The Danger Of The D.O.D’s Civilian Casualty Count

On May 6th, the Department of Defense (D.O.D) released its annual report on “Civilian Casualties in Connection With U.S. Military Operations.”  Within this report, the D.O.D  suggested that civilian deaths caused by U.S. military operations occurred only in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The D.O.D also claimed that there were no civilian deaths caused by Americans in Yemen or Libya, and that the U.S. military had only killed 132 civilians in 2019. Most importantly, the D.O.D claims within the document that it evaluates “all reports of civilian casualties.” Although the D.O.D claims to report an accurate number of civilian casualties, it is evident that the report’s projections are gravely inaccurate.

The National Defense Authorization Act (Fiscal Year 2018) requires the D.O.D to submit the report every year. Despite the importance of producing an annual casualty report, the skewed nature of the D.O.D’s 2019 report is problematic. The claim that U.S. military operations in Yemen have not caused civilian deaths may be true in the strictest sense. The report does analyze U.S. military actions against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Yemen. However, any close inspection of the U.S.’ actions in Yemen clearly shows the U.S.’ complicity in hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian deaths. Airstrikes in Yemen from the Saudi-led coalition are directly supported by the United States by supplying equipment, training, munitions, and technical support. These attacks have reportedly killed over 4,500 civilians. Despite this, the D.O.D’s report makes it seem as if the U.S. had no role in these deaths.

Another inaccurate claim made in the report is that the U.S. only caused a total of 132 civilian deaths in 2019. Amnesty International (A.I.) issued a scathing response to this claim, stating that there were several examples of the D.O.D ignoring death toll reports or treating credible death toll reports as illegitimate. For example, A.I. reports having testimonial evidence from experts that ties U.S. airstrikes to more deaths in Somalia than reported. The D.O.D denies these allegations and has not yet chosen to publicly recognize the U.S.’ role in the death of many civilians. Due to the ignorance of the U.S. military, thousands of family members and friends of those killed by the U.S. military have not been given the reparations or closure that they deserve.

The D.O.D must finally take responsibility for the death of these civilians and commit to accurately reporting casualties in their annual report. The key to accurately estimating civilian deaths is increasing U.S. military transparency. Congress should first establish an independent agency charged with overseeing the D.O.D and military actions. Further, Congress should require the agency staff to be independent of its military, including members of the D.O.D or armed forces. The government should require the agency to report regularly on potential areas in which civilian casualties could be a result of U.S. actions. The U.S. government should also strive to create an independent committee that is in charge of the annual civilian casualties report. The committee would hold formal hearings for any claim of a civilian death brought to it. The committee’s deliberations should be done publicly, and its decisions should be announced publicly as well. These reforms will drastically improve the transparency of U.S. military operations, and improve the U.S. government’s process in determining responsibility for civilian deaths overseas. As a result, more families will find themselves with closure and appropriate reparations for their losses.

Christopher Eckert