The casualties of war: Libya and beyond

The architects of a decade's wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya devote great efforts to assessing the military aspects of their operations - yet are silent on the human damage. A new report highlights the international pressure for a shift of focus.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 July 2011

The international military intervention in Libya, launched on 19-20 March 2011, is now well past its 100-day landmark without clear signs of an immediate resolution. Amid the daily calculations of military advantage and political progress, however, there is a larger silence over the human costs of this conflict.

This is part of a decade-long pattern in which the forces waging war in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya have been very reluctant to disseminate precise details of the damage their operations have inflicted. But the number of civil-society initiatives seeking to address this deficit is growing, and the quality and depth of their work make a compelling case for change (see John Sloboda, “The human cost of war: name before shame”, 29 July 2009).  

The Libyan stalemate

Muammar Gaddafi’s regime may now be in terminal decline. The pipeline bringing fuels to Tripoli from its last functioning oil-refinery at Zawiya has been cut, there are week-long queues for petrol in the capital, and a rampant black market has emerged (see “In the brother leader's bunker”, Economist, 2 July 2011). But if a sudden collapse is still possible, other indicators suggest the regime maintains a functioning and resilient core sufficient to guarantee basic survival (see “Libya: the view from the bunker”, 21 April 2011).

In the rebel stronghold of eastern Libya, the anti-Gaddafi forces have so far been unable to gain control of a key oil-industry site, the storage, refinery and export terminal at Brega. To the east of Tripoli, Gaddafi's troops are still able to target parts of the rebel-hold port of Misrata. Even rebel leaders see the conflict lasting through to the late summer, and Nato planners privately concede the risk that the regime survives until the end of 2011.

Several Nato member-states have been startled by the fast depletion of their munitions-stocks in the Libyan conflict. Even Denmark, one of the smaller contributors, has used 500 precision-guided munitions; it is now talking to the United States and Netherlands governments about replenishing supplies (see Tom Kington, “Small Bombs Loom Big as Libya War Grind On", Defense News, 27 June 2011). Among the biggest suppliers of what is called the “direct attack weapons business” is Boeing, which produces the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Kristin Robertson of Boeing is reported as saying: “Our team has supported rush contract orders for 2,000 JDAM tail kits and 200 Laser JDAM sensors for six countries, on top of our current production orders for the U.S. Navy and Air Force”.

Nato's problem in part derives from the reluctance of Barack Obama's administration to continue direct involvement in offensive air-strikes after the first week of the war in late March 2011, leaving the strike operations to its European allies. But if this was unexpected in light of the previous history of United States leadership in such operations, even more notable has been the ineffectiveness of large-scale Nato air-operations in terminating the regime.

A Nato briefing says that in the war’s first ninety days a “total of 13,184 sorties, including 4,963 strike sorties have been conducted. We have damaged or destroyed more than 2,500 legitimate military targets. This includes approx. 460 military facilities; 300 radar systems and storage facilities; 170 command and control sites; approx. 450 tanks and other armoured vehicles; 230 other military vehicles; approx, 150 artillery and rocket launchers; more than 700 ammunition facilities; approx. 10 aircraft and 10 ships” (see Nato’s rolling-script Libya brief, 28 June 2011, 17.30 hrs).

A striking aspect of this extensive list is that it doesn't mention anyone being killed - almost  as though all these targets have been thoughtfully left unattended, all ready to be hit by Nato's planes and missiles.

The growing political concern over the current stalemate provides Nato (and Britain’s ministry of defence [MoD] in particular) with a motive assiduously to supply journalists with details of military operations. An example is an MoD press report on operations over just three days, 2-4 July. The first day, a Saturday, a tank was badly damaged near Sirte and an armoured-personnel carrier and three armed pick-up trucks were destroyed near Misrata; on the Sunday, two large warehouses containing military stores were attacked near Brega, another tank was hit, and a command post and four armed vehicles were destroyed at Zuwarah airfield; and on Monday, two more armed trucks were destroyed.

The human assessment

But in all of this detailed, enumerated destruction - warehouses, a command post, tanks and trucks - there is no reporting of human casualties, of people killed or injured. Nato will not publicise such outcomes, and neither will the Gaddafi regime admit to them (unless it seems expedient). This is an aspect of the war that remains largely hidden. The intended implication seems to echo a TV series of the 1980s, The A-Team, where in each episode a great array of weapons was used to wreak destruction on the bad guys, yet they all got up and walked away - a little shaken but otherwise unharmed.

The reality is that - in this and in preceding and current wars - the human costs are immense. In this respect, a report published on 28 June 2011 by the Costs of War programme - undertaken by the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies - is timely. This estimates that in all the post-9/11 wars 225,000 people have been killed and 365,000 wounded. The 37,000 soldiers killed include 6,000 Americans, 1,200 coalition troops, 9,900 Iraqis, 8,800 Afghans, 3,500 Pakistanis, as well as 2,300 private-security contractors.

The civilian suffering is hugely greater: 172,000 dead, which includes 125,000 Iraqis, 35,000 Pakistanis and 12,000 Afghans. The Costs of War emphasises that these figures represent an “extremely conservative estimate”; the number of insurgents killed, it suggests, would increase the totals by anything from 20,000 to 51,000. The report does, however, propose a cautious assessment of the number of people displaced and made refugees (mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan): a staggering 7.8 million.

The Eisenhower Research Project study builds on the groundbreaking work by Iraq Body Count and other groups working “to collect, record and ultimately memorialise the casualties of conflict”. There are now are more than twenty-five such casualty-counting initiatives,  gathered in an International Practitioner Network and working with the Oxford Research Group's Recording Casualties in Armed Conflict (RCAC) programme. The strength of their work and their increasing collaboration are helping to change public attitudes (see "The harvest of war: from pain to gain", 27 October 2010).

A historic accounting

The experience of Libya reinforces the importance of such projects. Few western Europe citizens are surprised by the Gaddafi regime’s lack of any reference to losses among its military personnel, or to Libyans in rebel areas killed or wounded by its actions. But many do note - and many more are being persuaded of the need to recognise - Nato's refusal to publicise the human costs of its actions.

This is even more the case as, Nato's partial reporting of its military forays in Libya notwithstanding, there is so often clear information about these costs. The Nato operations involve substantial intelligence-gathering wherein copious digital records enable comprehensive bomb-damage analysis. This form of assessment can readily identify evidence of people being killed; there is no doubt that Nato could release much of the evidence without compromising its operations.

The failure of Nato and its leading states to do so in Libya is consistent with their behaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan (to the echoing mantra, “we don't do body-counts”) (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge", 23 June 2011). But the pressure to acknowledge the casualties of these wars - and parallel campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere - is escalating: from activist groups, think-tanks, research bodies, and other parts of civil society.

The road will be long and difficult, but this process of human accounting is essential. A time will come when it seems so normal as to cause amazement that it wasn’t done before.  


A note: Paul Rogers on Twitter

The articles in this series include numerous links, mainly through the good offices of David Hayes at openDemocracy, so that the column can also function as a portal to a range of sources relevant to the week’s theme. To supplement this I now also have a Twitter account which I use primarily to provide links to further resources - selectively, perhaps four or five items a week, to avoid overload and keep the focus on the really important and valuable. The address is: @ProfPRogers

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