Chilcot on Civilian Casualties: Part II

After posting yesterday on Chicot and civilian casualties I’m finding it no easier to pick my second subject from this rich, but frustrating, chapter. So I’ve spun my random selectometer again and landed on the attempt to assassinate “Chemical Ali” aka Ali Hassan al-Majid.

The heading for this section in the report is “Case study of a bombing in a Basra suburb, 5 April 2003”, a formulation which captures in a nutshell the restrained rhetoric of the Chilcot report.

I recommend watching the movie  “Eye in the Sky” in conjunction with reading this section of the report.  The movie does a good job of presenting the trade-off inherent to air-strike decisions, albeit in a form that must be more pristine than is typical in real world decisions.  The choice posed in the movie is:

a.  Destroy a house containing high-ranking terrorists who are in the middle of arming young recruits with suicide vests for an imminent attack.  Doing this will also kill and injure people within some radius of the surrounding the house, including a young girl.

b.  Do nothing, which entails a high likelihood of a large suicide attack in which many people will be killed.

The film is driven by debate over whether it is justifiable to sacrifice the girl in the interest of (probably) saving many more people.  (Everyone assumes that it’s fine to kill anyone in the terrorists’ house and the question of other nearby people [and property] is swept under the rug.)

The general contours of the “Basra suburb” situation are similar to the Eye-in-the-Sky scenario.

It is, perhaps, worth noting that al-Majid (hanged by the Iraqis in 2010) really was an atrocious character.  He spearheaded the gassing of the Kurds in the late 1980’s, signing a decree that ordered:

“Within their jurisdiction, the armed forces must kill any human being or animal present in these areas.”

That said, the immediate motivation for the Coalition’s assassination attempt seems to have been that al-Majid was a key military figure in the South.  Adam Ingram, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces explained:

As the Commander of the Southern Region [of Iraq] …Al-Majid was a key Iraqi military figure whose removal from command was expected to deliver considerable military advantage…thus ultimately minimising casualties on both sides.  The attack on the place where he was believed to be located was therefore entirely lawful.

I also suspect that al-Majid’s nickname plus the widespread, but false, belief that Iraq would use chemical weapons in its fight against the Coalition greased the wheels for the Coalition decision to attack the house they thought al-Majid was in.

Collateral damage was assessed just as it is in (the fictional) “Eye in the Sky.”  However, the outcome in the Basra suburb makes the movie look quaint.  The prediction is that an attack will kill 39 civilians (51 if done at night) plus whoever is in the house  with al-Majid.  (Again, there seems to be an assumption that co-habitants can be omitted from the moral calculus.)  Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon signed off on the attack which was presented with this trade-off, although in the event the average bomb size was reduced from the original proposal.

The strike wound up killing 10 members of an innocent family (the Hamoudi’s) but not al-Majid who may or may not have actually been there at the time.  The Hamoudi’s pressed for compensation to which Ingram responded that these killings were:

“…likely to have been the result of Coalition bombing aimed at General…Al Majid.  There as no deliberate targeting of your father’s home and the losses suffered by your family were quite unintended. I appreciate that this may be of very little comfort to you now.

… the Coalition does take every care to ensure that our military action avoids injury to civilian populations.  That said it is not possible to eliminate the risk to civilians entirely, but I hope you will understand that when civilians are injured or killed in this way, this is a tragic accident rather than a deliberate event.”


Ingram’s formulation is really confused and “Eye in the Sky” is helpful to see why this is the case.  None of the characters in the movie are portrayed as keen to take out the little girl.  So there is, indeed, a sense in which her killing is not deliberate. On the other hand, the air strike in the movie is launched with a clear understanding that the girl’s death is a likely outcome.  So, in another sense, she was intentionally killed.  In my opinion, there is no reasonable sense in which the killing of the girl in the movie can be viewed as a “tragic accident”.

The killing of the Hamoudi’s strikes me as essentially the same situation.  There was an internal discussion within the MoD about whether the missile that hit them was on-target or a stray but I don’t think this really matters.  Either way there is no reason to suppose that the Hamoudi’s were specifically targeted.  Nevertheless, their deaths can hardly be viewed as a surprising accident, given that the attack was predicted to kill 39 civilians.

Ultimately, the MoD stuck with its initial view that the attack was legal and took the further step of concluding that no compensation was owed to the Hamoudi’s. This brings me to my final two points:

  1.  So far as I can tell the actual outcome of the attack was not factored into the MoD’s final assessment of the attack’s legality.  They went into the attack thinking that there was a high enough probability of killing al-Majid that it would be OK to kill 39 civilians along the way.  They ended up killing 10 civilians but not al-Majid.  Does the initial judgment still cover this outcome?  (I’m not saying I agree with the initial moral calculus.  I’m just saying that it can’t then be stretched to cover any far-removed contingency.)
  2. Even if the attack was fully justified it doesn’t follow that there is now no need to compensate the families of the victims.  In other words, why shouldn’t the UK bear some of the cost of the collateral damage it inflicts?

PS – The US is an elephant in the room I haven’t yet figured out how to handle. The Chilcot report is about UK involvement in the Iraq war.  The US barely surfaces in the chapter on civilian casualties although, clearly, the US is a much more important player here than the UK is.  But I’m blogging on the Chilcot report so I’ll have to retain a UK focus.

PSS – I’m proud to announce that my posts on Chilcot are mirrored on the web site of Significance, a joint project of the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society.  It’s a great publication.  Check it out.


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