provide some additional context when they considered these allegations to be credible, which might explain and potentially excuse these casualties.

As more data was collected – and the quality started to improve – the CCTC was able to do something more interesting. They were able to start crunching the numbers to see what operations were responsible for causing the most casualties, which enabled them to make specific adjustments to tactics, techniques and procedures to reduce civilian casualties. So this is what I mean when I talk about how civilian casualty counts were being used to calibrate the violence inflicted upon Afghan civilians. Coalition data was not simply documenting the consequences of these attacks, but was also being used to refine them.


Why did the coalition need to calibrate these attacks so carefully?


We need to take a step back here to understand how the coalition was thinking about the conflict in Afghanistan and the harm inflicted upon civilians. On the one hand, there are various legal and moral reasons why the coalition might want to calibrate its attacks more carefully. International humanitarian law (IHL) stipulates that belligerents have to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, whilst also ensuring that any incidental harm to noncombatants is not excessive when compared with the anticipated military gains. Data collected by the CCTC could obviously assist with these efforts.

On the other hand, we need to recognise that the coalition started to think about civilian casualties as a strategic problem rather than just a moral or legal concern. In his tactical directive, for example, General McChrystal warned coalition troops about the dangers of winning tactical victories but suffering strategic defeats by killing civilians or damaging their homes, and thus alienating the local population. This strange confluence of military necessity and humanitarian concern was shaped to a large extent by the introduction of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which emphasised the importance of using the minimum force necessary to achieve an objective, but civilian casualties were also creating tensions between coalition forces and the Afghan government. So the coalition needed to calibrate its violence more carefully to ensure it did not cause unnecessary harm to civilians, which could jeopardise mission success.

CCTC data was important because it allowed officials to identify the operations that were causing the most casualties, so changes could be made to minimise these casualties, and the data could then be used to monitor whether these changes were having the desired effect. There were also cases where officials used this data to monitor whether particular units were causing more civilian casualties than others, so they could receive in-theatre training on the importance of reducing civilian harm.  


You quote Eyal Weizman as saying that the moderation of violence is part of the logic of violence. Can you expand a bit on this idea?


I do, and I think this is a really important point. At first glance, these measures seem like a really positive development. People had been calling for the coalition to start counting the people it was killing and now the coalition was counting civilian casualties, albeit for strategic reasons rather than strictly humanitarian purposes. Moreover, coalition officials were not only counting civilian casualties, but using this data to try and eliminate unnecessary harm to civilians. And when civilians were harmed, they were providing condolence payments to the victims. From a coalition perspective, many of these measures exceeded moral and legal requirements – the coalition was going above and beyond the dictates of international humanitarian law.  

Eyal Weizman’s work shows us how the moderation of violence has become part of the very logic of violence, that these measures do not work to disrupt, hinder or impede the military, but to ensure that the military can achieve its objectives in the most efficient way possible. These measures are not really concerned with protecting civilians, but enhancing military effectiveness – civilian protection becomes little more than a means to an end.

In the article, I try to show how counting civilian casualties contributed to the war effort. Coalition data was not simply there to document and describe the harm inflicted upon civilians, it became a crucial part of the violent assemblage that was causing this harm. Until this point, I was accustomed to thinking about civilian casualty counts as a way of documenting the death and destruction inflicted on the battlefield to oppose the wars that were causing this harm, or the specific tactics that were exposing civilians to death and injury. In Afghanistan, this data was being used in support of the war, not against it. And this left me feeling rather uncomfortable because it seemed to reinforce the illusion that wars can be fought humanely, helping to rehabilitate the very thing causing civilians harm.


What is the relationship between your argument and that of Samuel Moyn in his book Humane


There are some obvious parallels between what I’m trying to do in this article and what Samuel Moyn is doing in Humane. It is clear that both of us are concerned about how war is being rehabilitated, and how the idea that wars can be waged more humanely – without causing unnecessary harm to civilians – is helping to re-legitimise military interventions at the expense of more peaceful and less violent alternatives. At the same time, his book warns that the idea of a ‘more humane war can obscure the residual violence that it still involves.’ I share these concerns, adding that this violence is hardly residual – it is something that remains central to these interventions and is often incredibly destructive, of both people and place.

