On February 7, 1968, American bombs and rockets destroyed much of the South Vietnamese city of Ben Tre, killing between 500 and 1,000 civilians. Later that day, an unnamed American officer reportedly told AP reporter Peter Arnett that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The quote’s authenticity was later called into question, but not before it became famous, or infamous—it was the perfect description of what we were doing in Vietnam. Ben Tre had been infiltrated by Viet Cong fighters, and “allied commanders” decided, Arnett wrote, “that regardless of civilian casualties, they must bomb and shell the once placid river city of 35,000 to rout the Viet Cong forces.” They also routed the city’s inhabitants, creating, in addition to the dead, many thousands of refugees. Who, exactly, was saved?
Late in 2017, a group of AP reporters (Susannah George, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Maggie Michael, and Lori Hinnant) posted an account of the destruction of Mosul that consciously echoes the Ben Tre story. The headline was “Mosul is a graveyard: Final IS battle kills 9000 civilians.” As the battle raged, the four reporters wrote, “Iraqi officials and the U.S.-led coalition could see that civilian deaths were spiking, but [they] held the course. The result, in Mosul and later in [IS’s] Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, was a city left in ruins by the battle to save it.”
The Raqqa story is much the same. In mid-December, Alexandra Zavis reported in the Los Angeles Times that “As many as 80% of its homes and businesses were gutted by ground fighting and airstrikes. And vital infrastructure—electricity plants, water pumps, sewer lines, hospitals, schools—was destroyed.” Zavis apparently didn’t remember the Ben Tre quote, but here is another city destroyed by its saviors.
Many of the deaths in both cities were caused by the Islamist militants. The AP story describes the victims of beheadings and stonings in Mosul, the men accused of homosexuality who were flung from rooftops, and the murdered men, women, and children left behind in mass graves that have not yet been excavated (the 9,000 total doesn’t include them). But thousands of the dead were killed by American airstrikes and by artillery fire directed by American pilots. In Raqqa 400 American marines “provided artillery support.”
There must be a better way of fighting, but there isn’t much evidence of a serious effort to find it. In March 2017, after a single airstrike killed more than 100 civilians in Mosul, “the entire fight was put on hold for three weeks.” The “coalition” (the United States, Iraq, Britain, France, and Australia were the most heavily involved in the fighting) reviewed its strategy, and instructed Iraqi special forces that they were “no longer allowed to call in strikes on buildings. Instead, the forces were told to call in airstrikes on [adjacent] gardens and roads.” I doubt that this would have made much of a difference; in any case, nothing changed: Iraqi officers told the AP reporters that after the three-week pause, “they returned to the fight just as before.”
There is a team of Americans (seven of them, stationed in Kuwait) who are supposed to investigate allegations of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. None of them, according to the AP report, has set foot in Mosul or made any effort to collect physical evidence. “The Americans say they do not have the resources to send a team into Mosul.” The Associated Press does have the resources: “an AP reporter visited the [central] morgue six times in six weeks and spoke to morgue officials and staffers dozens of times in person and over the phone.”
A real investigation is critically important not only for the sake of truth-telling (the coalition acknowledges responsibility for only 326 casualties in Mosul) but also to find that better way of fighting. “Understanding how those civilians died,” says Chris Woods, head of Airwars, an independent organization that documents air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, “. . .could help save a lot of lives the next time something like this has to happen. And the disinterest in any sort of investigation is very disheartening.”
“Has to happen” is a strange phrase, but there is an argument implicit in it. Thus Col. Thomas Veale, a coalition spokesman: “Without the Coalition’s air and ground campaign . . . there would have inevitably been additional years, if not decades of suffering and needless death and mutilation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.” Well, yes, there are wars that need to be fought and the war against IS is probably one of them. But the way we fight is not inevitable; it is a matter for strategic, tactical, and moral decision.
The necessary decisions, no doubt, are many and complex. But one thing we know: if soldiers can call in an airstrike or an artillery barrage whenever they encounter enemy fire, combatant deaths will be minimized, but large numbers of civilians will die. So there is a question that has to be addressed: What risks can we ask our soldiers and our allies to accept in order to reduce the risks they impose on the civilian population? The way of war described in the stories coming out of Mosul and Raqqa (and in the story of Ben Tre) suggest that we aren’t facing up to that question. Until we do, until we recognize that there are some risks that must be accepted, some battles that must be fought on the ground before soldiers are allowed to call in massive destruction from afar, we will continue to live with the obscene unity of saving and destroying.
Michael Walzer is an emeritus editor of Dissent.