Nick McDonell has reported on the War on Terror from the very beginning. A high school student in New York when the Twin Towers fell, he went downtown, he wrote later in n+1, looking to “help somehow.” To his credit, he knows this is absurd, but knowing what you should do is not easy either. A recurring theme in McDonell’s writing is the idea that, as he puts it, “If you are a U.S. citizen born when I was, in the winter of 1984, soldiers have been deployed on your behalf in every year of your life.” The basic unit of paradox here is citizenship, and the accompanying word behalf. What obligations come with that citizenship—if, say, your country is attacked while you’re studying precalculus? What responsibility do you bear when a war is waged by your country’s government, even if you didn’t vote for that government? What if you oppose the government’s policies vehemently, but also benefit from infrastructure or health care? What if you renounce your privilege, but continue to profit from it?
For McDonell, the answer to both his curiosity and his moral unease is journalism. “For a combination of reasons not unusual among young men,” he writes, he went to war when his country did. Mostly, he went as a reporter. McDonell has an outlandish golden-boy resume: son of the managing editor of Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone (Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion hung around the house when McDonell was growing up), Harvard then Oxford, published a best seller at seventeen and a third novel by 25, reported for Harper’s, Time and the London Review of Books, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda and so on. Now in his mid-thirties, he’s embarking on longer projects, a veteran reporter reflecting on what he saw: more ambitious, more serious, though still absurdly young. Even his world-weariness is precocious.
McDonell’s newest book, The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars, positions itself somewhere between reportage and social analysis, moving journalistically from the streets of Mosul and Baghdad to a drone-warfare control room. The degree of access is incredible: McDonell embeds with a civil defense squad, digging people out of air-struck buildings while dodging ISIS snipers; he interviews senior American officers, visits refugee camps, goes on patrol, repeatedly speaks on the phone to a Taliban spokesman who turns out to be several people using a single cover name. But McDonell is clearly aiming at something bigger than the curation of uncomfortable facts; he’s interested in the big moral ideas underpinning the making and instantiating of American foreign policy. There cannot be many people with a more comprehensive view of the War on Terror, and his engagement with the debate over what a more ethical foreign policy might look like is worth considering—especially in light of the challenges he faces when he tries to step back from his reporting to offer recommendations on what to do about it.
McDonell’s eye for detail, honed during his years of journalistic practice, is idiosyncratic, and wonderful. A typical one-sentence profile runs “Sergeant Ma’ad, twenty-eight, Diyala Brigade, Division Two, Iraqi Special Operations Forces, father of five, craving a smoke.” Or, “Omer is a nearsighted candy maker in his early thirties, gently mustachioed, glasses pushed high on his nose.” Someone is “the kind of sniper who blows you a kiss as he walks through the door,” someone else is “a general surgeon who walks like a rooster,” someone else has “the quiet intensity of a water buffalo.” A street is “awash in brass shell casings, and a soldier sweeps them away with a long-handled broom. The tinkle of the brass is audible over idling engines and irregular whumpfs of mortar fire.” Twice McDonell refers to the smell of decomposing bodies in terms of color: “the purple stink of corpses” and “the body rot blown along the banks of the Tigris that day, still fresh, blue.” A drone-operations captain “keeps dice on his desk and shakes them in his fist while he coordinates airstrikes,” almost too apropos to be taken seriously. A rescue worker in Mosul, digging bodies out from the rubble of another airstrike, gargles with water in the heat, but spits it out, rather than swallowing, because it’s Ramadan.
And so on. The reader gets a sense that the more sympathetic a portrait is, the more likely the impending tragedy. The book’s most uncomfortable chapter begins, “Sara Mohammed, seven, cheerful problem child, black pigtails, dimples, eldest daughter,” and already we know where this is going. The objective is a kind of literary pointillism, building a whole out of tiny, loosely assembled parts in order to suggest the much larger scale of wartime loss. Each bare-bones sketch, flashing momentarily out of the fog, implies not just a larger human story—there’s obviously more to Sergeant Ma’ad than his nicotine addiction, more to Omer than his glasses and candy—but also the existence of many other stories we cannot know, even in such cursory detail as McDonell allows. The selection of particular details that hint at larger scales is typical of McDonell’s style across his body of work. In a 2008 essay for Harper’s, reporting on the Darfur genocide, McDonell attributes this tendency to Alex de Waal, one of his Harvard professors:
I first met him in 2006, when I took a class of his called The Politics of Humanitarian Emergencies in Africa. He was unflaggingly specific about the region’s baffling politics, but he would always find the detail that kept us, his audience, in his narrative grip: the Rwandan MP who brought his pistol into the Chamber of Deputies, or the surprising origins of the sex manual for Tigrayan revolutionaries.
A decade after Harvard, through the fog of war and the hail of bullets and all the unwieldy theoretical frameworks for thinking about human violence, McDonell relates, from Mosul, a possibly apocryphal story:
[A] father … rushed from bombarded ISIS territory over the line to an Iraqi Special Operations Forces position, carrying a dead boy in his arms. The father, in shock, somehow thought the boy alive. Told by soldiers the boy was dead, the man began to wail. What happened? the soldiers asked. He told them an airstrike had killed one of his sons, and so he decided to try to escape with the remaining one. He’d quickly dug a shallow grave, the closest he could come to halal burial under the circumstances, and laid the dead son down, and covered him. Then he scooped up the surviving son and fled. But in his panic he’d taken the dead boy and buried the living one.
