Earlier this month, the Department of Defense (DoD) released its 2020 annual report, as required by law, on civilian casualties from U.S. military operations including air strikes and ground missions. The report has given rise, as usual, to an important debate about the discrepancy between DoD figures and much higher estimates from civil society groups. In this article, I will not address those important ongoing concerns or the merits of the differing casualty count methodologies. Rather I’d like to shed light on a different type of collateral damage that has not been included in the Section 1057 reports to Congress and is arguably even less visible to the American public: U.S. damage to civilian objects.

According to DoD policy, and in accord with international law, collateral damage is defined as “unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time.” Civilian objects are often basic infrastructure and vital to society’s functions. Domestically, while we are currently debating the enormous importance of infrastructure investments; it is worth recognizing the impact of our military operations on the destruction of civilian infrastructure abroad. In armed conflict, examples of civilian objects (as long as they are not converted into a military purpose or use) may include mosques, schools, hospitals, farmland, apartment buildings, bridges, and the like. There are hard cases of what counts as civilian objects on the outer edges, but those debates should not trouble us here. The core and paradigmatic examples will suffice for the purposes of our discussion.

The law of armed conflict, as recognized by the DoD Law of War Manual, imposes a rule of proportionality that prohibits military strikes in which the expected harm to civilians is excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. For a war to be waged justly, this principle must be consistently applied to all military operations. However, without greater transparency on the full scope of collateral damage and additional targeting details, it is difficult for the American people to assess whether the U.S. military conducted these overseas military operations in accordance with the principle of proportionality.

What’s more, as with civilian casualty assessments, the question here is not simply about compliance with the laws of war. The American public deserves to know what human costs our military operations impose abroad, even if the each and every strike were perfectly legal. Indeed, some of the aggregate costs may not be captured by the law. But they are certainly captured by morality.

Aside from the just war moral imperative, there is also a compelling policy rationale to adhere to these principles. The DoD recognizes in (the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Methodology for Combat Assessment (CJCSI 3162.02) that the “perceived use of disproportionate force undermines support in the U.S., from coalition partners, and within the contested area.” The policy goes on to state “engagements that result in collateral damage negatively affect the ability of the joint force to achieve the commander’s objectives.” Therefore, DoD compliance with these principles is not only the right thing to do, it also contributes to sound strategy.

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Methodology the military commander is responsible to account for any unintentional or incidental injury or damage to civilians, noncombatants, or their property. In fact, the policy makes no distinction between damage to civilians or civilian objects in the requirements to assess and record collateral damage. Therefore, collateral damage to civilian objects must be accounted for by the responsible combatant commands, and more precisely these days, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command, the two geographic commands responsible for overseeing military operations in Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan.

To their credit, both USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM have issued monthly and quarterly updates on civilian casualty allegations, investigations, and determinations. However, especially for those of us with military experience in places like Mosul and Raqqa, conspicuously absent in these summaries are specifics on damage to civilian objects. For instance, in example 1 (see below), the civilian casualty summary quantifies the number of civilians unintentionally killed or wounded, but the assessment provides no determination on whether “the Hospital of Modern Medicine,” presumably a civilian object, was incidentally damaged in the air strike. In example 2 (see below), 14 civilians were unintentionally killed but the status of the “house” is still unclear. Was this an ISIS safehouse (and thus a military object) or a civilian home? And was the house damaged by the secondary ISIS vehicle-borne IED? And for both examples, did the military take feasible precautions (e.g., modify the weaponeering solution to limit its effects, maintain situational awareness of the surrounding collateral concerns, etc.) to mitigate the risk of collateral damage?

Without this additional information, it is impossible for the public to discern the full extent of collateral damage and whether sufficient due regard was taken during these operations.

Example 1: “July 15, 2017, near al Badou, Raqqah, Syria, via Airwars report. Coalition aircraft engaged four Daesh defensive fighting positions near the Hospital of Modern Medicine. Regrettably, 13 civilians were unintentionally killed and eight civilians were unintentionally wounded due to their proximity to the target location.” (Source: Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve Monthly Civilian Casualty Report, April 25, 2019)

Example 2: “March 1, 2017, near Mosul, Iraq, via media report: During a strike on an ISIS VBIED factory, it was assessed that the strike blast set off a secondary explosion of an ISIS VBIED parked next to a house down the street from the target location resulting in the unintentional death of 14 civilians.” (Source: Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve Monthly Civilian Casualty Report, April 30, 2017)

These are just two examples. Most other passages from the monthly CENTCOM civilian casualty reports do not even make mention of civilian objects. In the absence of any mention, should the public assume there was no damage to civilian objects? If not, where does the public go to receive this type of collateral damage information? As discussed above, the combatant commander is required to track and account for any collateral damage in their area of responsibility. Therefore, these records should exist, but if they do not, it’s concerning and could be a dereliction of duty if not worse.

What’s more, unless there are also reports of civilian casualties, just an allegation of damage to a civilian object will not be included in these CENTCOM or AFRICOM reports. For example, a mosque in Syria that is incidentally damaged, or even destroyed, from a nearby U.S. strike, with no civilian casualties, would not make it into these reports. This leads to an inescapable conclusion that the aggregate incidental damage to civilian homes, vehicles and critical infrastructure has remained a bit of a black box to the public.

As U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan wanes, the American people deserve a full account of the totality of collateral damage associated with U.S. military operations overseas. To remedy this glaring gap, Congress could fairly easily insist that all collateral damage be publicly reported going forward, and perhaps retroactively covering the last five years. Through greater DoD transparency on the full breadth of collateral damage, the public will be better informed of America’s share of responsibility in war-ravaged cities in Syria and Iraq.  Ultimately, this additional information could evince to the public, the care the U.S. military takes in preventing and mitigating collateral harm, both to civilians and civilian objects. Unfortunately, the Section 1057 and combatant command reports, as written, are incomplete and require too much guesswork. Congress and the American public are in the dark.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. 

Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty