How the media ignores the deadly impacts of UK military intervention
by Ian Sinclair
24 November 2020
US journalist Glenn Greenwald’s tweet declaring he has “never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism” is an evergreen observation.
It’s especially accurate during times of war, with the air campaign waged by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a good case study in support of Greenwald’s assertion.
The UK joined the bombardment following parliamentary votes in support of bombing in Iraq (September 2014) and Syria (December 2015).
The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC after the Iraq vote that the priority would be to stop the “slaughter of civilians” in Iraq.
As always the British media heeded the call up. The Times, Daily Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Guardian and Observer all backed British military action in Iraq in 2014.
“ISIS have been responsible for appalling atrocities against civilians” and their actions “have greatly exacerbated the refugee crises and mass population dislocations”, an Observer editorial explained.
“Now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against ISIS”, James Bloodworth, then the editor of Left Foot Forward website, wrote in the Independent in August 2014: “Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists and enslave Kurdish and Iraqi women.”
Discussing Britain joining the US-led air strikes in Syria on US new channel CNBC before the parliamentary vote, Dr James Strong, a specialist in UK foreign policy at Queen Mary University of London, sang the praises of so-called precision armaments used by UK forces such as Pathfinder bombs and Brimstone missiles. As these weapons are “more accurate than their US or French counterparts” they are “slightly more able to hit what it is aiming at, and slightly less likely to hit things it is not aiming at”, Strong noted. “That means it is slightly better at hitting targets in built-up areas.”
Of course, pro-war – and war-adjacent – journalists and academics are not directed or controlled by the government, as some conspiracy theorists believe. But it’s an inescapable and frightening fact that on many high stakes issues large sections of our supposedly free and questioning media and intellectual class end up holding remarkably similar positions to the British government and foreign policy establishment.
Which brings us to Seeing Through The Rubble: The Civilian Impact Of The Use Of Explosive Weapons In The Fight Against ISIS, the new 46-page report from Airwars, a not-for-profit transparency organisation which monitors military actions and related civilian harm claims in conflict zones, and Dutch peace organisation PAX.
As the subtitle suggests, the report looks at the impacts of the US-led air campaign against ISIS since 2014, focussing on Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Hawijah in Iraq.
Given their interest in the wellbeing of Iraqi and Syrian civilians when the government was proposing joining the bombing, you might assume British journalists have been tripping over each other to cover and comment on the report. I asked Chris Woods, the Founder and Director of Airwars, about the level of coverage the report has received in the UK media.
“As far as I understand no UK news organisation picked it up”, he tells me on 11 November, though interestingly he notes there has been widespread coverage in the Netherlands. He adds: “It speaks I’m afraid to a worrying complacency towards civilian harm from UK military actions – from parliament, the press and from the Ministry of Defence itself.”
Perhaps the media have ignored the report because it isn’t newsworthy, or of little interest to the British public? Let’s have a look at some of the report’s key findings to see if this is the case.
“Most Western militaries claim that their operations have been conducted in compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and that they are already well-equipped [with precision weapons] to limit civilian harm from explosive weapons during operations fought” in urban areas, the report’s introduction explains. However, the authors note “precision has not prevented significant levels of reported civilian harm in Syrian and Iraqi cities from the use of explosive weapons.”
The report explains the primary effects of explosive weapons are caused by “the blast wave and fragmentation of the warhead after detonation. They cause injuries such as the bursting of hollow organs (ears, lungs and the gastro-intestinal tract), brain damage when the brain crushes into the side of the skull, and burns and projectile wounds from weapon fragments.”
However, the report confirms “The civilian harm caused by explosive weapons use in towns and cities extends well beyond the time and place of the attack. Explosive weapons are a main driver of forced displacement and have a profound impact upon critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.”
During the battle to drive ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016-17 “the 500-pound general-purpose bombs that the US-led coalition used primarily… contained around 200 pounds of high explosive, and were lethal up to a 230-metre radius”, the authors observe. Which doesn’t sound very precise to me. Indeed, in July 2017 Amnesty International concluded that Iraqi government and the US-led coalition “appear to have repeatedly carried out indiscriminate, disproportionate or otherwise unlawful attacks, some of which may amount to war crimes”.
Airwars and PAX estimate between 9,000 and 12,000 civilians died in the fighting – “with most killed by explosive weapons with wide area effects.” Approximately 700,000 people were initially displaced from the city, with the United Nations (UN) estimating around 130,000 homes were destroyed.
Shamefully, the report notes “despite declaring that it had struck more than 900 targets in Mosul during the battle for the city, the official UK position remains that no civilians were harmed in its own urban strikes.”
The report’s conclusions about the US-led coalition’s actions in Mosul are damning: The “unwillingness on the part of most Western militaries to investigate properly whether their own use of explosive weapons in populated areas resulted in civilian harm critically undermines any claim that their implementation of IHL is enough to protect civilians against these weapons.”
Turning to the coalition assault to take the Syrian city of Raqqa back from ISIS between June and October 2017, the report highlights how “by spring 2017, the US-led coalition was acutely aware of the risks to civilians of intense bombardment of heavily populated areas—even while using precision munitions”. Yet “these harsh lessons were not applied at Raqqa, with devastating implications for non-combatants.”
Airwars and Amnesty International conservatively estimate at least 1,600 civilians died as a result of coalition strikes on the city. The local monitoring network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that 90 per cent of the city had been levelled in the fighting, with eight hospitals, 29 mosques, five universities, more than 40 schools, and the city’s water irrigation system all destroyed. According to the UN, 436,000 people were displaced during the fighting.
The report notes “The great majority of both the urban destruction and civilian harm in Raqqa resulted largely from the actions of just one party to the fighting: the United States.”
Far from not being newsworthy, or of no interest to the British public, the report includes very important information about the huge loss of civilian life caused by US and UK military intervention in Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, given the UK government, supportive MPs and pro-war media outlets bear significant responsibility for this death and destruction you would think they would be particularly interested in the outcome of their policies, votes and journalism. The reality is far more telling. An inverse relationship can be divined: the more responsibility the UK government and media have for the deaths of people around the world the less interest the UK government and media take in these deaths.
All of which suggests the media is as much a well-oiled propaganda machine as it is a reliable news source.
Seeing Through The Rubble can be read at https://airwars.org/. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.