My guest today is Marc Garlasco, who began his career as the Chief of High Value Targeting at the Pentagon between 1997 and 2003 where he led targeting teams during operations Iraqi Freedom, Desert Fox, and Allied Force. Marc later worked in senior roles at Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and the Centre for Naval Analyses.
Throughout his time, he has worked in Afghanistan, Gaza, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, and other conflict zones. He is a co-author of the ICRC report on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, and a co-host of the excellent The Civilian Protection Podcast that tells the story of those harmed by war, but whose voices are rarely heard.
Marc is currently the military advisor at PAX, the largest peace organisation in the Netherlands and works to protect civilians against acts of war, to end armed violence and to build inclusive peace. Some of the topics we covered are:
- Marc’s journey into targeting
- Developing a picture of Iraq
- 9/11 and (absence of) link to Iraq
- Deliberate vs dynamic targeting
- The failed targeting of Saddam
- Why targeting fails
- Incentives vs intelligence
- Impact of ‘humane’ war
- How a Collateral Damage Estimate (CDE) is conducted
- Reconciling the fact that not all lives are worth the same
- Use of drones and accuracy of battle damage estimates
- Changing policy to reduce civilian harm
- Building bridges between NGOs and the military
- Impact of our wars on soldiers fighting them
Marc and I discussed The Civilian Protection Podcast, of which he is a co-host. You can access all episodes of this excellent project here.
Marc also mentioned the upcoming release of a US Department of Defence Memorandum, to be signed by the Secretary of Defence, that will direct the development of a comprehensive plan to mitigate and respond to civilian harm. That memo has now been released and is worth reading. You can find it here.
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Marc Garlasco – War Through The Eyes Of A Pentagon Chief Of High Value Targeting
My guest is Marc Garlasco, the Military Advisor at PAX, the largest peace organisation in the Netherlands that works to protect civilians against Acts of War to end armed violence and build inclusive peace. Marc has put his long career between the military and human rights spheres, where he has strived to bridge the gap between the two communities. He began his career as the Chief of High-Value Targeting for the Pentagon between 1997 and 2003, where he led targeting teams during operations of Iraqi Freedom, Desert Fox, and Allied Force.
Marc later worked in senior roles at Human Rights Watch, to United Nations, and the Centre for Naval Analyses. Throughout his time, he worked in Afghanistan, Gaza, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, and other conflict zones. He’s a co-author of the ICRC report on explosive weapons in populated areas. Since the middle of 2021, Marc is also a co-host of the excellent The Civilian Protection Podcast, which tells the story of those harmed by war but whose voices are rarely heard. Marc joins me to speak about the targeting process, harm to civilians, and unseen costs of war. Marc, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
It’s my pleasure, Maz. Thanks for having me.
I’m speaking to another podcaster, which is an interesting experience for me. Don’t hold any faux pas against me. Before we get into your extensive career and some of the experiences you’ve had, maybe we can start with how you first got into the Pentagon and why targeting. How did life lead you down that path?
I fell into it, to be honest with you. In graduate school, I got my Master’s degree at the Elliot School of International Affairs at GW in Washington, DC. One of the fellows who was a year ahead of me, a friend of mine, was working in the Pentagon at the Defence Intelligence Agency. One of the things you’re doing when you’re in university is you’re looking for a job. We got to chatting, and he said, “We’re going to be doing a big hiring push.” I said, “Here’s my resumé.” I threw my resumé in the hat, and lo and behold, they gave me a ring. I went in and had the interview and absolutely crashed and burned. I walked away without a job.
I then got a ring from another division. I went in and hit that one out of the park. I did quite well and got the job. I have to say I started out in something that I had no business being in. I began working in information operations. There is a lot of computer network attack and defence, and that’s not my forte. After about a year, I transitioned and started working in more of a leadership analysis role. I got into doing leadership analysis at Defence Intelligence Agency, which is right across the river from the Pentagon.
Everyone knows the way that the US intelligence community works. The Defence Intelligence Agency is basically the intelligence for the military for the Pentagon. It’s a national level, whereas the Central Intelligence Agency provides intelligence to civilian leadership like the president. DIA does that for the joint chiefs of staff and the military and whatnot. The DIA is headquartered in the Pentagon, but there’s not enough space there. It’s a mighty big building. The intel folks, most of them are across the river in Bolling Air Force base.
I started working there on leadership, and I lucked into some hot accounts. I started working in leadership in Serbia, and that’s when Allied Force started. I was on a battle damage assessment team. I did targeting in the conflict against Serbia, and then I went to Kosovo after the war. It was finished in August of ‘99. That was my first experience on the ground, seeing what happens and the reality of war, and going there and conducting a battle damage assessment. I then transitioned to the Iraq account.
As an ethnic Bosnian, somebody who’s been directly impacted by the Balkan Wars. When you say the leadership of Serbia, what does that mean for the uneducated audience? What do you mean when you were doing an analysis of leadership?
When you’re doing that, you’re trying to find, fix, locate, and determine where important individuals in a country’s leadership are going to be should National Command Authority decide to target them during a conflict. We’re talking about Slobodan Milošević, the security forces that kept him in power, the telecommunications infrastructure he communicated through, a number of the leaders in the Serbian intelligence forces, military forces, etc. That was what I did for Allied Forces.When analysing a government leadership in conflict zones, you are trying to find, fix, locate and determine the country’s most important individuals should the National Command Authority decide to target them. Click To Tweet
As part of the bombing campaign, in that instance, you weren’t part of the targeting team. You were part of the analysis that was feeding information into the targeting. Is that how that would’ve worked?
We were making target recommendations. We were providing recommendations to EUCOM, European Command, which was conducting the conflict, everything from telecommunications. For example, if we got a request that said, “We want to stop Milošević from speaking to his military forces in this area, how do we do it?” The reply would be something like, “You want to take down these ten telecom towers simultaneously, and then you work with the weaponeers to try to determine what the proper munitions are for it. You work through the collateral damage assessment, etc.” You work very closely with the targeting individual.
That’s what that was. I was on the battle damage assessment team and then went to Kosovo. I went to the ground. It was quite amazing to me because it set my career up for the future because I had my list of targets, and we were going site to site. You have your GPS coordinates, this is what the target was, and this was the munition. We would get to a site, conduct some interviews, look through the area, and see if the weapon had functioned properly. Was the function of the facility destroyed or partially destroyed, etc.? I asked my boss, “Where do we put the CIVCAS? Where do we put the civilians?”
He said, “We don’t do that. We don’t do body counts.” I thought that was part of the deal or the whole equation. I was quite surprised because I thought if we do this different analysis and say X number of civilians are going to be killed in a strike, does anyone ever go and check to see if those many civilians were killed? If it’s a lot fewer, you could maybe use bigger bombs, more bombs, or be more destructive. However, if there are more civilians killed, you need to take more precautions, and we need to learn some things. That set me up where I started to think about things like that.
I’m going to include Australia here because NATO may be writ large and partners. Why was this not part of the calculation at that point in time?
Looking back, I’ve never gotten a good answer to it. I can tell you that now they certainly do not do very well, and I can talk to a lot of the details of that, but it sets things up as I move toward the Iraq account. Now we’re talking as the US was continuing to fight Iraq. Let’s not forget that, at that time, you had what was known as ONW and OSW, Operation Northern Watch, and Southern Watch. A lot of people don’t think about it, but Iraq was being bombed by the US fairly regularly in the North and South prior to the 2003 war. These were regular operations that were ongoing.