Humane was published when I was working on the revisions to my article, but I tried to incorporate the book into my argument. There are some points of difference. I sense that Moyn is more interested in the decision to go to war, whereas I am more interested in how wars are conducted, although there is some overlap between the two. Moyn also argues that the new ‘military humanism masks the same old death-dealing,’ but I disagree with this claim. My work suggests that the coalition did seek to recalibrate the violence inflicted during the conflict to ensure it could continue to kill those it wanted killed without causing unnecessary harm to civilians, which could undermine the long-term effort. Put differently, this military human has ushered in a new form of death-dealing.

There are other thinkers who were probably a bigger influence on my work, including Judith Butler, Maja Zehfuss, Nisha Shah, Diane Nelson, Arjun Appadurai and Sally Engle Merry. Butler has been a constant in my work on civilian casualties because their work draws attention to how civilians are rendered profoundly losable – or killable – within the prevailing frames of war. Zehfuss and Shah have both shaped how I think about the legitimisation and normalisation of lethal force, whilst Nelson, Appadurai and Merry were particularly helpful when it came to thinking about how counting civilian casualties was complicit in the creation of corpses.


Many NGOs are working in various ways to reduce civilian casualties in war. CIVIC immediately sprang to mind for me when reading your paper because of their advocacy for civilian casualty tracking with an emphasis on discovering and reducing harmful practices, but there are several other NGOs also working in this space.  Would you have a particular message you’d like to convey to these groups?      


I think it is important to stress that my argument is not against counting civilian casualties. I believe that counting civilian casualties is crucial when it comes to documenting the death and destruction inflicted on the battlefield, holding militaries accountable for the harm they create, and acknowledging the human lives that have been lost as a consequence of these wars. My basic position is that counting civilian casualties is both necessary and insufficient, and I think that this is something that Diane Nelson captures well in her book Who Counts? The Mathematics of Death and Life after Genocide. At the same time, it is also important that we pay attention to why civilian casualties are being counted, and whether these counts are primarily concerned with enhancing military efficiency or holding militaries more accountable. On this point, an important distinction could be drawn between the work that an organisation like Airwars or AOAV are doing, versus what the coalition was doing in Afghanistan.      

The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have been an incredible resource for this project and have produced several important reports about coalition efforts on tracking civilian harm. The organisation has also worked tirelessly to promote civilian protection and they have considerable success in convincing the military to take on some of their recommendations. I am a little ambivalent about some of their tactics. The organisation has tried to emphasise the strategic benefits of reducing civilian casualties when engaging with the military alongside the humanitarian imperative. I can see the appeal because the military is more likely to respond to initiatives that enhance military effectiveness rather than ones that appeal to humanitarian sentiments, but I am also concerned about the risks involved with this tactic.

What happens, for example, when civilian casualties are not considered to be so strategically important? Will the military continue to impose tough restrictions on the use of force, or will these tougher restrictions be relaxed? Will the military continue to provide condolence payments to the victims, or will it reduce the money set aside to make amends for death and injury? And will the military continue to count civilian casualties – and investigate the circumstances surrounding them – or will the military abandon these measures?

Based on what we have seen so far, I am not overly optimistic. My concern is that framing civilian casualties as strategic setbacks works to reinforce – rather than contest – the objectification and devaluation of civilians, co-opting them into a distinctly martial logic that cares little for the individual lives that might be lost as a consequence of these wars.


Another interesting phrase/concept that appears in your paper is “the illusion of bureaucratic control”. How does that fit into your thinking?


This term draws on some of the thinkers I mentioned a few moments ago. Arjun Appadurai talks about the illusion of bureaucratic control in his work on the enumerative strategies used by colonial administrators to count and classify the indigenous population so that they can be controlled more effectively. He describes it as an illusion because these numbers helped to cultivate a false sense that the colonial could be controlled, providing that administrators had the appropriate information. Maja Zehfuss uses a similar expression in her work on precision weapons, which cultivates what she describes as a ‘fantasy of control’. Like Appadurai, she suggests that this curious fusion of intent and outcome cannot account for the inherently incalculable and uncontrollable elements of the world around us.

