'Stomach-wrenching' report exposes secret US strike command's high civilian death toll

An MQ-9 Reaper flies a training mission over the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 15, 2019. MQ-9 aircrew provide dominant, persistent attack and reconnaissance for comabtant commanders and coalition partners across the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado)

Peace advocates on Monday responded toa report about a U.S. military unit that killed Syrian civilians at 10 times the rate of similar operations in other theaters of the so-called War on Terror by accusing the United States of hypocritically sanctioning countries while committing atrocities of its own, and by reminding people that there is no such thing as a "humane" war.

On Sunday, The New York Timesreported the existence of Talon Anvil, a "shadowy force" that "sidestepped safeguards and repeatedly killed civilians" in aerial bombardments targeting militants in Syria. The unit "worked in three shifts around the clock between 2014 and 2019, pinpointing targets for the United States' formidable air power to hit: convoys, car bombs, command centers, and squads of enemy fighters."

"But people who worked with the strike cell say in the rush to destroy enemies, it circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants, and alarmed its partners in the military and the CIA by killing people who had no role in the conflict," the paper reported, including "farmers trying to harvest, children in the street, families fleeing fighting, and villagers sheltering in buildings."

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink, told Common Dreams Monday that "it is stomach-wrenching to read how secret U.S. teams in Syria run by low-level officers made life-and-death decisions about when and where to drop 500-pound bombs."

"Years later, we hear about all the civilians obliterated but are left with a fait accompli and no accountability," she added. "This, let's remember, is coming from the nation that just hosted a 'Summit for Democracy' where we droned on and on about human rights."

Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser who co-authored a 2018 Defense Department report on civilian harm, told the Times that Talon Anvil's civilian casualty rate was 10 times higher than in operations he tracked in Afghanistan.

One former Air Force intelligence officer who worked on hundreds of Talon Anvil missions said those who ordered the strikes "were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs, but they also made a lot of bad strikes."

In one of the deadliest of those "bad strikes," scores of civilians were killed in a March 18, 2019 airstrike on a crowd of mostly women and children in Baghuz. It was a so-called "double-tap" strike—first, an F-15E fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb; then another warplane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb to kill most of the survivors. U.S. military officials then attempted to cover up the apparent war crime.

Thousands of civilians died in Syria and Iraq; in the wider 20-year so-called War on Terror, around 900,000 men, women, and children have been killed by U.S.-led bombs and bullets, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

"There is no such thing as a 'humane' war, much as we might want there to be," Joel Mathis wrote for The Week. "Since the emergence of 'smart bomb' weaponry during the first Gulf War three decades ago—and especially since drone strikes became a tool against suspected terrorists and even U.S. citizens under President Obama—the American government and its allies have tried to convince the public that they can and do inflict fearsome destruction on their enemies, but with a rigor that allows them to largely avoid causing injury and death to bystanders. It's never really worked out that way."

Writing for World Socialst Web Site, Patrick Martin accused the Times of "the ultimate hypocrisy."

"Its news pages detail atrocities committed by the American government in Syria," he noted. "More than 10 years ago, however, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks made public the Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries, internal U.S. military reports that documented countless cases of the American military killing civilians, including the haunting 'Collateral Murder' video that shows an Apache helicopter gunship slaughtering a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists."

"But," Martin added, "the Times says not a word in defense of Assange, who is in imminent danger of extradition to the United States for trial, imprisonment, and potential execution by the very government that is responsible for the crimes detailed by the Times."

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