Maybe touch on that because I can’t say I’m familiar with that myself, so I’d imagine many people wouldn’t be.
When the Gulf War was completed, I would say Saddam was given the ability writ large to operate within the centre of the country. However, in the North, where the Kurds were, and then in the South, where you had a Shia minority, an umbrella of US Airpower was placed over those areas. A lot of the targeting that occurred was telecommunications facilities and things of that nature. Some air defence was regularly hit. There was Operation Northern Watch and Southern Watch. It was this continuing bombing campaign of Iraq. It’s a very low scale but still significant.
It’s still against Saddam and his forces to the North and South.
Should he ever decide to, again, go forth and do evil things? At that time, I had completely transitioned to the Iraq account, and we had Desert Fox, which was a weekend thing around Thanksgiving in the States. It was part of the dog issue with President Clinton and his issues with Monica Lewinsky, where he decided to go and bomb a rock for a weekend. I began with that conflict to start working on better understanding Saddam Hussein, his security apparatus, the facilities, etc. My boss at that time left, so I was promoted into, very luckily, a hut account.
I moved over to the Pentagon and worked on the joint staff. At that time, I was going around as necessary, flying around the world when the CIA would bring defectors out. I would go and interview defectors and develop what we called, and it’s a silly name, target jackets. You have your targeting matrix of the building, what there is, what it’s constructed of, who’s there, when, and what types of munitions are most likely going to be used against or are recommended.
I was preparing for a war that I honestly never thought was going to happen. I was going around, interviewing folks, and trying to understand Saddam Hussein and the specialist security organisation, which was his highest leadership security folks, the real knuckle dragger bad guys that you don’t want to get involved with.
Saddam’s son was in charge of those. The Iraqi Intelligence Service was on my list, the Ba’ath Party and various government entities. I went around meeting with a lot of folks and developing this. I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, and then immediately after 9/11, I was called into my boss’s office on the joint staff. He said to me, “I need you to go, sit down, and meet with the main analyst for counterterrorism head, and I need you to put together a paper with her on the linkages between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.”
I’m looking at him, going, “I’m done. There’s no link.” He’s like, “No. You need to actually go and do research.” I explained to him, “I’ve been following Saddam Hussain now for a number of years. I can tell you where he’s been at any moment.” Predicting where he is going to be is a little harder. That’s not what you’re going to do in Intel, but I could tell you a whole lot about him. Not only there is there no relationship to Al Qaeda, but they did not see eye to eye, let’s say.
I went and met her. We spent about a week on it. We put together a white paper, and it never went anywhere. The next thing I know, things start moving. Obviously, the conflict in Afghanistan was rolling, and then there was this real big push for Iraq. I was called in to brief Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld and provide information on Saddam, the leadership, and targeting issues. It became very clear to me that we were heading into the Gulf War.
Even back then, you made it quite clear that there are no links. Twenty years later, we can comfortably say it was all a past. How did you feel back then, and how do you feel now that you were briefing some senior leaders? You could read between the lines even back then. How did that sit you?
I left for the human rights launch. How did I deal with it? In 2002, we were conducting the targeting.
This is pre-invasion, right?
Yes. Let me set the scene for you. There’s deliberate targeting and dynamic targeting. Deliberate targeting is when you take time to put together a prioritised list of targets to meet a commander’s intent. Those targets will be attacked off of a joint target list in a phased conflict at certain times for certain effects. What I mean is that you may need to drop a certain building before another because it has a telecommunications part to it that you need to take out first, or there’s an individual that you need to have killed at a certain time.
When you say phases of the war, as with the actual advancing military, you might do various attacks throughout those various phases, whether it’s the preliminary phase. When you’re setting the scene, you might target particular things, and then as the troops on the ground, you might target different things in support of, as you said, the commander’s intent to achieve an effect on the ground to support the ultimate invasion that was going on. Right?
Absolutely. That’s precisely what we were doing. In 2002, we were putting together that initial target list where we were racking and stacking targets saying, “When the bubble goes off, these are, out of the first few dozen targets, the vast majority of them were on my list.” Clearly, Air Defence is going to go down, and you’re going to hit different radar installations and whatnot, but key leadership targets were right at the top of the list. We were doing deliberate targeting. We went to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in the US. We sat down and had DOD, DIA people, CIA, National Security Agency, UK, and US Air Force Navy, everybody.
It was a huge mass. You’re going through the target list, and they would put up an image of the target. We would have the DMPIs, which is Desired Mean Point of Impact. It is the little X’s on the target, which is where you want the bombs to go. We worked through the deliberate targeting. When we completed the deliberate targeting in 2002, we had approximately 300 targets considered high collateral damage targets. Things have changed. I can speak to that, but at that time, high collateral was considered to be 30 civilians or more.
For every target that we had over 30 civilians or more, we had to go to National Command Authority for their authorisation. That means either President Bush or Secretary Rumsfeld had to personally sign off on that, and there was no way we were going to send them 300 targets. We worked with the weaponeers, which are the people that determine the proper munition and munition settings for the weapon. We changed certain parameters, like the time of day.
If you drop a bomb at night, you’re less likely to kill civilians. We changed the angle of attack. It can be very important because when the weapon impacts the debris from the weapon, it is going to flow in a certain direction. That can have a great impact on civilian harm. For example, there was one target that we struck that was across the street from a maternity hospital. We hit it with about 1,800 pounds of high explosives and no one in the hospital.
That’s a number of bombs, right?
That is. It was nine 2,000-pound bombs. We went through all of that, but that’s the deliberate targeting phase. The war then kicked off, and I was not in support of it, to say the least. I remember on the eve of the conflict, I spoke to my colleague at the CIA, who was the main leadership targeting person there and led their high-value targeting team. I said, “As a matter of fact, I believe what she said to me. We are about to do this, and I can’t believe it. I don’t know why.” We had this conversation about how absolutely unnecessary this whole conflict was.
At any rate, even on the inside, there were massive concerns and questions. The policymakers made their decision, and you moved forward, but I could not support the conflict. I did not support the war in Iraq. I was very interested in getting out and finding another job. I was very lucky to be hired by Human Rights Watch, but the hiring process took quite a long time, and they dragged their feet on it.
They ended up offering me the position as the war was kicking off. I said to them, “I’m sorry. If you want me, I want to come and work for you. You’re going to have to wait until at least the main combat operations are completed.” It’s because I felt like I had a responsibility to the civilians on the ground, the pilots who were going to fly the missions.
If you’re going to call strikes in, you’re putting someone’s life at risk. Maybe there’s some hubris involved, but I felt that they were going to pull some warm body in. That’s what the military does. You, you need somebody, and somebody leaves. We’re going to throw some warm body in, and they’re going to run it. I felt like nobody knew this target set like I did. I’m going to fight for and fight against certain targets. I talked back to radio television Sprska. Back when that was struck, I was a part of the targeting team that argued against it.
We initially had it removed from the target list. This was during the war in Kosovo in ‘99. My team argued against it. We presented our arguments to European Command, and they removed it from the target list. It was a television station. It was civilian in nature. EUCOM was very concerned with propaganda. We worked with the lawyers, and there were a number of lawyers that were concerned that this was not a lawful target because of its civilian nature, but some obviously supported it. We went in a different way. We explained that if you take RTS down, they’re going to reconstitute their capabilities within about 72 hours.
