From The Great War to Drone Wars: The imperative to record casualties

The centenary of the First World War also marks the anniversary of the practice of recording and naming casualties of war. But a century on, new forms of ‘shadow warfare’ limit the ability to record casualties of conflict and thus threaten to allow states a free hand to employ dangerous new tactics without threat of individual or international accountability. Without verifiable casualty figures – including information on who is being killed and how – we cannot evaluate the acceptability, effectiveness or impact of ‘remote control’ tactics as they are rolled out among civilian populations.

A Humanizing Legacy

Image of the name of Sgt. Robert O'Connor of The Leinster Regiment on the Menin Gate wall, who was killed on 31 July 1917 during the First World War. Source: Wikipedia

Image of the name of Sgt. Robert O’Connor of The Leinster Regiment on the Menin Gate wall, killed on 31 July 1917 during the WWI. WWI saw the start of practice of recognizing by name each and every soldier killed during battle. Source: Wikipedia

As the world marks the centenary of the commencement of the First World War,  we remember not the war that ended all wars, but instead the war that changed them forever. Introducing new forms of mechanized warfare – including the machine gun, u-boat, tank and airplane – WWI increased exponentially the lethal force of the individual soldier, bringing about an era of death and destruction on an industrial scale.  Yet, even as it ushered in the means of mass and impersonal killing, the ‘Great War’ also initiated the humanizing practice of recognizing by name each and every soldier who lost their lives, burying them in marked graves alongside those of their officers. Not only does such identification and public acknowledgement of victims dignify their memory, in today’s conflicts it can also provide vital information for humanitarian response and for monitoring compliance with – or tracking violations of – international law.

Today we are again witnessing the introduction of new forms of warfare – including armed drones, lethal autonomous weapons, special operations forces and use of private military and security companies.  Like their WWI counterparts, these new tactics will reshape the face of conflict, yet as they do so they also threaten to destroy the humanizing legacy of casualty recording. Pushing global warfare deep into the shadows, these new ‘remote-control’ tactics are replacing public military campaigns with covert and contracted force. This shift to a ‘light-footprint’ approach, primarily by the United States, but also by France, Russia and the United Kingdom, reflects not only the changing nature of security threats, which have become mercurial at best, but also the lessening appetite for long military campaigns with high military casualties. A recent report from the Every Casualty Programme at Oxford Research Group and the Remote Control Project finds that the prioritisation of ‘remote control’ tactics presents serious obstacles to the recording of casualties, and subsequently, accountability for the civilians impacted by their use.

Issues of capacity, political will, and access challenge efforts to record the casualties of any type of conflict. Yet, in conventional warfare, where identifiable or recognised conflict parties conduct attacks, such recording is not impossible: militaries generally record their own fatalities in these instances, while civilian deaths are often recorded by small civil society organizations around the world.  One need only look to the names of the hundreds of civilians killed in recent conflict in Gaza published by major news outlets to see the result of such efforts. In covert conflicts, however, or in conflicts where ‘remote control’ tactics are used, the ability to record casualties – including information on who is killed and how – is greatly diminished.

The merging of intelligence operations with the use of force – seen currently in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan with the use of armed drones and special operations forces by the United States – is a particularly problematic trend for casualty recorders. By greatly increasing the opacity – or outright deniability – of state force, covert operations erect a seemingly impenetrable wall of ‘classified information’, impeding recorders’ ability to conduct field investigations and verify their data. In 2010, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has conducted systematic casualty recording since 2007, reported that due to “tactical reasons and deliberate lack of information about such operations” they found it “very difficult to monitor and adequately document the activities of Special Forces” operating in the country. Gathering data on civilian and combatant casualties of drone strikes has also proved problematic – with ORG’s report finding that recorders are challenged by a lack of official disclosure of information about strikes, blocking of access to strike sites, and a near monopoly of information by anonymous officials on information coming from affected areas.

The consequent lack of reliable casualty data impedes the impartial evaluation of the tactics’ impacts on civilian populations. It also limits the ability to scrutinise the tactics acceptability and effectiveness using evidence-based analysis. The United States – the primary user of armed drones – has repeatedly claimed that drones allow for precision targeting, capable of surgically eliminating targets with minimal civilian casualties. Yet, as a recent report from the Bureau of Investigate Journalism on drone use in Afghanistan has shown, “the armed forces that operate drones publish no data on casualties to corroborate these claims.” Although the United States claims to record data on casualties itself, its failure to make such records transparent not only prevents an analysis of the acceptability of drone strikes, but also denies the victims and their families the opportunity for accountability or redress.

Bringing Remote-Control warfare out of the shadows

People of Narang district mourning for the students killed in a night raid in the village Ghazi Khan on December 27, 2009. Although the operation was authorised by NATO, it is still not publicly known who carried out the attack. Source: Wikipedia

People of Narang district mourning for the students killed in a night raid in the village Ghazi Khan on December 27, 2009. Although the operation was authorised by NATO, it is still not publicly known who carried out the attack. Source: Wikipedia

Data documenting the casualties of particular weapons – from chemical gas in WW1 to landmines and cluster munitions more recently – has been instrumental in evaluating these weapons’ impact and acceptability, and ultimately ensuring their regulation through international treaty. Yet, as new tactics are employed under the cloak of ‘covert action’, the ability of the international community to measure and regulate their impact is increasingly limited. Without verifiable casualty figures, states may be given a free hand to employ dangerous new tactics without threat of individual or international accountability. Indeed a recent report from Amnesty International has found that as a result of an almost complete lack of transparency from the US government regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan – specifically around those killed in night raids by SOFs or by missiles from drones strikes – victims are already facing a major accountability vacuum.

States must take greater responsibility for recording and acknowledging the casualties – both civilian and combatant – of these new tactics. They must not seek to block public investigation and accountability, even though these tactics may be adopted for the lower profile they afford armed force. Furthermore the United Nations, alongside civil society groups or other entities, must enhance their recording efforts so as to provide independently verifiable data on casualties. Such data is essential for developing an accurate, complete and impartial record, and for facilitating scrutiny in circumstances where casualties are highly politicized. Civil society-led casualty recording and analysis, despite its limitations, has already highlighted policies within the use of remote control tactics that need greater examination: for example, the practice of ‘double-tap’ or rescuer drone strikes in Pakistan on those coming to the assistance of individuals at the site of a previous strike. Only by ensuring that casualty recording is conducted systematically and to a high standard can we bring the impact of remote control warfare out of the shadows and into the public eye.

If we are to take a lesson from the commemoration ceremonies resounding across Europe it is simply that to learn from the past, and to honor it, we must first know that past. Details regarding the identites of those killed in conflict, both on the battlefield and in their homes, are essential to understanding the impact of violence, and to telling the full story of a conflict, to both current and future generations. The risks, then, of wars waged in secret, their battles and casualties concealed, are profound. Not only will there be no monuments at which to mourn their dead, there will be no lessons to be gleaned from their history: the wisdom of hindsight – both for policymakers deploying force and the public – may be lost completely.

Kate Hofstra is Research and Communications Consultant of the Every Casualty Programme at Oxford Research Group and co-author of Losing Sight of the Human Cost: Casualty Recording and Remote Control Warfare. Kate previously worked for TLG,a London-based communications consultancy, where she was the editor of a digital magazine on business and development. She has also worked with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo and hasa background in transitional justice. Kate has an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics.

Featured Image: Deputy chief minister of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and tribesmen offer funeral prayers in front of dead bodies who were killed in army operation in Khar, the main town in Bajaur tribal agency, 30 October 2006. Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Naming the Dead Project

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