My Free Online Course is Ready and About to Launch!

Hello everyone.

I haven’t posted for a while, mainly because I’ve been completely swamped writing with creating my free online course  which launches on Monday.  

The course is on exactly the sort of material I cover on the blog so if you’re following the blog you should seriously consider signing up for the course.  It’s called:

“Accounting for Death in War: Separating Fact from Fiction”


New Paper on Accounting for Civilian War Casualties

Hello everybody.

The radio silence was much longer than intended but blog posts should start coming fast and furious now.  I’ve got a lot I want to get off my chest as soon as possible.

Let’s get the ball rolling with a new paper I have with Nicholas Jewell and Britta Jewell.  (Well, to be honest, it isn’t really a brand new paper but it’s newly accepted at a journal and we’re now putting it into the public domain.)

I dare say that this paper is a very readable introduction to civilian casualty recording and estimation, that is, to most of the subject matter of the blog.  I hope you will all have a look.

And, please, send in your comments..

More soon…..

PS – Here is an alternative link to the paper in case the first one doesn’t work for you.


Targeting Terrorists and Near Certainty

The American Civil Liberties Union had a successful FOIA request that yielded a document explaining how the Obama Administration approves actions to kill suspected terrorists.  I learned about the release from this good article.

What follows are just my personal angles, not a comprehensive treatment of the document.

First, I don’t know why these policies haven’t been in the public domain from the get go.  And given that they were kept secret in the first place I don’t know why the Administration fought this in court rather than just coughing up the document when the FOIA arrived.  There is some blacked out material in the document but nothing in the actual release needs to be secret.

Second, this document is commonly described as the “drone playbook” and this is probably a reasonable way to think of it but, so far as I can tell, the policies apply generally to anti-terrorist actions, not only to drone strikes.

Third, I’m really struck by the constant use of the term “near certainty” which appears eight times in eighteen pages.  For example, two prerequisites for green-lighting an attack are near certainty that the target is there and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”

Despite the legalistic nature of the document I don’t see a definition of “near certainty.”  To me it would imply that air attacks should rarely fail to hit their intended targets and civilian casualties should also be rare – maybe in one strike out of a hundred there could be civilian casualties or the target could turn out to be somewhere else.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even describe ninety-nine in a hundred as “near certainty”.  Before crossing the street I expect near certainty that I won’t get struck by a car. If I had only 99% certainty of crossing safely then I’d get hurt within a matter of weeks.

I am skeptical that there are many, if any, air strikes that are conducted under conditions of near certainty.  I can seriously entertain the possibility that US planners of air attacks are surprised in cases when the target is not there or when civilians are harmed.  But are these planners dumbfounded every time a drone strike goes awry as would be implied by the “near certainty” standard?  I doubt it.


Indeed, Chris Woods of Airwars just wrote this in the New York Times:

Official White House data on counterterrorism actions in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere show civilians dying on average once every seven airstrikes.

I believe that Chris’ claim comes from here.  This official document says there have been 473 air strikes against terrorists and between 64 and 116 civilian deaths in these strikes. This averages out at one death per 7 airstrikes or one death per 4 airstrikes depending on whether you take the minimum or the maximum number of officially acknowledged civilian deaths (and Chris says there have been many unacknowledged civilian deaths as well).  Plus there must have been many civilian injuries.

This really doesn’t sound to me like near certainty that there will be no civilian casualties in antiterrorist air strikes.

Fourth, the document giving the official numbers on antiterrorist air strikes seems to have another inconsistency with the document spelling out the policies governing these strikes.  The policy document brings to mind a room filled with lawyers and policy experts deliberating on the individuals “nominated” to be targeted.  (Are they really terrorists?  Is it possible to capture them rather than killing them?  Is waiting a viable option?). But the numbers documents says that 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed in the 473 strikes.  Did the experts really know who all these people were and deliberate carefully on each one of them?  I doubt it.

I could only speculate on who is fooling whom here so I won’t do it.  But I don’t feel like the Obama Administration has really been following its stated guidelines on actions against terrorist targets.

New B’Tselem Report on Operation Protective Edge…and a Critic who Fires Blanks at B’Tselem

B’Tselem is one of the finest casualty recording organisations in the world so the recent publication of its report on Operation Protective Edge (July 8 – August 26, 2014) is an important moment for the field.  The report is simultaneously very good and very brief so I urge everyone to have a look.

There is a well-organised interactive page that lists each person killed (Palestinians and Israelis) by name, age and gender.  This page also provides the date, location and circumstance of each death.

A special feature of the report is that victims are classified according to whether or not they participated in hostilities (with this category sometimes left empty).  To make these calls B’Tselem looks for evidence that a victim either belonged to a combat organisation or was fighting when he/she was killed.  (See the methodology page for details).

B’Tselem clearly puts considerable effort into making and explaining their useful “participation in hostilities” classifications.  It is, therefore, frustrating to see Ben-Dror Yemini dismiss all this hard work and declare that of the 1,394 people killed while not participating in hostilities (according to B’Tselem) “the vast majority of those killed are fighters.”

How does Yemini back up his strong claim?

To see just how farfetched the NGO’s claims are, one need only look at the very data it provides, including the gender and age of each fatality. Let’s leave for a moment the group of 808 fatalities that even B’Tselem graciously admits were terrorists. We’re left with 1,394. If they were indeed all innocents, killed as a result of indiscriminate or random fire, the age distribution would be identical, or at the very least close, to the age distribution in the Gaza Strip.

But lo and behold, it turns out that the real statistics are quite different. Among those defined as innocents between the ages of 18-32, 275 are men and 127 are women. Among all fatalities aged 18-59, 1,296 are men and 247 are women. Five times(!) more men than women. Such high numbers of fighting-aged men, compared to such small numbers of women from the same age group do not point toward randomness. Such a discrepancy could not have occurred if indisriminate fire towards population centers had actually taken place.

Oh dear…..we’ve been here before.  I’m a bit embarrassed to even take this seriously but such misconceptions appear to be common so they can’t be overlooked.

From this 9/11 page we learn that:

The victims were overwhelmingly male (about 75 percent), young (many under 40, most under 50),…

Aha – on 9/11 Al-Qaeda mainly attacked fighters!  There can be no benign reason why the Twin Towers were so packed full of young males.

Indeed, in this paper we found that about 80% of the people killed by suicide bombs in Iraq were adult males (at least out of the ones for which we could find victim demographics).  It appears that Iraqi open-air markets are also packed full of legitimate targets.

OK, it’s obvious why Twin-Tower demographics didn’t match those of America as a whole but what about open-air markets in Iraq?   The answer is almost surely that women and children are generally kept away from such places since they are potential targets for suicide bombers and other attacks.

Let me by crystal clear so as to avoid misinterpretations.  I do not think that the Twin Towers were filled with fighters.  I do not think that open air markets in Iraq are filled with fighters.  And I do not think that most adult males in Gaza are fighters.  Moreover, when B’Tselem investigates and finds that a particular victim did not participate in hostilities I will not overturn this judgement just because that person was an adult male.

I’m hoping that people will pay attention to this post and stop making such wrong headed claims about adult males as a whole…at least until I reach my 60th birthday.



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.