I was quite amazed that we were wrong. They reconstituted in about eight hours, and our RTS was hit about a week after we had it taken off the target list. It was one of those things where you do the best you can. That was my thinking going into the Iraq conflict. I want to be there because I’m going to fight for some of these targets and fight against others. You need to have that dissenting voice. I stayed there up until after the Saddam statue fell. We were working incredibly long hours. We had cots in the building, sleeping in the Pentagon. Folks were sleeping at the CIA and NSA and making target recommendations.
It’s quite interesting. I changed the shift from deliberate targeting to dynamic targeting. Dynamic targeting is the phase where things are moving quickly. You may have your deliberate target, like some intelligence centre or Saddam’s palace, but once the bubble goes up, those people all move somewhere. They become dynamic targets because they’re mobile. You’re tracking them live. You’re trying to find them and engage them. My daughter, Emily, was born the week before the war, and I was home. I told my boss, “I got to take some paternity leave.” He thought I was absolutely nuts. I said to him, “It’s fine. The war is not scheduled until Saturday. Let me take the week. I’ll come in on Friday night. We’ll be ready to go.”
That sentence, “The war is not scheduled until Saturday,” is incredible.
It bit me in the ass because then I got a phone call. I think it was a Wednesday when the war started. I’m sure somebody will fact-check me. I got a phone call, and it was my boss. He says, “Come in right now.” I was frozen. I thought, “Crap.” I went to my wife and said, “I have to go into the Pentagon right now.” She looked at me and said, “The war is starting.” I said, “Don’t say anything to anyone.” I got in my car and drove to the Pentagon up the George Washington Parkway. As I’m going, I’m listening to the radio.
At one point, they break in. They go, “Special news bulletin. War in Iraq,” and they start describing this attack. I’m like, “I know all the targets, but what are we bombing?” I’m listening and thinking, “That sounds like the Judea Peninsula,” which is South of the Presidential palace. I’m going through my head and all the targets on Judea Peninsula.
I’m like, “Why would we hit Judea Peninsula?” Saddam’s kids’ palaces are there. They have a family compound. I’m thinking, “Why would we hit this?” They’re talking about Saddam being targeted, and there was a bunker. I’m thinking to myself, “There’s no bunker.” I get into the Pentagon. I was working in the NMJIC, the National Military Joint Intelligence Centre.
The way it works is the 2 is the intel side, and the 3 is the operational side. The NMJIC is next to the tank, the nickname for the operations guys. I went into the two, which were buried in the building. It’s air-gapped because of all the intelligence stuff that you’ve got and whatnot. We’re underground. I go down, and I go into my boss. I’m like, “What did we hit?” He said, “We hit Dora Farm.”
That changed the war for me because, now, all of a sudden, I had to remove a number of targets off of the JTL, which is a Joint Target List. If Saddam had been dead, the war would have been completely different. There are buildings that, if you take them down, you’re going to have to rebuild them. The war changed dramatically.
At that point, I switched completely to dynamic targeting, and we were going after Saddam Hussein. My group is the high-value targeting cell. There was the high-value targeting cell in the Pentagon. You had one at NSA, one at CIA, and one at CENTCOM forward, which was in Doha. They were the decision-makers.
We were providing targeting recommendations. We were doing VTCs at that time, Video Teleconferences. Two a day and on the phone all the time. We’re looking at satellite imagery and Blue Force Tracker, which tells you where forces are. We’re trying to listen into comms from the enemy and whatnot and try to understand where Saddam was. We ended up taking 50 shots at Saddam Hussein from Dora Farm up until April 7th or something like that.
It’s a fairly short time period. We took 50 shots at him, and we only killed civilians. Not a single target was killed that we were trying to hit. I’m looking at the famous deck of cards with Saddam, his sons, and all these other people on it. Every day, I get up at 4:00 AM in the building to go in and brief the two, the general in charge of intel, who’s then going to go in and brief Rumsfeld. Every day, he asks me, “Did you get anybody on the blacklist?” We called the leadership for Iraq the blacklist. We finally had somebody the second weekend, and he was so down the totem pole. The Marines or the Army killed him in some armoured pitched battle.
We had nothing to do with it. At any rate, it was a real lesson in this targeting from afar and thinking that you have all of the answers. In fact, you have very few answers, if any at all. Once the statue fell, I went in the next day. I planned my last bombing mission. I made target recommendations. I worked with the weaponeers.
The next day, I flew to New York and went to Human Rights Watch. They put me on a plane to Kuwait. I got to Kuwait and met my new colleagues. I got into a car and drove into a rock. A couple of days later, I kid you not, I was standing in a crater that I had helped plan and talking to the sole survivor of two families. About nineteen people were killed.
They are non-combatants or civilians.
It was a doctor.
You had been in charge of that operation weeks before.
I have been providing target recommendations for it. At that time, intel looked good. I remember I watched the actual strike. It was in Basra, which was UK territory, and we were attacking Chemical Ali, who was Saddam’s cousin. He’s no doubt a war criminal. He had been in charge of gassing the Kurds back in 1988, and the on-file campaign had a lot of blood on his hands. We thought that he was there and he wasn’t.
The fellow who survived is this old man, maybe in his 70s. I remember when I was speaking to him, I couldn’t stop looking at his hands because they were gnarled, and his fingernails were worn down and bloodied. This is a week later. He had been digging out the body of his son and his grandchildren. It was utterly heartbreaking.
I can’t even imagine the horror that he has experienced as somebody who’s innocent. I can’t imagine what he felt when his entire family was deleted. We will touch on that because the impact of the bonds is definitely something I’d like to touch on. Before we get to that, there is something that I’ve wanted to understand for years now.
As a member of the military myself and somebody who has had some cursory exposure to the targeting process, at least in support of the intelligence piece as a collector, 50 attempts at one target, 0 out of 50 successes. That’s an incredibly poor strike rate. How does the targeting process work? What contributed to such an abysmal picture of 0 out of 50? How do we get to that given the might of, in this case, particularly, the US military? Now Australia rode the coattails of many of these things. How does that happen?
I want to look at it not as the attacks on Saddam but let’s look at the targeting of leadership writ large. We started off talking about Slobodan Milošević. NATO bombed his home. For all the US politicians are saying, “We’re hitting a building. We’re not trying to kill him.” That’s nonsense. We’re trying to kill him. We went after Osama bin Laden how many times with drones and for how many years? We couldn’t do it. We went into Iraq. We took the country over and still couldn’t find these fellows and were bombing them.
We’ve been in Afghanistan for how many years going after Mullah Omar, and the number two of Al Qaeda was killed every other week. You look at what’s gone on in Syria and some of the targeting problems that have happened there. I think it goes to show that there are some systemic problems within the targeting cycle that need to be addressed. It’s something that we at PAX and a lot of other NGOs are working very closely with the US Pentagon and some of the NATO allies to try to address, as I think they recognise, particularly post the Kabul airstrike.
At the final strike, ten civilians were killed, and they were completely not involved. The US came out with this nonsensical statement that it was a righteous strike. It goes to show the basic difficulty of hunting human beings from 30,000 feet. You do not have a conception of what’s going on on the ground, the lack of post-strike investigation, and how that feeds into this self-licking ice cream cone where you think what’s going on. You set up a target package, go in, and prosecute the target. You drop a weapon and kill them. You don’t kill the person or whatever it is that you’re aiming for, and you do it again and again.
