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 America’s Wars on Civilians: Examples that Keep on Killing

The war machine grinds on across the globe.

Credit: Ringo Chiu

As the number of dead civilians in Gaza approaches 20,000, 16 or so times the number of Israelis killed by Hamas’s brutal initial attack, even the Biden administration is growing uncomfortable with the carnage. President Joe Biden recently criticized Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing,” which his aides unconvincingly tried to walk back

Yet the president’s unexpected discovery of a conscience had no effect, least of all on the Israelis. Having long enjoyed essentially unconditional U.S. support irrespective of the human cost, they responded, Et tu! Reported the New York Times: “In public statements and private diplomatic conversations, [Israeli] officials have cited past Western military actions in urban areas dating from World War II to the post-9/11 wars against terrorism.” 


To which the administration had no good response. The president’s words look little more than a calculated sop to angry progressives. Explained the Times, “President Biden and his aides have been careful not to even hint in public that Israel could be violating any laws of war. And the State Department continues to approve sales of weapons to Israel while refraining from making any assessments of the legality of Israel’s actions.” 

In practice, Biden and those around him care little about other peoples’ lives. Washington has long been full of officials convinced that they stand taller and saw further into the future than others, are entitled to use America’s fine military to promote their hubristic ends, and needn’t concern themselves about the price paid by others. Some policymakers don’t even try to hide their feelings, such as Arkansas’s Sen. Tom Cotton, who grotesquely justified the destruction in Gaza by endorsing America’s World War II firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo. Most officials cry crocodile tears when politically advantageous—over, say, Russia’s depredations in Ukraine—while ignoring human slaughter when inconvenient, which is often.

Indeed, over the last two decades, American administrations routinely postured as guardians of life and liberty abroad while waging murderous wars and promoting those by allied states. For instance, Washington spread death across rural Afghanistan, home to 70 percent of that nation’s population, for two decades. The U.S. underwrote civil wars in Libya and Syria, despite the lack of any threat posed by those countries to America. The mendacious Iraq invasion drowned the Middle East in blood. Equally outrageous has been Washington’s craven embrace of the authoritarian Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, helping the royal regime kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians. 

Despite this odious record, members of the infamous blob, as America’s foreign policy elite is called, worry that untoward concern for civilians might constrain future military actions. For instance, Samantha Power, an outspoken advocate of “humanitarian” war-making, complained that Iraq made Americans too hesitant to intervene militarily: “I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’…one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons.” Similarly, the American Enterprise Institute’s Hal Brands fears “the ‘no more Iraqs’ mindset,” since “a stubborn resistance to Middle Eastern wars” might lead to “delayed intervention.” The journalist Natalia Antonova goes even further, denouncing the “defeatism in the words and actions” resulting from the Iraq war that caused Americans to oppose new foreign crusades. Why let a few hundred thousand needless deaths halt plans for another wonderful war?

Obviously, calculating the cost of the post-9/11 wars is difficult. And many contributed to the tsunami of financial waste and human horror. However, Washington cannot escape responsibility. After retaliating against al-Qaeda and its host, Afghanistan’s Taliban, for the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration refused to negotiate the group’s surrender. Three successive administrations then waged war to bring centralized Western-style democracy to villages and valleys across that tragic land. 


Afghan civilians suffered terribly. The interpreter Baktash Ahadi explained, “U.S. forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverizing mud homes and destroying livelihoods. One could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire.” The human cost was devastating. Journalist Anand Gopal reported on the experience of an Afghan woman named Shakira: “Entire branches of Shakira’s family, from the uncles who used to tell her stories to the cousins who played with her in the caves, vanished. In all, she lost sixteen family members. … [Other families] lost ten to twelve civilians in what locals call the American War.” After two decades of U.S. military effort, the Afghan government was unable to survive more than a couple weeks on its own.

A hawkish clique imagined reordering the Middle East by installing in Iraq a puppet regime headed by a paid CIA operative who had no domestic constituency and turned to the Iranians. The U.S. invasion left internal chaos and triggered a bloody sectarian conflict that ravaged minority religious communities and spawned a second act with the rise of the Islamic State. American forces are still stationed in Iraq, where they are the frequent target of Iranian-backed militias too powerful for the government to disband.

