Anyone who grew up in my generation of 1980s kids remembers G.I. Joe action figures — those green-uniformed plastic soldiers you could use to stage battles in the sandbox in your backyard or, for that matter, your bedroom. In those days, when imagery of bombed-out homes, bloodied civilians, and police violence wasn’t accessible on TV screens or in video games like Call of Duty, war in children’s play took place only between soldiers. No civilians were caught up in it as “collateral damage.”
We kids had no way of faintly grasping that, in its essence, war actually involves civilian deaths galore. And why should we have? In that era when the only foreign conflict most of us knew about was the 1991 U.S. tromping of Iraq, mainly an air-power war from the American point of view, we certainly didn’t think about what we would now call war crimes. It might have been cause for a therapy referral if one of us had taken a G.I. Joe and pretended to shoot a child, whether armed with a suicide bomb or not.
Having lived through more than a century and a half of relative peace in our homeland while fighting endless conflicts abroad, only in the past 20 years of America’s post-9/11 war on terror, waged by U.S. troops in dozens of countries around the world, have some of our children begun to grapple with what it means to kill civilians.
War in a Trumpian (dis)information age
As a Navy spouse of more than 10 years and a therapist who specializes in treating military families and those fleeing foreign wars, I believe that the post-9/11 wars have finally begun to come home in a variety of ways, including how we think about violence. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond have reached U.S. shores in all sorts of strange, if often indirect manners, starting with the surplus small arms and tactical equipment (some of it previously used in distant battle zones) that the Pentagon has passed on to local law enforcement departments nationwide in ever increasing quantities.
Our wars have also come home through the “anti-terror” grants of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), itself a war-on-terror creation, that have funded local law-enforcement purchases of armored vehicles and other gear. Such weaponizing programs have helped embolden police officers to see themselves as warriors and citizens like George Floyd as enemy combatants, which helps explain the increased use of force during police encounters in these years.
Additionally, in the last decade, this country’s wars have come home in the form of more mass shootings by white supremacist and anti-government types targeting minorities and people of color. Meanwhile, the DHS continued to focus disproportionately on the dangers of Islamist extremists, while overlooking the threat posed by far-right groups, despite their easy access to firearms and the reality that many of their members have military backgrounds.
And think of our wars as coming home in one more way: through the January 6th attack on the Capitol by then-President Donald Trump’s small army of coupsters. After all, about 20% of those facing charges in connection with the Capitol riot had served in the military. Consider it a symbol of our embattled moment that the Republican Party leadership would officially sanction that assault as “legitimate political discourse.”
In this age in which armed conflict seems to be everywhere, take my word for it as a therapist and a mother, kids think about violence in a way they once didn’t. After George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation in 2020, caused by pressure from a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, kids in my community have asked me more than once what it feels like to die when someone steps on your neck. Others have asked me what bullets feel like when they enter your body and whether it’s possible to stop the blood when an armed person walks into your school and starts shooting students down.
I was in a military museum on a base where missiles were displayed and overheard a young child ask his parent whether such a weapon would hurt if it landed on you. Some kids, whose fathers or mothers fought in combat zones and returned with injuries or post-traumatic stress syndrome, can intuit what it means to survive a war after they’ve seen their parent hit the ground upon hearing a child scream on a playground.
The heart of war’s toll: Civilian deaths
One imperative has rested at the core of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found in 2011: to account as accurately as possible for how many people have been killed or injured thanks to the decision of President George W. Bush and crew to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with endless military actions across significant parts of this planet. It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.
According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployed hundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).
People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.
The International Committee of the Red Cross defines war crimes as acts that are disproportionate to the military advantage sought, that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or that fail to take precautions to minimize injuries and loss of life among civilians. It was symbolically apt that the last U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as U.S. troops were withdrawing from our 20 year-old war there, reportedly killed three adults and seven children. And yet most Americans never seemed to take in how much civilians suffered from our war tactics, widely publicized as “surgical” and “precise” in their targeting of Islamic extremists, even as they now take in how the Russians are slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that information about the harm to civilians caused by our air wars in particular hasn’t been available for years to those willing to search it out. To take but one example, check out Zeeshan Usmani, Pakistani scholar-activist and founder of Pakistan Body Count. He conducted detailed investigations of the U.S. drone war in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands since 2004. Usmani’s research shows how, in the absence of strong human intelligence on the ground, American drone operators often determined who was a militant based on imprecise and moving targets. For example, some drone strikes were aimed at cell phones that might have changed hands among several people. Such attacks have killed or injured family members and neighbors of the targeted individual, or even first responders rushing to help after an initial attack had taken place. Usmani found that, between 2004 and 2014, 2,604 civilians had died in those borderlands from U.S. drone strikes — or 72% of the victims during that period.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times set of investigations into this country’s air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria analyzed more than 1,300 military reports of air strikes between 2014 and 2018. Its journalists found that more than half of those strikes, often based on flawed intelligence that caused the Pentagon to target civilians, resulted in thousands of such deaths.