There’s never trying to learn from it, or what did we go wrong? Let’s do an investigation into the civilian harm aspect. It keeps eating up itself. Another thing, too, is I’m guilty as anybody else. I’m sitting here listening to the language that I’m using. We’re talking about prosecuting a target, targeting something, or collateral damage. These are human beings. They’re not collateral damage.
A lot of the language built around all of this reinforces a number of the systemic problems that exist in targeting. It creates a system in which you have confirmation bias. One of the big problems is that you are looking for a target, so you’re going to find a target. It’s very cliche, but if every problem is a nail, you’re going to bring out the hammer. It’s past time for us to make some changes.
I can certainly agree with that from my own experiences as well. When you’re part of the military machine, you’re part of a tribe that is carrying a flag, and it’s fighting a righteous war. You’re doing your best and the motivation. They can slip somewhat because you’ve got objectives to achieve. You’ve got specific missions despite the fact that those missions might be very murky and uncertain. As we well know, with Curveball, the intelligence that ultimately shaped that entire conflict in Iraq, the irony of the code name of the source.
I know Curveball very well.
Maybe tell us a little bit about your experience.
I can’t get into it. Curveball was a source that informed a lot of the US decision-making and targeting. Let’s say that, at the beginning of the Iraq conflict, Ahmed Chalabi, who was the individual running the Iraqi National Congress, which was this dissident group supposedly fighting against Saddam and using his connections with the US government to push forward his agenda and push the war forward, were feeding the US intelligence community and policymakers what folks wanted to hear. That informed an awful lot of not only the targets but the decision-making. It’s very unfortunate. It led to a lot of the things that Colin Powell said at the UN when he was making his pitched plea to the world, “Here is the intelligence. Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. This is how we know.”
I’m watching this and sitting in the Pentagon. I’m looking at my friends who work the WMD cell. I’m like, “Do you guys have this?” They’re like, “I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” There’s an awful lot of disconnect. There’s also an awful lot of he must know something we don’t know. Even in the intelligence community, there are compartments. Things are compartmentalised. I had a TSSCI, which is Top Secret Sensitive Compartmentalised Information.
It means that if I don’t need to know, I’m not going to find out. If somebody else doesn’t need to know something that I have, they’re not going to find out. You’re sitting there thinking, “These are the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, you name it.” I can’t tell you how many times I briefed Tenet. You think, “He’s got to know something I don’t know because he’s the Director of Central Intelligence. He’s Tenet. I’m a nobody. I’m an analyst.”
I can’t stop shaking my head at that because the consequences of those decisions are so grave. It seems as though they were made in the absence of credible information. Those who made them obviously must have known that the information was incredible. I find it hard to believe that the entire machinery, and you’re saying that even the actual WMD people responsible for providing the intelligence on those very weapons, had no idea what was going on. Is this a question of poor incentives? Looking back years, what do you put it down to? What was the motivation behind the war in Iraq? How did these poor incentives shape and influence the actual war?
I believe that the US government, at that time, had already made a decision that they were going to remove Saddam. They’re saying there was going to be a regime change for a variety of reasons. I think many of them did believe that the US and Allied forces would be welcomed by people with palm fronds, thanks, cheers, and whatnot. They were all painfully wrong. We’re talking about some of the problems in targeting and how things go. I’ve been doing this now since ‘97.
I’ve been involved in the wars in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, a number of conflicts between the Israelis, Palestinians, and Gaza, the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 or 2008, the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, and the Libya conflict with NATO. It goes on and on. How many wars can we possibly be fighting in twenty years? It’s shocking to me and awful. Now we sit here, and we’re looking at Russian forces on the border of Ukraine and even within Ukraine’s border, having taken over Crimea and the Donetsk area. It’s this never-ending pain cycle.
I interviewed Samuel Moyn, whose name you might have heard. He wrote the book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. Quite convincing, I must say, the book is exceptional. In the book, he talks about Human Rights Watch as potentially a side effect of this humanising of war mainly century. You even mentioned the language of precision weapons or precision strikes is rather a surgical terminology.
As these weapons become more precise and accurate, it becomes a lot easier to wage what abruptly labels the forever war. It’s far more palatable to sell to the domestic audience, like, “We have these precision weapons. We can hit the window that we want to hit.” How do you feel about that thesis, especially as somebody who has seen all of these conflicts over these 25 years? What are your thoughts?
It’s interesting when you consider the development of the human rights movement worldwide in relation to that. You look at, for example, Human Rights Watch, which came about as an organisation dedicated to fighting for human rights in Russia against people who are being held incommunicado in some prison somewhere in Siberia. It has grown to be an organisation that started with the war in Afghanistan for the first time for a human rights organisation to conduct what they called Humanitarian Battle Damage Assessment.
Going into a conflict zone, researching the actual strikes, researching where it was hit and what weapon hit, identifying the perpetrator, linking that perpetrator to the strike, and then putting out very detailed reporting on war crimes and information that then supports war crime investigations by the UN, etc. You look at Amnesty International, which began as an organisation dedicated to people who governments are holding as political prisoners. Now Amnesty International has Brian Castner, who is a former military and their researcher on the ground who goes into conflict zones and does the same thing that I used to do at Human Rights Watch, like digging up bombs and linking them to the targets.
You now have organisations that have been created in twenty years, such as Air Wars, which is an organisation or an NGO dedicated to determining how, where, and why civilians are harmed in airstrikes and providing that information to militaries so that they can validate their targets and fight for the victims on the ground and the recognition of those civilians killed. You look at Civilians in Conflict, CIVIC, an organisation started by a dear friend of mine, Marla Ruzicka, who went to Afghanistan in 2001 and recognised that civilians were being harmed but not being taken care of by militaries.
In Iraq, she began creating a system in which amends became something that militaries began to do. That was a regular thing that pretty much all of the Western militaries did. When someone is harmed, they provide some amends, whether economic compensation or whatnot. You have an entire human rights movement that has grown from twenty years of war. You have organisations that have changed because of the way that wars are fought. It’s amazing to me that we’re living in a world right now where, on the one side, you have militaries going in and fighting.
You have human rights organisations that are going in and investigating, and then the two realise, “Maybe there’s a lot of mistrust, but if, at times, we can come together and provide each other some information, whether it’s lessons learned or you have best practices, we can perhaps minimise the civilian harm.”
There is the question as raised in the book that you put forth. Does that make wars more palatable? Does it make it easier because now we’re having fewer people killed? You have this issue where people look at drone strikes like the strike in Afghanistan where everyone always thinks, “It’s so precise. It limits civilian harm,” but it’s only as good as the intelligence that backs it up. If you don’t know what you’re aiming at, then you’re going kill people and innocents.
It’s awful. I’ve seen and worked on the ground for the United Nations conducting war crimes investigations. I’ve done it in Afghanistan, in Syria, and in Libya. It’s amazing to me that you shift from a human rights organisation and then work for the UN, do the research, link up, and positively identify a perpetrator to a civilian casualty issue, and put reports out.
The security council does not only do nothing, but they protect the perpetrators. You’ve got the Russians to veto any action that we’ve got going on for Syria. It’s a hard situation where you’ve got a lot of very dedicated war crime investigators and human rights officers in the UN system and NGOs trying to make things better and work with the military. Some are more open to it than others.
Of course, the nature of those conflicts will dictate who potentially is to be called guilty or not. At this stage, I don’t think any Western militaries have been successfully prosecuted for any war crimes internationally, to my knowledge, at least.