In Libya, the Obama administration misled other U.N. Security Council members to win approval for a regime-change operation disguised as humanitarian intervention. Muammar Gaddafi, though a dictator, fell short of the worst excesses ascribed to him. He had engaged in no civilian massacres and, contra allied claims, had promised to protect, not harm, civilians in Benghazi. The consequences of allied intervention were deadly and continue today. Two competing governments emerged, as conflict drew in multiple outside actors, ebbing and flowing for years. 

The Obama administration also pushed regime change in Syria, fueling a multisided civil war and even backing jihadi insurgents, including ones identifying with al-Qaeda. Today, nearly 1,000 American personnel still illegally occupy Syrian lands and loot Syrian oil while facing rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militias and harassment from Russian units backing the Damascus government. Washington imposes starvation sanctions on the Syrian people in the name of punishing President Bashar al-Assad and inconveniencing Moscow. U.S. officials know that economic warfare often kills noncombatants. When challenged over the death of Iraqi babies from U.S. sanctions three decades ago, then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright infamously replied: “We think the price is worth it.”

The “Costs of War Project” by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimates the eventual financial cost of these many wars, including veterans’ care, to be about $8 trillion. Overall, 940,000 people, figures Watson, died in these wars, 432,000 of whom were civilian. And these estimates are conservative. 

In Iraq alone, some 8,300 U.S. military personnel and contractors were killed. Hundreds of allied personnel and around 50,000 Iraqi security personnel died. Thousands of Americans also committed suicide after serving there. 

Even worse was the civilian toll. The Iraqi Body Count documented roughly 200,000 civilian dead. However, the bodies of many victims were unrecovered and unreported. Explained academic and blogger Juan Cole: “I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers…not to mention that for substantial periods of time since 2003 it has been dangerous in about half the country just to move around, much less to move around with dead bodies.” As a result, the IBC figured that doubling official estimates probably would be closer to reality. Respected but controverted studies put the death toll closer to a million and perhaps more. All this for what was sold as a humanitarian operation after no nukes were found.

The civilian dead in Yemen also should be counted. The U.S. has been a co-conspirator with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, providing aircraft, munitions, and intelligence, and servicing and for a time refueling the warplanes. Probably some 400,000 Yemeni civilians have died from combat operations and destruction of agricultural, commercial, health, social, and transportation infrastructure. The Houthi-dominated insurgents have also committed war crimes, but only the U.S.-backed Saudi/Emirati coalition, judged by humanitarian groups to be responsible for the vast bulk of physical destruction and human casualties, deployed aircraft. Yet Biden recently proposed providing the Saudi royal family with a de facto U.S. military bodyguard.

War is not a humanitarian enterprise. Even when fought for supposedly good motives, the cost and likelihood of success must be considered. Too often the price of presumed righteousness is stratospheric, especially when the battlegrounds and losses are located elsewhere. The Watson Institute explains,

People living in the war zones have been killed in their homes, in markets, and on roadways. They have been killed by bombs, bullets, fire, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and drones. Civilians die at checkpoints, as they are run off the road by military vehicles, when they step on a mine or cluster bomb, as they collect wood or tend to their fields, and when they are kidnapped and executed for purposes of revenge or intimidation. They are killed by the United States, by its allies, and by insurgents and sectarians in the civil wars spawned by the invasions.

What is Washington fighting for? America is the most secure great power ever and faces no existential threats other than the potential of nuclear war with China or Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, every American conflict other than retaliation for 9/11 was a matter of (very poor) choice, a sanctimonious crusade mounted by arrogant ivory-tower warriors unconcerned about the lives of others. 

Today Israel is responsible for the death of some 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza. That is a terrible toll, but the number pales compared to the number of civilians who died in America’s many wars. Obviously, U.S. callousness doesn’t justify similar behavior by others. Yet it undercuts Washington’s moral authority. And not just dealing with friendly governments, like Jerusalem. President Joe Biden has little credibility in dressing down Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping. They too can respond, Et tu!

Two thousand years have passed, but Jesus’ admonition still rings true: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) Until Washington policymakers act accordingly, civilians will continue to die in prodigious numbers in America’s misbegotten foreign wars.