Is the Trump Administration Killing More Civilians?

Recently, at an academic conference, a colleague and I were talking about precisely what parts of Trump's tenure are going to be the most distinguishable from a hypothetical Clinton administration. When it came down to it, I think we both thought that national security policy was the area that would be most similar. Trump has recently been criticized for the amount of Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni civilians killed by the US or its partners in the past year or so. However, it is likely that the rise in numbers would have occurred no matter who was in office. Battles against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were coming to their horrifying but almost inevitable conclusions: the last strongholds of ISIS being besieged and bombarded. Civilian deaths are bound to increase when states bomb population centers from the air. The results are no different here and the bombing would have likely commenced in a similar fashion with Hillary Clinton as President.

The situation in Yemen is perhaps the area where Clinton would have handled things differently from Trump. The Obama Administration was seemingly on the verge of relinquishing its support from the Saudi campaign as Obama was leaving office, a move that President Trump has clearly reversed. However, Hillary was a hawk in that administration and would have perhaps also reversed course. All in all, while Trump's words set him apart I'm not sure his national security policies actually do...at least not yet. 

Western Coalition Claims Regarding ISIS Death Toll Are Still Obviously False

A while ago I wrote that the Western anti-ISIS coalition has claimed to kill roughly 22,000 "jihadist" fighters in Syria and Iraq. This translates to roughly 46 jihadists killed per day. These numbers contradict the numbers of other organizations on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Recently, a video surfaced of a US airstrike in Iraq, which US government officials claimed killed 250 fighters. How were US officials able to confirm this number when bodies were likely blown apart beyond all recognition? Has any other source corroborated the US government's (actually, one anonymous US official) report? Who knows?! 

Even if we assume reports such as this one are true, they cast further doubt on the US's story. If killing almost 50 fighters a day is a normal occurrence then is killing 250 fighters really that impressive? Other offensives with much lower numbers are also widely publicized. It's news when the Western coalition kills 58 fighters or 20 fighters in one go. If killing 46 fighters a day is the norm then the deaths of 20 fighters should provoke the headline "Below average day for the Pentagon in Iraq" but it doesn't. 

The US has every incentive to over-sell its effectiveness in Iraq and Syria (overstate the jihadist death-toll) and undersell its brutality in Iraq and Syria (understate the civilian death-toll). When you compare the numbers out of the Pentagon (~27,000 ISIS fighters killed, 6-15 civilians killed) to those of non-governmental organizations (~5,000 ISIS fighters killed, ~1,100 civilians killed) it seems the US is acting accordingly.  

Who Gets Mourned?

In Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's Manufacturing Consent, the authors demonstrate that with regard to US activities in Latin America and Vietnam, the massacres of the enemy are dutifully reported while massacres of the US and its allies are downplayed or ignored altogether. This still holds true today (as this blog has related time and time again). Another prominent example of this phenomenon occurred this week.    

Three recent events involving international conflicts were newsworthy: (1) On August 21st Saudi Arabian airstrikes killed about 70 civilians in Southwestern Yemen. (2) On August 16th Syrian regime airstrikes killed scores of civilians (possibly up to 100) in the rebel controlled Damascus suburb of Douma. (3) On August 22nd the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) murdered an 83-year-old archeologists and later destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra. 

If the United States had a "watchdog" media, the kind that does what it claims to do, the kind that files reports exposing the actions of governments for the benefit of the American people, there would be a clear justification for giving priority to each of the events in the above order (1,2,3). Although the death-toll of the Saudi strikes is less than the death-toll of the attack on Douma, the Saudi airstrikes were carried out with US intelligence support, US logistical support, and with US-manufactured weaponry. Saudi Arabia is a strong US ally, with whom the Obama Administration concluded the largest ever American weapons sale in 2010. The deaths in Yemen are appalling and have a clear connection to the actions of the US government, clearly making them a concern of the American people.  

Why the Douma massacre should take precedence over the actions of ISIL in Palmyra should be obvious. The death-toll is substantially higher with the former, while the latter concerns primarily ancient artifacts. There is no doubt that the destruction of Palmyra accords with ISIL's other actions aimed at eliminating any vestiges of opposing cultures but it should be a truism that human life should be valued above stones.  

If, on the other-hand the US has a media that serves primarily state-interests, through self-censorship, reliance on government reports and estimates, a profit motive, and a meta-framework that portrays only certain threats to human life as "dangerous," we would expect the news to reported in inverse (3,2,1). ISIL's actions are more newsworthy because it accords with the framework of "anti-Islamism," much like the news of the 1950's-1980's was reported within the framework of "anti-communism." The Syrian regime's actions should take precedence over the actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen precisely because of Saudi Arabia's status as "ally" while the status of Assad is officially one of "enemy." The Syrian regime's goal is obviously mass-murder while the goal of the US and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is to "restore" the "legitimate" government that was essentially hand-picked by the United States and its allies in the Gulf. 

A brief look at the evidence points to the latter hypothesis: a media that essentially serves US geopolitical interests. The Los Angeles Times filed a single report on the airstrikes in Yemen, and although it mentioned the humanitarian consequences it pinned the blame on both sides for the fighting, even though Saudi Arabia is the aggressor in the conflict and is solely responsible for the airstrikes. Additionally, Saudi Arabia's status as US ally is never mentioned, nor is it mentioned that every cluster munition (banned by almost every country in the world) fired in Yemen is manufactured by the United States. The Los Angeles Times also filed only one report on the Douma massacre. However, qualitatively the blame is placed squarely on the Assad government (as it should be). Other groups fighting on the ground are not mentioned. When it comes to the murder of an archeologist and the destruction of Palmyra, the LA Times produced an amazing 5 reports. Two of the reports surround the execution of the archeologist, three of the reports surround the ISIL demolition of Palmyra, linking it to prior incidence of the group's destruction of antiquities. 

The reports produced by The New York Times also conform to the latter hypothesis. Once again, a single report regarding the Saudi perpetrated massacre in Taiz was produced. The report blames both sides and makes no mention of Saudi military and political connections to the US, nor does it make mention of US-material support for the massacre. The New York Times reporting regarding the massacre in Douma is slightly more comprehensive. Three reports were published. The initial report is a short brief describing the massacre while the two later reports recount the massacre in greater detail and connect it to prior regime-perpetrated killings. Once again, the coverage of Palmyra significantly outstrips coverage of the massacres. The New York Times filed six reports on Palmyra, one reporting the murder of archeologist Khalid al-Assad, a few initial reports of the destruction, several follow-up pieces connecting the destruction to the anti-antiquity stance of ISIL, as well as a photo-blog post taking a look back at the ancient city and contrasting it to its current state.  

The post here is obviously not intended to be a comprehensive qualitative or quantitative analysis of international news coverage. However, given that two major US newspapers follow the same pattern of putting enemy actions first/US-sponsored massacres last, it is not unreasonable to think that the same pattern would likely be found with a more in-depth analysis. If victims of state and non-state violence wish for their plight to be publicized in the United States they should hope that (1) their plight is consistent with the prevailing US discourse and frameworks, and that (2) they don't find themselves victim to massacres perpetrated by US allies or the United States itself.