You’ve got some of the internal investigations, Operation Burnham from New Zealand, and the Breton report for Australia. In the United States, we’ve had instances of individuals going to jail. You had Clint Lawrence, who killed Afghans and the Blackwater guys in Iraq, but then, we had a US president that pardoned war criminals. I don’t want to get into it.
The whole piece of war crimes is something I discuss quite often in the show. I’m very convinced that focusing on individual soldiers or acts is almost a misnomer because the environment is what you do. This is much better than I do. It becomes very desensitised to war the more war one is exposed to. Some of these soldiers have been deployed beyond what they should have been. They have been exposed beyond what human beings should be. All of these actions led to various incidents, which is not to say that they shouldn’t be prosecuted or investigated, but we need to realise that the upstream causes of our decisions to go to war are ultimately what we’re talking about here.
That’s what I think Samuel Moyn’s book touches on that because all this focus in International Humanitarian Law and organisations is the post-HR or post-decision point we’re going to war. It’s this decision to go to war. Somehow, we don’t explore. Our leaders and politicians are left off the hook completely. We don’t hold them accountable for war doctrine, which we also embrace in Western militaries. We certainly don’t hold them accountable at all. It’s with complete impunity. No one is ever going to drag George Bush into a court and say, “What were the reasons you decided to go launch that conflict?”
I couldn’t agree with you more. The lack of accountability reinforces this sense of impunity. That’s a core problem that we see in the human rights community.The lack of accountability in conflict zones reinforces the sense of impunity. Click To Tweet
I think it’s a good point. I haven’t even gone down half the page of my questions that I want to get to. We’ve nearly been going for an hour.
I’m sorry if I’m going on a tangent.
Not at all. I was going to say it’s an amazing conversation. You’re peeling back to curtains, and that’s important. I want to touch on how a collateral damage estimate is calculated. You mentioned it at the start, and I know it’s changed since, and I want to get to that. Back in those days, the cut-off was sturdy when it had to be bumped up higher to get approval.
To put that in context, that’s 30 civilians or human beings who are, in no shape or form, involved in the war. That was the high watermark if 30 or more were going to die. Maybe touch on how you worked out the CDE, Collateral Damage Estimate, and how that’s now changed. I know you’ve done some work with Pentagon, but maybe it’s timely to address it as well.
Collateral damage estimation is very much a science. You have engineers who will look at a facility. For example, look at the building, how it’s constructed, what it is constructed of, and what the Earth is made of. Do you have hard-packed Earth or sandy Earth? How much glass is in the building? What is the construction like? Where are people in the building in relation to the actual places where the weapons are going to impact? What kind of weapons you’re going to use? How large are they? What is the type of fusing? Are you going to set it to explode on contact or underground? You make these decisions because they’re going to affect how the weapon operates and then the effects that occur.
For example, if munition explodes on impact, you’re going to have widespread surface damage. You may want that, depending on the effect that you’re requiring. If you explode the weapon underground or subterranean and put a 4 or 8-millisecond delay on it, the building is going to implode and collapse upon itself. Now that’s going to completely destroy the building and anyone inside, but in the surrounding area, you are very likely to have buildings that are across the street from it that don’t even have broken glass, like the maternity hospital. You have these engineers that look at all of these physical features of the building.
They take historical population data to understand where and when people are going to be in an area. Honestly, for some countries, it’s pretty good. For some, it’s not that good. I remember when we were working in Iraq. The last Iraqi census was a decade or twenty years prior to the conflict. You’re sitting there going, “How useful are these numbers?” At any rate, they’ll then do an engineering model of the building. It’s a visual look at it with concentric circles of varying colours from red to yellow or orange and yellow and out, and you’re looking at varying levels of damage.
Everything from instantaneous destruction to at a certain distance. You maybe have an eardrum rupture, and then you’re determining at a certain time of day how many people are going to be here. What are the expected civilian casualties? We had a very high number. We had 30 during the Iraq conflict for high collateral targets. Just so folks know, we worked those down from 300 to 30. We eventually provided Bush and Rumsfeld with a list of 30 high-collateral targets for Iraq. Twenty-nine of those were struck. One was never struck. It still stands now. You think of all of those buildings. That’s 30 people per building. You then think about all the different bombs dropped in the conflict and you’re talking about high potential.
Now, you shift to Afghanistan during the Obama administration, and they changed to a level zero. For NATO, the idea was if any weapon is going to hit a target and we believe a single civilian is going to be killed, then that has to go to a higher level of authority for that to be checked off. There were dramatic changes in the authorisations that had to happen for targeting. Now this changed fairly dramatically when President Trump came in. If you look at civilian casualty issues in Afghanistan in the years that he was president, the numbers are the highest ever recorded as far as civilians killed by airstrikes. I think that there’s a lesson there.
Let’s try to understand. In my business, it’s what we call civilian harm mitigation. Civilian harm mitigation is the tactics, techniques, and procedures a military can use to minimise civilian harm. There are a number of things that they can do to reduce the risks. It was born by the Afghan war and by NATO in the 2007 and 2008 timeframes.
I went to Afghanistan in 2008 after there had been a number of very high deaths airstrikes where a number of civilians were killed. I met with NATO and tried to understand why this was happening. We put together a report for Human Rights Watch. Simultaneously, the Department of Defence and NATO were doing the same thing. They were for the first time. 2008 was the first time they started to count civilian deaths in Afghanistan as far as NATO goes.
They determined that. There are a number of things that they were doing that were leading to high civilian casualties. They began to apply these civilian harm mitigation procedures to drop those down. To give you an idea, in 2008, there were 552 civilians killed in Afghanistan by NATO bombs. They began to implement the changes.
By 2010, there were 171 killed. We had somewhere of a 60% drop in civilian casualties from that. The numbers continued to stay around 100 after that throughout the conflict while NATO was there because they were taking far more precautions than they had ever taken before. You have a situation where President Trump comes in, and then in 2019, we have seven civilians killed by airstrikes, which was the highest ever because he removed a lot of those restrictions.
An important lesson here is that these procedures help. There are things that militaries can do that can minimise civilian harm. They can minimise the number of civilians that are going to be killed. If you implement those procedures, it will have a positive effect. If you remove them, you’re going to have a negative effect. At least for PAX, my organisation, the lesson there is to engage with the military and attempt to work with them. To make changes is one choice that we have made. Some organisations don’t do that. They name in shame, or they fight against the military. We’ve decided it’s in our interest.The military can minimize civilian harm in conflict zones by reevaluating high-value targeting procedures. Removing them will result in negative effects. Click To Tweet
It’s in the military’s interest. It’s in all of our interests to work together toward improving how civilians are fair in conflict. This is something we’ve worked with them, and there was a Dutch airstrike in 2014 or 2015 in Hawija in Iraq. It’s a single bomb. You think about all these thousands of bombs that drop in conflict and how many people die. It’s a single bomb, and 70 civilians were killed. The amazing thing about that is the long-term effects. I think that’s something that people don’t often think about. We say this number of civilians were killed. You don’t think about how many breadwinners were killed? That family has no income. How many jobs are destroyed because somebody’s workshop is gone?
The infrastructure is destroyed. We don’t have water and sewage. That’s going to increase cholera and other potential long-term effects. You don’t have access to healthcare. For example, in Hawija, if people need to get dialysis or cancer care, they need to go all the way to Erbil, which is over an hour away on a good day. The reality is now that you have so many checkpoints, it takes a whole day. There are all of these long-term effects. You have displacement.
