Yet those explanations go only so far. War by its very nature presents wrenching choices, but those choices—some at the policy level, others at the operational one—need to be made, and all can have momentous implications for civilians. In making the critical decision to use military force, a government crosses a threshold into a zone where imprecision and uncertainty, both bearing on innocent people’s lives, will infect every level of decision making. How much tolerance is there for civilian casualties within legal limits? How does one identify a target? What standard of reliability should be applied to making such a determination? Once that decision is reached, what procedures are in place to verify it was correct, and to make amends and provide compensation if it was not?
What the Times story tells us is how in Iraq (but surely in other theaters as well) those imprecisions and uncertainties too often cost innocent people their lives, and then led their deaths to be unacknowledged. Broad criteria for who or what could be targeted were superimposed upon imperfect systems for identifying those targets, which were exacerbated by the opacity of after-action verification and reparation procedures. All of this was compounded by a natural tendency to give U.S. military operators the benefit of the doubt. So should a question arise about what actually happened, the Pentagon was unlikely to classify casualties as civilians absent a high level of certainty. Basim Razzo’s family was doubly victimized by this process, which both led them to be wrongly targeted and then made their devastating losses too easy to ignore.
The issue was aggravated by the type of struggle the United States has chosen to conduct in Iraq and Syria and in which, one can reasonably predict, it will again be engaged in the foreseeable future. This is not the kind of counterterrorism effort that focuses on targeting individuals deemed to present a direct and imminent threat to the United States, which is where Obama tried to guide U.S. actions in theaters away from hot battlefields, such as Somalia or Yemen. Rather, the counter-ISIS campaign aims to degrade and defeat the organization as a whole, deeming its very existence a danger to America’s security. There were civilian casualties and reports of undercounting in the former cases as well, of course. But the magnitude inevitably increased as the scope and goal of the battle expanded, and the strategic imperative of keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum receded.
Nor was this a typical counterinsurgency, for it didn’t entail the sizeable U.S. ground presence that was a hallmark of operations in Afghanistan or, earlier on, Iraq itself. Those operations produced better knowledge of the terrain, allowed direct engagement with communities, and enabled efforts—sometimes successful, sometimes not—to avoid alienating the local population. In Afghanistan in particular, senior commanders saw civilian protection and reparations as integral to the core mission and directed their troops to act accordingly. In contrast, in the counter-ISIS campaign, the U.S. part of the fighting chiefly relied on airpower, and much of the territory where strikes occurred was under ISIS control. It was neither fish nor fowl, but a hybrid: a counterinsurgency objective pursued by means of counterterrorism tactics.