Reversing the Guilt

Airstrikes are causing a huge number of civilian deaths and belligerents want you to believe the civilians are to blame.

By Aghiles Ourad |23-03-2017|


During Thrǣdable’s recent project in Lesbos, we met a refugee from Mosul. A big lad with an even bigger smile, he decided to flee after narrowly escaping death. Having spent time with his cousin one night into the early hours, he returned home to find that his house had been completely destroyed. His parents and four siblings had been sleeping inside, never to wake up again. “It was NATO,” he said. Involuntarily, I asked how he knew. “Because they are the only ones conducting air strikes above Mosul,” he replied. I felt like a fool.

In that short moment, I had posed a regrettable question. I had allowed myself to be momentarily tricked by Western propaganda, questioning how the Coalition – a club of multiple Western states’ militaries – could kill civilians.  Given the extent to which we are told that the West protects human rights and adheres to the rules of military engagement, it is understandable why people can be led to believe this. Yet months later that slip of the tongue still bothers me. Why had I unconsciously leapt to the defence of murderers of a family? The answer was airstrikes.

Giulio Gavotti’s throwing of hand grenades at Ottoman military targets in Libya in November 1911 was the first example of ‘air strikes’ from winged aircraft. No-one was injured in that instance, but the idea has caught on somewhat, rudimentary as it may have seemed initially. Indeed, in the months preceding the 100th anniversary of Gavotti’s innovative war tactic, as if to pay homage to the Italian, NATO was intervening in Libya. Military targets were again being attacked from winged aircraft.

In those 100 years, aerial warfare has gone from being of marginal importance to of perhaps the utmost importance to military campaigns. The advantages are clear: flying over an enemy reduces the risk of harm to yourself, and with the improvements in firepower, precision and stealth, aircraft can inflict greater, more accurate damage on a target unable to flee. However, the arena in which warfare is conducted has also transformed. What were clear Ottoman military outposts in 1911 can no longer be designated as being solely military targets – combatants and military equipment are nowadays often stationed amongst civilian populations. Conflict has become asymmetric – one or multiple state actors fighting one or multiple non-state actors, and usually within urban areas.

This is the new reality of war. Civilians are now more at risk of being caught up in the fighting, dying because of their proximity to conflict. The Fourth Geneva Convention enshrined the protection of “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities”. These non-combatants are not legitimate military targets. Killing them is a war crime.

Yet the reality of asymmetric, urban warfare has come hand in hand with another – the deaths of civilians on a worryingly large scale. No matter how much I was led to believe that the West burdens itself to protect human rights while respecting the rules of conflict engagement, how can it be justifiable for the Iraq war to have cost 116,000 civilians their lives? How can it be justifiable for the war in Afghanistan to have cost 31,000 civilians their lives? How can it even be justifiable that the war in Libya, a UN-backed humanitarian intervention, cost 72 civilians their lives?

Mistakes happen. There are stories of weddings and hospitals being blown up, here, here and here. Yet, however tragic these may be, the physical distance between the killer and the killed seems to absolve the former of any responsibility, or at least sustained outrage at innocent deaths. Belligerents can hide behind the fact that they take ‘every measure possible’ to avoid killing innocents, a statement somewhat at odds with how the public is told that airstrikes are ‘surgical’ or ‘precision’.

While they may make the headlines, it is not these mistakes that are the most alarming thing. Such errors do not account for the estimated 8,600 civilian deaths by Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. The real issue here is what constitutes a military target. Western powers seem to have modified the definition of combatant to satisfy an adherence to the protection of ‘persons taking no active part in hostilities’ while maintaining their original military objectives.



For example, the US expanded the definition of combatant to include all military-age males in a strike zone – because neighbours in areas of known terrorist activity are ‘probably up to no good’. This proved to be pretty convenient for the Obama administration. It conducted over ten times as many airstrikes as Bush, so there was a need to artificially reduce the number of ‘collateral damage’ by bestowing culpability on these newly defined ‘combatants’. The result? A damaging airstrike that is newly justifiably proportional.

Continuing in the same vein, a new catchphrase has risen in popularity – human shields. In essence, this term is used to reverse responsibility of civilian deaths from the attacker to the target. When it is clear the collateral damage from an airstrike cannot be dismissed as combative, the moniker of a human shield removes accountability from the actor ordering the airstrike, as the intended target of the airstrike is to blame for putting civilians in harm’s way.

The Israeli government is a master of this deflection of guilt, accusing Hamas of sacrificing residents and shooting rockets from schools as a preamble to their bombing campaigns. Yet this tactic is becoming increasingly common. Neve Gordon & Nicola Perugini discovered that between October 2015 and October 2016 there was an increase in the use of ‘human shield’ within media articles of 850%, often in relation to the conflict with ISIS. This is symptomatic, they say, of a militarisation of the civilian, in order to bring any use of violence in line with proportionality and military necessity. In short, turning the civilian into a human shield transforms them into a legal figure that can be legitimately killed.

Invariably, killing from a distance poses serious ethical problems. The use of drones piloted by military personnel thousands of miles from the target does away with the grim intimacy and reality of war, eroding the moral-psychological barrier of killing. Being omnipresent, ready to take an unsuspecting group of people’s lives, seems to be having a traumatising effect on drone operators. But what about the people on the ground, the people in the ‘combat zones’?

There are currently airstrikes being carried out in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. People in those countries live in constant fear of death from above, but there is a banality to the images of an airstrike’s devastation,  an indifference that aerial belligerents count upon to continue their campaigns. The ‘ungrievability’ of these lives, compared to the ‘grievability’ of western lives, lends itself favourably to the notion that airstrikes are an acceptable means of protecting western civilians from terrorist attacks and western armies from the negative publicity of fallen soldiers.

Precision strikes based on intelligence often regrettably hit unintended targets, such as the family of the refugee from Mosul; however it is the intended targets that have become problematic. Widening the definition of combatant and reversing the guilt, in order to exempt yourself of all responsibility, sets a sinister precedent by the West in prioritising (arguably futile) military objectives over innocent lives. Apathy on our – the global west’s inhabitants – part has allowed this culture of acceptable civilian deaths to become the new normal. We cannot, and must not, let this happen.


Cover photo – the destructive power of an airstrike seen through a drone viewfinder

Photo by Rob Sheppard – A Banksy mural in California – Flickr Creative Commons 


Aghiles Ourad is a co-founder of Thraedable