It’s time for a drone strike reckoning (note: update when published)

Eddie Ryan
4 min readJan 17, 2022

Sometimes, the attitudes of the masses — their own wised up version of the “conventional wisdom” — gets corroborated by official documentation. These instances may not be all that frequent, but they can be striking in the degree to which they validate popular suspicions. Such is the case with the recent New York Times report on American military airstrikes over the past decade, written by Azmat Khan and pointedly titled “The Civilian Casualty Files.”

Right up to the botched strike in Kabul in September, which left a stained coda on an already pathetic withdrawal operation, the US lived up to its reputation in the eyes of many (particularly its young and left-leaning). In today’s America, criticizing the military industrial complex, imperial state apparatus, or whatever you’d like to call it — comprised even as “it” is of a set of mostly united, sometimes dissonant members — has grown almost banal. Many are schooled in the unsavory and extensive history of cold war CIA criminality; others grew cynical during the War on Terror. In any case, the result is a populace much more likely to doubt America’s intentions in global affairs.

This has its downsides. Some have imbibed the narrative and gladly dispensed with their faculties of reason — hence, the tendency among some young people to issue knee-jerk invective against the US no matter the situation. With heightened political consciousness comes the inevitable bastardization of critical arguments into cliches. (An early sign of ths came in the late ’90s, when the Clinton administration successfully blamed its inaction with respect to Indian nuclear test explosions on the CIA. Clinton had been informed of the coming tests well in advance by Pakistan’s prime minister and deliberately kept it secret, but the press was all too eager to blame the CIA for supposedly keeping the intelligence from Clinton.)

Perhaps I digress. I consider the widespread readiness of Americans to suspect their government of dubious motives a major victory. And with Khan’s report, it seems that even the coarsest accusations made by the average American against his or her government hold some water. (Here a self-reproach not to underestimate the shrewdness of these “masses” is probably in order.)

According to “The Civilian Casualty Files,” the past decade of US airstrikes amounts to an exercise in arrogance, criminal incompetence, and rampant covering-up. In Khan’s words: the perpetuation of a bad system with impunity. Since 2014, US airstrikes have caused 1300 civilian deaths in major conflict areas such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The procedures behind these strikes were defined by “deeply flawed intelligence,” hasty decisions to act on this intel, deliberate undercounting of civilian deaths, and failure to apologize for or even acknowledge mistakes. Khan found that this pattern often took a familiar form. Military officials would locate a target suspected of ISIS-affiliation. Despite their uncertainty or, in some cases, lack of evidence altogether of such a connection, “rampant confirmation bias” would prevail and the strikes would be ordered. The OK often even ignored evidence to the contrary, not just uncertainty, with respect to the target’s loyalties. And when things went catastrophically wrong, military officials were routinely absolved of guilt.

The Kabul strike epitomizes this dissolute system. An aid worker who had helped the United States was taken for an ISIS affiliate, tracked for several hours and bombed in his home, leading to the death of nine family members including seven children. The suspicious materials in his vehicle turned out to be water for his family and neighbors, not explosives. General Milley initially called the strike a sound operation, and the Pentagon suggested that evidence of a “secondary explosion” proved that explosives had been present. The Times exposed this lie. Only after that report came out did the Pentagon admit its failure. This sort of thing happened repeatedly during the main years of the fight against ISIS. In Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, drone strikes took out tens of civilians at a time at family gatherings on several separate occasions.

This isn’t entirely a revelation. Anyone with the desire to know has long understood the lethal consequences of American military action in Mesopotamia and elsewhere for innocent civilians. Successive administrations have argued that drone strikes beat carpet bombing and tank operations at both efficacy and safety, even going so far as to claim that they minimize civilian casualties. But this report confirms that we’ve been treated to systematic lies from political and military leaders. For proof, look no further than this telling statistical discrepancy. Of those strikes which caused civilian casualties, the military estimates that 27% included children among the dead. The Times’ figure is 62%.

Damning information like this ought to be the last incentive needed for a serious reevaluation of American reliance on air strikes. At minimum, the US owes its victims a public apology and serious compensation. What’s more, this seems like a pretty big hint that it’s time to pare down tired military operations in Iraq and Syria, clean house, and try a new approach.



Eddie Ryan

History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.