When a weapon hits, the effects go far beyond that civilian death. We’re working with this military. We’ve worked with the Dutch military now and pushed them to implement changes because they have never, in their history, put out detailed reporting on civilian casualties to try to educate the Dutch public on what’s being done in their name.
We’re working with them to try to implement changes. More timely now is we’re working with the US military with the Pentagon. There is a consortium of NGOs. We’ve been providing DoD with a number of changes that we believe they need to make. Everything from creating an office on the Pentagon that deals with civilian casualties because the US military has never prioritised civilian harm ever.
Everything from doing that all the way to more in-the-weeds things about certain changes, collateral damage assessments, and changes to how they do amends and whatnot. They’re using people like myself and others in our organisations that have that experience working in or with the military so that we can provide them with the granular level of detail they need for changes.
What I find quite amazing is it was going quite well. The Pentagon was preparing to put out what’s called a DOTI, Department of Defence Instruction. It was going to be the very first policy ever issued on civilian harm and casualties. It’s quite shocking to me that the US military has never had a military-wide policy on civilian casualties. They leave it up to the combatant commands. CENTCOM or AFRICOM deal with it as they see fit within their own area of responsibility. There’s no overarching standard. We’ve been working with DOD to create this standard. They’ve finished putting it together, and it was supposed to come out right before the airstrike happened in Kabul. Unfortunately, the policy didn’t come out.
Would that policy have made a change and saved those people’s lives? I don’t know. They slow-rolled it, and I think there was quite a bit of consternation in the Pentagon about this policy. Is it good enough? I have not seen it yet. We’ve been told that it doesn’t necessarily have everything the NGOs have asked for. I’m not surprised. It never will. What does it have? We’ve been pushing them to put it out because we said, “Are we going to complain?” Sure. “Are we going to say it’s not adequate?” Probably, but put it out. At least we can see what it does so that it can make changes. Hopefully, whatever conflicts you’re fighting right now, people are going to be better protected, and then we can work with you to improve it.
That’s what’s very important here. Let’s make those changes. It all comes down to a basic decision. I remember when I was being interviewed by Ken Roth, who’s the executive director at Human Rights Watch. He said to me something along the lines of, “Marc, we make a decision. There are two ways to look at International Humanitarian Law, the Laws of Armed Conflict. There is the, ‘Should we be going to war?’ and there is the conduct of war. Should we be going to war with others and we deal with the conduct of war or the conduct of hostilities?” I took that on and my career has been a path of taking on the conduct of hostilities and trying to work with militaries to improve and make changes in how they conduct operations to improve civilian protection.
One question that keeps bugging me is the fact that we are able to put a number regardless. Back in the day, it was 30. Now it might be 5 or 3. It’s the moral and ethical imperative of that. We’re quite openly acknowledging that not all lives are worth the same, which is something that is part of our Western narrative. Everybody’s voice and person matter. That goes against it when we comfortably can say, “To kill this high-value target, however that might be, we’re willing to trade 30 innocence.” I know it’s a conundrum because the military can’t. What do you do? You have to fight a war.
To what extent do you think we’re going to the nth degree to protect those who are innocent, particularly when we were talking about what we mentioned before where the war machine is rolling? You have numbers that are like, “Once I’ve met this number, it’s fine. I can drop a bomb. Once I bring it down to this many civilians, I can drop the bomb.” It becomes a benchmark. It’s a hurdle to jump over or drop a bomb as opposed to realising that these are human beings who have absolutely nothing to do with it. They’re victims already.
The first thing we need to do is look at how the international system was created. With the Geneva Conventions, states got together and created these Laws of Armed Conflict, which we call International Humanitarian Law in human rights organisations. The military caused the Law of Armed Conflict and decided killing civilians was legal. It is lawful. I’ve done war crime investigations for a long time, and the vast majority of all the incidents I’ve investigated have been lawful. It is lawful to kill civilians in war. I think most people don’t realise that. It is unlawful to directly target civilians and purposefully kill civilians.Many people do not realize that the law of armed conflict has decided that killing civilians is legal. What is unlawful is to directly target them. Click To Tweet
There are people who are in prison now because of that. You had the case in Germany where using universal jurisdiction, the Germans successfully put a number of Syrians in prison for targeting civilians. The international community has decided that killing civilians is lawful, but not directly targeting them. You have to go through the steps and see. In the law, we look at it and say you have distinction and proportionality. Distinction means I have to target a distinct military object. I can’t target a civilian object. Proportionality means that civilian harm cannot outweigh whatever gain I get from this attack.
It’s hardly subjective in itself.
It’s incredibly effective. I give it up to the JAGs, the military lawyers, who have to make these decisions. Regarding the issue of whether we are protecting the innocents, I think the answer is clearly no. Look at the numbers. Look at every day in Syria when the Russian and Syrian militaries directly target hospitals. Look at what the US did in Afghanistan. Look at a myriad number of issues. Have we chosen to protect civilians? No, we haven’t. The United States has never prioritised civilian protection. These are the decisions that our policymakers have made. Our population supports it.
Maybe we pivot to one of the points you’ve mentioned already, and that’s drones. I found it interesting. You mentioned Obama. During Obama’s time, the rate of civilian casualties dropped effectively negligent to zero or kept at 100, as you said, throughout the years. Wasn’t it also during Obama’s time that the use of drones almost exponentially went up?
Firstly, I want to confirm if that’s the case, but how credible can our battle damage estimates be when we’re sending off drones that we don’t see and have accurate eyes on the ground to confirm those numbers? Two questions. The first one is replacing boots on the ground with drones. Yes or no? Of course, the accuracy of the battle damage estimates post this the commencement of drones in no man’s land effectively.
President Obama definitely took up the banner of drone strikes throughout his presidency. It was a hallmark of the way that he used the military. This idea that we were going to be surgical, you’re only going to kill the “bad guy.” You’re not going to harm civilians, which is patently false, but it was certainly something where we saw drone strikes picked up exponentially when he was president. One of the problems that you have, as you’ve mentioned, is that you don’t know what’s going on on the ground. You’re looking through a soda straw with a drone. You don’t have situational awareness or see what’s going on in the area.
This is a huge problem. It’s reinforced by the lack of credible investigations. The gold standard for military investigations of airstrikes was ISAF from 2010 up until 2014 when NATO left Afghanistan. It wasn’t perfect. They still had some issues but were conducting investigations on the ground. They were going to sites trying to better understand how many civilians were killed in airstrikes, how they were killed, make improvements, and understand what parts of their procedures were not working. Some of it was incredibly important. Things like children were being killed in helicopter strikes by US Apache’s because they were being seen digging IEDs into the ground at night.People responsible for high value targeting don’t know what is going on the ground of conflict zones. They do not have situational awareness. Click To Tweet
The reality is they were working on irrigation at night because during the daytime in Afghanistan, it’s super hot, and the water is all going to evaporate. Some Apache pilot from wherever in the US doesn’t know the reality of life in Afghanistan. Due to these investigations, they learned these things and started to implement changes. They stopped those Apache strikes. We’ve lost that and all sense of any investigative capability by the US military and its allies. We’ve seen, to the extent, where the French have said they’ve never killed a single civilian in any of the conflicts that they’ve been involved in the last years.
The United Kingdom only admitted to one, which is almost worse, saying, “We’ve dropped all these thousands of bombs, but we’ve killed only one.” It’s not just the US. It’s the allies as well. The US takes a lot of NGO reporting. First of all, I should say that it’s been a fight to get them to accept the NGO reporting.
