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Assist Civilian Casualties to Win Hearts and
A Conversation with Sarah Holewinski of CIVIC
02/15/2007 10:03 PM ET
One of the most painful aspects of armed conflict remains the destruction it wreaks on local civilian populations. Regardless of how advanced targeting technology has become, the slightest error can lead to great tragedy.

Some conservative military analysts assert that acknowledging "collateral damage" would be a sign of weakness that could play into the hands of enemy propagandists. However, in recent years a new kind of perspective has been overtaking the conventional wisdom on the issue.

Effective counterinsurgency strategy requires support from the local population, to ensure they don't shelter, aid, or join the enemy. Drawing from the wisdom of the U.S. Army's Counterinsurgency Manual states:

"Killing every insurgent is normally impossible. Attempting to do so can also be counterproductive in some cases; it risks generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge."

Sarah Holewinski, executive director for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), joined Iraqslogger to discuss the issue of civilian casualties, and what the United States is doing to address their needs.

Estimates for civilian casualties in Iraq have ranged from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. What do you consider the most accurate estimate for the civilian toll of this war?

The answer is that there is no answer. The United States does not keep public record of innocent civilians harmed in Iraq. One source counts deaths through media reports – a good baseline but a bare minimum. Another source statistically calculates Iraqis who’ve died in total since 2003. How many of those are innocent civilians? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that every estimate represents real lives just like yours and mine, devastated by war and deserving of recognition.

Beyond the simplistic justification that we should fix anything we accidentally destroy, what is the thinking that makes civilian casualty assistance a new element of U.S. military strategy?

Helping innocent civilians is strategically important to US troops. Combat is no longer about massive military force rolling through a country; it’s about fighting insurgent groups, usually in densely populated urban areas, and coming face-to-face with the local population.

The best thing the US military can do is to win the support of those civilians, many of whom want nothing more than to keep their families safe and to go about their lives. Giving a father, a mother or a family suffering a tragic loss a compensation payment and humanitarian aid to help them rebuild says, “We are sorry, we did not mean for this to happen.” That shows our humanity and it mitigates their resentment.

Has it always been a policy of the U.S. government or military to make monetary payments, or otherwise lend assistance, to repair the "collateral damage" created by U.S. operations?

When the US invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, CENTCOM--the main decision making body for our troops--did not approve this type of help to civilians. Finally, in September 2003, the US recognized the need to do something to recognize civilian suffering and Congress authorized compensation payments. CIVIC has been working these past years to make sure civilians harmed by American forces are helped by our government. Mainly, we want these ordinary people to be ‘compensated’, or given a direct cash payment for their injury, family death or property damage.

The program is a good one but doesn’t work as well as it should. After a stilted beginning, the system is too ad hoc to really work the way it should on the ground in Iraq. Some people get paid. Others don’t. That’s why we need the United States to adopt a permanent condolence payment system. With that in place, the U.S. military will be in a better position to assist innocent civilian victims, and well-equipped with a strong weapon to “win hearts and minds.”

How do civilian victims go about applying for assistance? How are they verified as meriting payment, and how is the money disbursed to them?

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has set up claims centers where civilians can go to file a claim for an injury, a death in the family or property damage. The civilian must have certain documents to verify the incident, such as a death certificate, a witness account, etc. Military lawyers can then piece together the picture of what happened and make a determination on payment. Dispersing the payments is the tricky part, particularly in Iraq where there is no banking system and cash is a sought-after and therefore dangerous commodity.

How does American policy towards civilian casualties of war compare to that of other nations?

It might surprise some to know that America is leading the way on the question of how to treat civilians in wartime. The US has two programs to help innocent people harmed by its bullets and bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. One I’ve already mentioned is a direct cash payment, or compensation, for an injury or death. The second is humanitarian aid--the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund and the Leahy Initiative help rebuild families and communities devastated by US operations. Compare this to NATO forces in Afghanistan that do not currently have a collective way of helping civilians it harms while trying to shut down the Taliban.

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