RAND Report Examines Need to Hold Down Civilian Deaths in U.S. Military Operations

For Release

February 15, 2007

The U.S. armed forces need to continue to find ways to hold down civilian deaths in military operations and provide more timely and accurate information about such deaths to show people around the world that America works hard to avoid civilian casualties, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study by RAND Project AIR FORCE examined public and news media reaction to civilian casualties in four wars and military operations waged by the U.S. armed forces. It found that American efforts to minimize casualties frequently were met by enemy efforts to place innocents at risk and to exploit civilian casualties for propaganda purposes in order to erode support for military campaigns and coalitions.

Attention to and concern about civilian casualties appear to have increased in recent years, both at home and abroad, according to the report by the nonprofit research organization. This is likely to be a recurring and increasingly serious concern for future military operations, the study found.

“To preserve the trust of the public and Congress that the military is doing everything it can to minimize civilian deaths, the Air Force and Department of Defense should continue their efforts to improve capabilities to reduce the risk of these events,” said Eric Larson, a RAND researcher and lead author of the study conducted for the U.S. Air Force.

The report suggests improving U.S. capabilities to screen mobile targets as a method for preventing civilian casualties, because enemies often use civilians as human shields to deter American attacks on legitimate military targets.

Additionally, faster and more accurate combat assessments could improve U.S. commanders; ability to quickly and reliably reconstruct the events surrounding civilian deaths, diagnose whether these incidents might be accountable to American errors, and thereby prevent their reoccurrence, researchers said. This would have the additional benefit of enabling military commanders and U.S. officials to give more timely and precise accounts to the media and general public.

While most Americans express concern about the possibility of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. operations overseas, the RAND study found that Americans also have a high degree of confidence that the U.S. military is doing all it can to avoid civilian casualties.

However, foreign audiences are far less inclined to believe that the U.S. is exercising sufficient caution in avoiding civilian deaths and appear to be much more sensitive to civilian deaths that occur in U.S. military operations, the RAND study found.

“Foreign audiences appear to be much more likely to believe that civilian deaths from U.S. operations are the result of carelessness or even the callous disregard for human life,” said Bogdan Savych, a RAND researcher who is co-author of the report.

The report notes that foreign adversaries try to use this sentiment to erode the support of domestic and global audiences, drive wedges between coalitions, and to influence military strategy, tactics, and rules of engagement. This was especially apparent in two of the cases studied – Iraq in 1991 and Kosovo in 1999 – in which enemy forces used human shields, took members of the media to the sites of alleged civilian deaths, and generally tried to play up the events to the media.

“Civilian casualties are highly ‘mediagenic; events and get a lot of attention by the press,” Larson said.

To discern public and media reactions to incidents of civilian casualties, the RAND researchers examined polling and media coverage in high-profile cases involving civilian casualties that were reportedly caused by U.S. attacks in four wars and military operations:

  • The February 1991 Gulf War bombing of the Al Firdos bunker, which appears to have been used as a shelter by both enemy combatants and non-combatants.
  • The April 1999 Kosovo War attack on a convoy near Djakovica, which was later found to include both military and civilian vehicles, and the May 1999 attack on the Chinese embassy in Kosovo.
  • The late June 2002 attack in Afghanistan on what was believed to be a source of hostile fire against coalition aircraft. The hostile fire was later described in the media as the celebratory gunshots of an Afghan wedding party.
  • The March 2003 explosion in a crowded Baghdad marketplace that was attributed by the Iraqis to a U.S. bombing, but was described by the U.S. Department of Defense to be Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery or surface-to-air missile falling back to earth.

“This study shows that although Americans and the media are concerned about civilian casualties, and pay very close attention to the issue, they rarely have very reliable estimates of these casualties,” Larson said. “Without timely and accurate combat assessment capabilities, our military leaders have limited ability to counter adversaries; often exaggerated claims of civilian deaths. Moreover, providing inaccurate information that later has to be amended can really erode the credibility of the United States and its coalition partners.”

The study was part of a larger research effort into ways to reduce collateral damage in military operations.

RAND Project AIR FORCE is a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reaction to Civilian Deaths in Wartime” can be found on the RAND Web site at www.rand.org.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.