At first, it was huge pushback. It’s not what tree-huggers want. It’s more of, “You don’t know all the super secret stuff that we know.” You don’t have a full picture because of that. You don’t know how bad these guys are because we’re listening to their phones. Our response is, “We are in there with these people.” When I was in the UN, I was in the villages in Afghanistan. You’re meeting with witnesses and victims.
You’re picking through the bomb crater and pulling out pieces of the weapon. You’re going to the hospital and getting the paperwork on what happened to them. You’re getting the biographical information, and they weren’t doing it and continue to refuse to do this. It got to a point where NATO in Afghanistan had about a dozen people working in the civilian casualty mitigation cell. That group that tracks civilian deaths tries to learn from those deaths and then feeds back into the NATO system to try to improve things through investigations. Those dozen people dropped down to two people when the US was conducting war in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. That’s maddening.
Why? Even to the leadership and military hierarchy, how is this justifiable or makes sense?
I have no idea. They completely deprioritised any kind of investigation. It got pushed off to the side, and it was absolutely maddening. NGOs continued to put information forward to them, saying, “Here’s an instance where you killed someone. Here’s another instance.” Usma Khan has put out a number of articles in the New York Times. It’s impressive work.
She got through Freedom of Information Act requests and thousands of internal US strike documents. She has been able to put together these cases where the US said, “We weren’t even there. We weren’t even dropping bombs on that day.” It goes to show how poor it is, even the record-keeping, which is shocking to me because we have this impression that the military captures all the data and they know everything that they’re doing.
If you’re going to drop a bomb, of course, you know where you dropped it, and they don’t. They had the civilian casualty group that CENTCOM had. They had a couple of people, and then they doubled it. They got up to seven people after a while, and it’s this constant fight. Now we’re working with CENTCOM and AFRICOM. Both have very different views on civilian harm and how they want to approach it. We’re working with them, and trying to get them to accept NGO data was a fight. Now they’re finally taking it in. The next fight that we’re having is very often, and the NGO data is written off as non-credible. We don’t get a response.
We’re like, “Why was this determined to be a non-credible instant? We are providing you with information on X number of civilians killed and you’re saying to us non-credible. Does that mean the strike didn’t happen? You have no records of it. It was only militants. No civilians were harmed. What is it?” Now we’re wrestling with this. We’re hoping that this new US policy is going to improve the investigative process.
Not only is it important for the US to do because the US is like, “My country is dropping an awful lot of bombs every day,” but also because the allies tend to follow what the US does. I look to NATO, Australia, and the various US allies, and whatever changes the US makes in its targeting procedures through this new policy that’s going to come out, it is very likely going in some way influence how our allies deal with civilian harm in the future. This is going to have a snowball effect, and I would hope it’s positive.
The leadership and the parameters that are put in place will create the environment within which these types of operations are inevitably going to impact the end result. I’m sure you can’t talk in much detail about this upcoming policy, but are there any particular points you can share as to what some of the major changes are that you’re trying to implement to the targeting process, battle damage estimates, and so on?
As I said, we don’t know what will be accepted, but some of the high points of the requests that we’ve put in are things such as an actual office to deal with civilian harm that is at a high enough level within the Pentagon that they can make changes. It’s not some collateral duty for someone who already exists, but to create some centre that can then conduct the important lessons learned and apply them across the military. There’s not some combat and command somewhere, but the information gets out in a much wider way. That’s one thing. Another thing, and very important, is the investigative process. I speak to the military quite often about investigations.
They say, “Marc, we don’t have access.” I say to them, “There are still ways to conduct investigations even if you’re not physically there. There’s this magical device called a telephone. We can give you lists of victims and witnesses. There’s an awful lot of things that you can do.” I’ve been on UN War Crimes Commissions, where we’ve had access, gone on the ground, and conducted investigations. I was on the Syria Commission, and the Syrians refused us access. We had to create procedures to conduct our investigations remotely. We were able to do that, and the reporting has been quite good. We’d go to refugee camps. We interview people in refugee camps. We used satellite imagery, etc. There are a number of ways to conduct investigations remotely.
This is another ask for the military. Another thing is to create a men’s system, in which people can receive whether monetary recompense for the harm that’s been caused or if there’s some other way, like rebuilding the house. Perhaps someone lives in an area, let’s say, in the Al-Shabaab area. If you provide them with funds, potentially, Al-Shabaab will steal them from them. What other ways can we provide them with something so they can move forward with that? There’s a reporting system so civilians can provide information to the military directly when harm has occurred.
How do they do that? Creating not only a web portal but other ways in which they can reach out and provide information because not everybody has access to the internet in a lot of these countries, so you take all of these little snippets. I get into the real weeds of things like going in and reforming the collateral damage process so that you validate the collateral damage numbers.
If it’s 30 and you end up killing 100 people, your collateral damage estimate is useless. Why even have a collateral damage estimate other than to make yourself feel good about it? There’s a real spectrum, everything from the very wide view of creating a centre all the way down to the real nuts and bolts things of getting deep into the weeds on collateral damage estimation that we’ve worked with the US military. We’re waiting to see a word. Right now, that potentially could be coming out the last week of January 2023. We’re in a hurry-up-and-wait situation.If you end up killing a hundred people in conflict zones, the collateral damage estimate is useless. It is only there to make yourself feel good about it. Click To Tweet
That’s optimistic that there’s movement in it. It’s one point that’s probably important to make as a military person myself but someone who’s probably motivated by slightly different ideals to many of my compatriots. That’s because I have experienced conflict myself as a child. I’m as close to a pacifist as one can be while wearing a uniform. One of my aims is to try and reduce our need and want to go to war. The military, by and large, is filled with highly principled people, and no one sets out to commit a war.
I absolutely agree with you. I work with some amazing people in the military. Whether it’s the JAGs, operators, targeters, or intel folks, it doesn’t matter. They go through some incredible gymnastics to try to protect civilians. The problem is they don’t know everything. There is a level of expertise out there that NGOs and others have that we can help to provide them so that they can improve their tactic techniques and procedures. The reality is they don’t go out and kill civilians unless we’re talking about the Syrian military. When you’re talking about these Western militaries, their aim is not to kill civilians. When it does happen, that’s when the rubbers get to hit the road.
That’s when you have to say, “Stop. What’s gone wrong? What do we have to do to change? Was there a law of war violation? If so, prosecute. If not, we have to implement changes.” There has to be accountability, and accountability for me is a spectrum. Everything from taking someone who has committed a law of war violation, prosecuting them, putting them in prison, and not having your president sends an absolute wrong message to everyone in the military. Having that Law of War violator prosecuted all the way through the spectrum, the lessons learned, different applications, and changes that can be made. There are a wide variety of things that accountability means to me.
I wonder whether that’s part of the resistance. As you said, when NGO reporting comes in, it’s deemed as non-credible because oftentimes, it’s going to be very damning to the actions carried out by that military force. There is no simple confirmation, but it’s very easy to discard it as biased. You spoke to people in the village who are motivated by it financially.
Many times. “People are liars. They want money. They’re going to take advantage of us.” It’s exhausting for me to hear that because when you sit down with victims and witnesses of war, you are conducting your investigation, and you see the reality of what it is on the ground. These people are not lying. They are suffering.When you sit down with victims and witnesses of war, you will see they are truly suffering. Click To Tweet
That’s a powerful point because it is very easy for us, through our lens of the world skewed in its own way, to view those people as exploiting the situation. It’s not until you’ve seen, been it, and have spoken to people. That’s why I find your story incredible, where the gentleman you described was digging out his deceased family. These stories are important.