I use the term in my article to critique the idea that civilian casualties can be eliminated from contemporary conflict providing that sufficient data is collected on the causes of the casualties and the necessary adjustments are made to tactics, techniques and procedures. This does not mean that we should see civilian casualties as a tragic but inevitable consequence of military operations – clearly the coalition was able to use this data to reduce civilian casualties when it believed that winning the war was contingent upon minimising civilian harm. However, I think the idea that wars can be contained to ensure that we are only killing the people that we intend to kill is dangerous, and is helping to rehabilitate war at the very moment that people are beginning to recognise its problems. And this goes back to the argument Samiel Moyn makes in Humane.


From a military perspective, is there a danger that these metrics could create a false sense of progress or success? 


Absolutely. Coalition officials were convinced that counterinsurgency operations would be successful provided they could secure the hearts and minds of the local population. Various metrics were used to measure progress in this area, including the data on civilian casualties but also data on economic activity and so forth. The data might show that the coalition was making – or not making – progress against these specific indicators, but we also need to think about the assumptions underpinning these metrics. And there is a danger that very specific technical considerations displace the bigger and more complicated political concerns.

In the article, I draw parallels with the way body counts were used during the conflict in Vietnam. As Gregory Daddis and others have shown, these kill counts created a distorted understanding of the conflict because it assumed that killing more insurgents (or more people who were categorised as insurgents) was an indicator of progress. In Afghanistan, this assumption was inverted; coalition officials were clear that killing insurgents was not evidence of progress whilst increased civilian casualties could be a signal that the coalition was going backwards. Nobody really paused to consider the assumptions underpinning these metrics, whether the war was winnable, and whether reduced civilian casualties could be taken as evidence of anything other than reduced civilian casualties.


Your answer goes right to the heart of my problems with a lot of high profile academic literature in the conflict field.  Some very clever researchers can demonstrate that certain policies can cause improvements in certain indicators and it’s kind of implicit that these policies can lead to victory but this is more assumed than demonstrated.


Absolutely, I think what’s interesting is how some of this academic analysis actually filtered right through into the training the coalition troops were receiving in Afghanistan. There are some really interesting PowerPoint slides that I uncovered that show how coalition data on civilian casualties was used to reinforce specific messages about the need to reduce civilian casualties. Not surprisingly, some coalition troops were not convinced that demonstrating tactical patience or courageous restraint when faced with potentially hostile acts was going to make them safer in the long run. And there were lots of complaints in the media about how soldiers were required to fight with one hand tied behind their back. Coalition data was used to challenge these assumptions, with various charts and graphs suggesting that insurgent attacks increased whenever civilians were harmed. So this data was being used to reinforce a particular understanding of the conflict, and how it ought to be fought. 


Yes, that’s very interesting but a voice keeps going off in my head saying that I would want soldiers to be trained in this way. After all, there can be no justification for unnecessary civilian harm.


I agree, but I think an important parallel could be drawn with precision weapons. Using a dumb munition in an urban environment would be unethical, especially if the military has more precise weapons at their disposal. Whilst fewer civilian casualties would be better, I think it is dangerous to assume that fewer civilian casualties somehow makes the violence more legitimate – especially if the idea that civilian casualties can be avoided is helping to rehabilitate the violence used to kill them. This is where the work of Maja Zehfuss, Samuel Moyn and Eyal Weizman is really useful.  

We need to pay close attention to how these discussions work to normalise the violence inflicted on the battlefield, and how they work to legtimise the harm caused to civilians. The fact that the coalition started counting civilian casualties is certainly an improvement on before, but that data was not being used to hold the coalition accountable when civilians were killed, or highlight the terrible humanitarian consequences of the conflict. The data was being used to enhance these operations, to calibrate the violence inflicted to maximise its efficiency, and to contest allegations that the military was not doing enough to protect civilians. Ultimately, these initiatives were concerned with winning wars, not protecting civilians, and that bothers me.   

Twitter: @Tom_Gregory

Download the article here