The Death of Innocents

A look at the silent suffering of those caught in the crossfire

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby

The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars by Nick McDonell; Blue Rider Press, 291 pp., $28

An American covering a foreign war is only as good as his fixer—typically a local reporter who acts as a guide and interpreter. In The Bodies in Person, journalist and novelist Nick McDonell employs a host of them, as well as an independent fact checker and outside translation and transcription services. Backed up by this infrastructure, McDonell writes that his intention is to “scrub my voice as much as possible from the pages.” In the first 50 pages or so, he succeeds, disappearing from view in order to permit the dramatic events he describes to speak for themselves. The result is some of the finest war reporting by an American that I have ever read.

He begins his account in Mosul, Iraq, during last year’s ferocious house-to-house combat between ISIS fighters and the Iraqi army, trying to retake the city. McDonell has attached himself to a team of Iraqi civil defense workers, who, like the White Helmets in neighboring Syria, risk their lives by rushing to the front lines in order to rescue trapped survivors and recover the remains of the dead.

In scenes sharpened by compression, McDonell introduces us to men like Lt. Col. Rabih Ibrahim Hassan, a bucktoothed commander who cajoles and sometimes prevaricates to get to neighborhoods where civilians lie under the rubble of American airstrikes. In Rabih’s reports, he even adjusts the timing of some deaths so that surviving family members will receive the financial reimbursement they deserve from the Iraqi government, which all too often finds ways to delay and reduce payments.

After sunset, Rabih and his fellow officer Qusay tour the Mosul neighborhoods where, McDonell writes, “a stink of bodies still spices the cool night.” The other members of Rabih’s team watch TV, eat, gossip, joke, and dream while nearby, “men and women beneath the rubble pray in darkness.”

When morning comes, the rescue workers, unarmed and rarely paid, advance through sniper and mortar fire. The stories they bring back from these forays—and then share with one another at night—are heartrending, like the one about the father who fled an aerial bombardment during which one of his two sons was killed and the other knocked unconscious. The father dug a shallow grave for his dead son before racing the other one to safety, only to discover that the dead son was in his arms. In his grief and confusion, he had buried the living one by mistake.

Later, McDonell visits the site of an American airstrike in Mosul that has left two ISIS snipers and 105 civilians dead. U.S. Central Command blamed the civilian deaths on hidden IEDs in the building that housed the snipers, but when McDonell’s book was published, a full report of the incident was still not available online.

When McDonell takes on this question of civilian deaths, he grapples not only with specific incidents, but with the larger, persistent questions that emerge from them: how the United States tabulates civilian deaths in wartime, what can be done to minimize them, and ultimately, what a human life is worth. [According to a Government Accountability Office report, in Iraq the answer is up to $2,500 for each civilian death, $1,500 for people seriously injured, and $200 for minor injuries.]

In December 2016, McDonell visits an American tactical operations center in Afghanistan, where he meets young service men and women who search for enemy targets on video screens and then call in airstrikes by drones or fighter planes. They employ something called Collateral Damage Estimate Methodology, which results in the building of “target packets” that meet a series of criteria, including positive identification, before the strikes are called in.

The target this time is a man digging a hole, perhaps for a bunker, an “established fighting position.” Five other men lounge or stand around him as he digs. Then the digger picks up a rifle and fires it at a nearby Afghan National Army outpost. Both he and the apparently unarmed men around him are now officially enemy combatants.

The American targeteers grow quiet at their screens. They are from places like Gardner, Kansas, and Biloxi, Mississippi. The best targeteer, from Biloxi, had been a dishwasher before he enlisted. The intelligence contractor, a woman from Crane, Missouri, had worked as a television actress in civilian life. But the chaplain at the tactical operations center could reasonably lay claim to the most unusual civilian occupation: a bouncer at an Alabama strip club.

Once the team’s strike on the bunker is approved by command in Kabul, the general at the tactical operations center “gives the okay,” and a $20,000 missile fired from an American warplane hits the target. “On-screen, the explosions resemble red flowers,” McDonell writes.

Combatant kill numbers are hard to pin down. Most targeteers do not like to share them. Before McDonell leaves the center, though, one of them privately reveals that, so far, he alone has killed 136 people.

The casualty numbers for civilians are even more difficult, if not impossible, to find. A case in point is what might have been Afghanistan’s deadliest instance of civilian casualties, which occurred when a NATO airstrike targeted a group of Taliban fighters in the village of Sar Baghni in 2007. Local Afghans said the strike also killed hundreds of innocent villagers, but shortly after the attack, a U.S. spokeswoman said that there was no evidence of civilian casualties at all.

Unsatisfied with the military’s response, McDonell hires several men to interview residents of the area in order to learn the names of people who were killed. He eventually compiles a list of 234 names, only to discover, through leaked classified documents, that the U.S. government had paid a total of $836,722 to the families of 358 dead civilians.

But at no time, he writes, has the United States publicly acknowledged these deaths.

In February 2016, McDonell’s persistence in tracking civilian casualties takes him to the emergency room of a Baghdad teaching hospital, where the chief resident tells him “casualties arrive every day” and “mass casualties about once a week.” McDonell watches as “a young doctor in smudged glasses peer[s] into the back of a man’s open skull.” The man, a combatant, dies of his wounds, as does a noncombatant woman of a heart condition that might have been successfully treated if not for the stress placed on already taxed hospital resources by high numbers of patients wounded in shootings and bombings—examples, McDonell writes, of excess mortality, “deaths that wouldn’t have happened without the war.” In 2006, a study funded by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University, and published in The Lancet, found that, during the first three years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, an estimated 650,000 Iraqi deaths could be ascribed to excess mortality.

McDonell then introduces us to another term, the Non-Combatant Casualty Cutoff Value (NCV), which refers to the number of civilian casualties tolerated during a particular military action. In Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman puts that number at “one innocent per twenty combatants killed,” ignoring that such a limit is “meaningless,” as McDonell notes, when the Taliban attacks civilian targets. Meanwhile, an American colonel points McDonell to the example of Osama bin Laden, suggesting that five dead civilians would have been acceptable in order to kill him, and a former American targeting officer tells McDonell, over coffee at a Starbucks in Pleasantville, New York, that 20 civilians killed in every aerial bombing in Baghdad would have been a tolerable number.

Ultimately, McDonell writes, “the actual number of civilian casualties America has caused … is known only to its military.” But he adds that the Coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria reveal that “the United States was willing to tolerate the incidental killing of 112 innocent Iraqis or Syrians per 1 innocent American killed by terrorists.” So how does America value foreign lives against its own? For McDonell, the answer is simple: “It values them less.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Dennis Covington, who died in April 2024, was the author of six books, including Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the National Book Award. His final book was Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World.


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