What you are doing is you are also bringing credibility because you’re speaking from a place of intimate understanding. I wonder whether this is part of the way we can build these connections between the military and the NGOs and by having people like yourself. You’ve been at the sharp end as the head of targeting.
I hate to use the term, but you’re sitting on the other side of the fence. You’re also an ally because you’ve walked in both camps. I wonder if that’s how you can build close working relationships with your military counterparts. It’s not only you but this wave of people that are coming in with these types of experiences into NGOS that are coming in with some serious credibility. Is this perhaps one reason why we’re seeing the softening of the resistance, or am I being naïve?
You’re absolutely right. When you look at the people who work in the landmine community working for Halo Trust, for example, removing landmines in countries, most of those people are former military personnel who know how to put landmines in. They’ve learned landmines are bad things, so we’re going to go and start removing them. It’s the whole culture turn gamekeeper. I very much look at it in much the same way. There’s me at PAX. Amnesty has its person. Human Rights Watch and all these NGOs bring in people with military experience.
Look at ICRC. A lot of the military lawyers are former military personnel. It’s an invaluable skill to have, but it also gives you credibility. When you walk in and you sit with the military person and they look at you, they go, “You don’t know anything. You’re going to give me your tree-hugging bullshit.” The next thing you know, you’re speaking their language. They can’t snow you with some acronym because you’ll throw it right back at them. They quickly understand that this person is serious.
That’s part of dismantling the stigma around, “You just want me to go to jail,” because that’s fear. That’s something we need to understand. It’s not something that the military talks about maybe sufficiently enough, but there’s a line at which point you become liable.
A lot of the war crime investigations I’ve done, I’ve provided information to various UN agencies. Some of the work that I did for Syria was provided by the Syria Commission to the Germans. That stuff definitely goes towards prosecutions, without a doubt.
It’s a hard pill to swallow because when we wear the uniform, we are empowered to go and represent the nation to fight the nation’s wars and interests. If the mirrors are put back in you, regardless of all the rules that are in place, you have some responsibility for the actions that you carry out. That’s an important piece of the puzzle as we unfold.
I just want to make a quick point. That is, I have seen that militaries are now coming to us. It’s always been the fact that NGOs, the UN, etc., have gone to the militaries and said, “You’ve done wrong. Here’s how you need to improve things.” Now they’re coming to us and saying, “You’ve put this report out because your organisation was in Syria or wherever we don’t have access. We want to learn more about it. We want to know more about what’s going on. We’d like access to your personnel to learn how things could be done better.”
For example, NATO brought PAX in and we worked with them on civilian harm mitigation work. They came to us. Like the American policy, the new DOTI that’s coming out, they’ve asked for input from the NGOs. Of course, there is the concern NGOs have where they’re going to say, “We met with the NGOs, and they approved our policy. That’s going to rubber stamp it.” Our response will be when the policy comes out, “It’s great that there’s finally a policy. Here’s what’s right and here’s what’s wrong. Let’s work to improve it.”
I’m conscious of the time that you’ve given me, and I’m totally grateful because this conversation has been incredible. We’ve talked a lot about the impacts of these bombs on the people on the ground. It’s immeasurable. What about the impact on the operators, the people who have pulled the trigger, or who believed in something that ultimately proved wrong? What has your experience been with that, even your own story about meeting the man whose family was deleted from this Earth? You’re not responsible, but you were part of the process. What’s your experience, what have you seen, and how are people coping with it?
The military has a very high incidence of suicide. It’s a huge problem. In 2005, a young officer contacted me when I was at Human Rights Watch. He said, “I’m with the 82nd Airborne. I am stationed in Iraq, and we are torturing Iraqi civilians.” This was post-Abu Ghraib. He was saying, “Abu Ghraib was not a one-off. This is a systemic problem.” I worked with him. We put a report together. I was able to, with colleagues, bring him to Senator John McCain, a US politician who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
He’s very famously tortured and has always stood up against torture. Senator McCain brought him into his office. It was very interesting because, at that moment, the US Congress was voting on Detainee Treatment Law, a new torture statute for the US military, and it was not going to pass. Unfortunately, there was an awful lot of opposition. By bringing this young soldier to the various senators, he was able to pass 96 to 4, which is amazing. It’s something like that. It was in the high 90s when it passed. He then went through some difficult times. He was in Special Forces after the 82nd Airborne. He saw quite a lot. He was in Iraq and Afghanistan and did multiple tours.
Unfortunately, not long ago, he was found dead in his bed. Today is January 19, 2022. Today would’ve been his 43rd birthday. The scourge of conflict definitely cuts deep. We’ve seen it in the US military, and it’s a huge problem. It doesn’t go one way. It’s not people who are upfront in combat. You’re also talking about drone operators because it’s not like you’re flying an airplane over. You pickle the bomb, it goes down, and you never see anything. You’ve followed that family for days. You get to know them. These guys give these people nicknames. They drop a weapon, watch the after-effects, and then you’re home that night.
Having dinner with your family has to tear you up inside. It’s a huge issue. I think the Forever Wars has been a huge scourge on this country, and I’m very sad to have been part of it from the very beginning. I’m hopeful that we can put it behind us. I’m disheartened when I hear policymakers say, “We are not at war anymore.” I look at it like, “What’s going on in Somalia? What about the support that we’re giving to the Saudis in Yemen? What about the munitions that we’re selling around the world?” Give me a break. Are we not at war anymore? People are dying every day.
I don’t want to finish on such a dark note, but it’s an important dark note. It’s one that we need to contextualise. My show is to lift a veil on these narratives of war. Firstly, war happens over there, and it happens to them. These people are guilty, more often than not, and therefore we are doing the right thing when you hear stories of people like yourself who’ve been there, done that in the true sense of the word at the highest levels of the US military mind. It’s quite eye-opening. My last question for you is, given what you know now about bombs, missiles, drones, and everything you’ve experienced over the years, if you were the Chief of High-Value Targeting, how would all of these experiences change your approach? Could you even do the job?
That’s a hard question. I don’t know. Let me answer it this way. I have spent my career now dealing with the combat of hostilities. That side of International Law says, “This is how wars should be fought.” I’m starting to wonder, “Should I have focused more on whether we should be fighting these wars?” That’s an important question. It’s time for our policymakers to start thinking deeply about that so that we don’t go into the conflicts without our eyes open when we do go in and, hopefully, have fewer wars in the future.
I’m so glad that people like you with your background are asking that question because that’s an important question and what we should be demanding answers from our leaders who, as you said before, send us to war with relative impunity, not relative, but full impunity. On that note, Marc, I have taken a lot of your time, and I do appreciate it. Thank you so much for joining me. This has been an absolutely eye-opening conversation. I hope it’ll start more conversations in militaries around the world because these are absolutely important topics that we should be discussing. Thank you very much.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. If it weren’t for people like you who are getting the word out about this stuff, people wouldn’t be hearing these stories. Thanks very much for what you do.
I’ll certainly be recommending your podcast as I put this out.
Thanks a lot. The next podcast is going to be about an airstrike in Iraq and how one bomb had effects that lasted for many years. We talk about thousands of weapons, but what about that one?
Marc, thanks very much. I really appreciate it.
It’s my pleasure. Be well.