In January 2017, for example, the Air Force bombed three Iraqi families thought to house ISIS fighters. The households targeted included civilians with no known connections to that terrorist group. An Iraqi man lost his mother-in-law and three of his children, one of whom died in his arms as he tried to get her to the hospital. (A nearby house for Islamic State fighters was untouched.) The Pentagon didn’t even acknowledge those civilian deaths until years after those bombings. Nor did surviving families affected by this and similar “incidents” receive restitution or access to the kinds of medical care that many needed to live with their disabilities.
War as terrorism
Honoring troops on national holidays like the Memorial Day just past helps obscure a grim reality of our time — that wars are won (or in the case of this country, it seems, never won) only by making it impossible for the communities we oppose to carry on with their daily lives.
I once helped conduct research compiled by 10 major human rights and humanitarian organizations for the publication Education Under Attack. It showed how armed conflict impacted the lives of students and teachers in more than 93 countries. The most recent 2020 report found that government militaries and sectarian armed groups carried out more than 11,000 attacks globally on schools, school buses, students, and teachers between 2015 and 2019. Fighters and troops bombed and occupied schools, and kidnapped students and teachers, sometimes using them for sex or commandeering them into armies and militias. And many of those attacks were all too deliberate. (For reasons I won’t go into here, unlike the Costs of War Project, Education Under Attack did not specifically investigate war deaths at the hands of the U.S. military, though most of the countries profiled in its report were those our military arms, aids through intelligence, trains, or fights alongside.)
An eight-year-old child in Yemen, a country where an estimated 12,000 civilians have died due to air strikes in a nightmarish ongoing war, survived when her bus was hit. That strike was carried out by Saudi forces to which the U.S. endlessly sells arms. Here’s how she responded to the experience: “My father says he will buy me toys and get me a new school bag. I hate school bags. I don’t want to go anywhere near a bus. I hate school and I can’t sleep. I see my friends in my dreams begging me to rescue them. So from now on, I’m going to stay home.”
This is suffering that numbers can’t capture, but it should remind us that war is a form of terrorism.
Who is to blame?
Our ignorance of the costs of war is cultural and systemic. The Costs of War Project was started exactly because, as America’s war on terror spread, a few of us became ever more aware of how hard it was to find honest, complete accounts of war and what it does to people and communities. Our military certainly hasn’t proved eager to document civilian casualties in a reliable or consistent way. In fact, what the Pentagon has known about them was often actively suppressed. The New York Times investigations of U.S. air wars in the Middle East, for example, found that only a handful of those hundreds of cases in which civilians were harmed were ever made public.
In fact, members of the U.S. armed forces have been intimidated so that they wouldn’t come forward to talk about what they had seen or done. For example, in 2010 when a group of our infantrymen shot an Afghan teenager working alone and unarmed on his family farm (in addition to killing two other unarmed Afghan civilians), the military barred those who allegedly committed the murders from giving interviews. When those men were indeed brought up on charges (rare in itself), one of them stated during an interrogation that he had been threatened with death if he refused to participate in a murder. The Army then placed him in solitary confinement, supposedly to ensure his safety. (The father of this last soldier had alerted the Army to these murders soon after they took place, but that service didn’t intervene until months later.)
Although impunity and lack of accountability are rampant in war, war-crimes trials like Nuremburg after World War II or Kyiv’s recent first trial of a captured Russian soldier who had committed acts of horror are all too rare. And even when they do condemn specific war criminals, they seldom condemn war itself.
I only hope, as the children in my family and my community grow up, they come to understand that war crimes aren’t just a byproduct of recklessness but of an all-too-human decision to “solve” problems through armed conflict rather than the range of alternatives available to us. I also hope that ever more of us accept how important it is to teach younger generations about the horrific suffering of civilians who live through war.
Here’s the truth of it: if we lack empathy for those who suffer in our wars, we endanger humanity’s future. The kids who ask pointed and graphic questions or wake up from nightmares spurred by playing Call of Duty are saner than parents who thank soldiers for their service or celebrate Ukrainian holidays. Purchasing Ukrainian flags is no substitute for trying to investigate the nightmare really underway in that conflict. We should be supporting organizations that protect local journalists. Instead of buying guns ourselves or voting for lawmakers bent on sending our troops all over the world to fight “terror” (and, of course, cause terror), we should be sending money to organizations that document war’s casualties or the humanitarian agencies that aid refugees, displaced people, and survivors of violence.
And it’s time, above all, to ask ourselves what stories we’ve been missing in all these years that our military has been fighting abroad. In such a world, the true costs of war should be endlessly on our minds.