The particular details form part of the mythology of a particular war, and exert a rhetorical force that supersedes their actual basis in fact. An entity called the United States invaded an entity called Iraq—countries, as McDonell points out early on, “represent incomprehensible multitudes … the first step away from a person’s name is the first step toward killing him without thinking too much about it.” But at the same time, as a cardiologist at the Baghdad Teaching Hospital tells McDonell, “After everything, if I see my neighbor in trouble, I will not help him. My country is my father, my mother, my wife and two children. It is enough.” Another man tells him, “We have the hopes of cats: eat, shit, and sleep.” While McDonell’s deployment of these fragments is powerful, it comes with some hazards. There are plenty of similarities between novelistic writing and journalistic writing, but they aren’t quite the same task. Toggling between the scales, there is a real danger of loosening the correspondence between the theories of politics and what one of my own undergraduate professors used to call “politics at street level.”
The further one ventures into the bureaucracy of governance, the bigger that danger gets. In one of his journalistic digressions, McDonell visits a Starbucks in Pleasantville, New York, to interview a former targeting officer. This man tells him that “There was a cutoff of twenty civilian casualties, twenty anticipated civilian casualties in any airstrike … Any more than twenty, you needed national-level authorization, which meant sec def or president.” This number is the Non-Combatant Casualty Cutoff Value, or NCV. It is classified, and set by the president; it varies by theater (elsewhere, McDonell mentions an NCV of zero for Afghanistan, and ten for Iraq and Syria), and by the forces involved. “No one will speak publicly about the numbers for the CIA or Special Forces,” writes McDonell, since the numbers he cites apply to conventional forces, but “conversations off the record suggest they are higher.”
McDonell engages in some brutal mathematics on behalf of the NCV. Drawing on research published by Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan in the New York Times, he comes up with an estimate of 13,862 civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes in Iraq between 2014 and 2017. That’s 4,621 civilians per year (between twelve and thirteen per day), and if we, as McDonell says “cut this number in half before we multiply it by the number of years America has been at war in Iraq” we come up with 34,657 civilians in total. (With his eye for awkward details, McDonell points out that this is roughly the population of Beverly Hills, California.) In Afghanistan, similar calculation produces a total of 6,375 civilians over seventeen years. The actual number, of course, is unknowable. In 2016, McDonell goes on, with an NCV of ten, the coalition “acknowledged” 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, producing a total number of potentially acceptable civilian casualties of 45,890—more than the total peak number of ISIS fighters. Given that, between September 12, 2001 and the Battle for Mosul in 2016, foreign terrorists killed 411 American civilians, we come up with the approximation that “on paper, the United States was willing to tolerate the incidental killing of 112 innocent Iraqis or Syrians per 1 innocent American killed by terrorists.” These numbers, McDonell says, “reveal something simple about how America values foreign lives against its own. It values them less.”
Well, of course it does. The United States of America is a specific country, with specific citizens, many of whom must be comfortable with these sorts of calculations. McDonell, understandably, is not. “Proportionality is not a dignified doctrine for a superpower,” he writes. “It is not courageous or morally ambitious.” The NCV is “inconsistent with truths we hold to be self-evident.” In a chapter titled “The Unavoidable Question,” McDonell quotes the father of a murdered daughter—Sara with the pigtails, from earlier—asking, in light of all the hedging and denials coming from American officialdom, whether one life is worth more than another. Morally, of course, the answer is clear. But it seems possible that the more unavoidable question asked by the book is: Must states behave in this way?
In trying to answer, McDonell adopts a viewpoint toward the state that we might call quasi-anarchist, or at least a view that an anarchist would recognize; we might call it “state skepticism.” For one life to truly not be “worth more than another,” we would have to go a lot further than reforming the protocols around airstrikes and casualty calculations. Whatever the actual civilian casualty numbers are, they are just scratching the surfaces of deaths that result from the idea of citizenship. Those who die via the selective application of health care, of climate-change mitigation, of the availability of food, die just as surely as those killed by drones, and those deaths are just as surely the result of prioritizing citizens over non-citizens. Once you’ve accepted that the state should exist, that borders are real, and that there is some sort of legitimate correspondence between “America” on paper and “American” citizens, it seems to follow quite naturally that some lives are more valuable than others. A state that did not prioritize its own citizens over those of another state would not be a state at all, in the sense that we’ve come to understand it. As the old Winston Churchill joke goes, we’ve already established who you are, and now we’re just haggling about the price.
McDonell’s prescription for civilian casualties is, broadly, to reduce the NCV, to foster a military ethic of moral responsibility, to work toward a society that accepts certain risks because to accept certain risks is simply morally better. That is a legitimate perspective, a defensible one, and it offers several avenues for useful reforms. Such reforms are not radical, but they are possible and desirable. Of course the NCV should be lower; of course it should really always be zero. Of course we should be willing to take a few hits in the name of openness and honor and civic-mindedness. But an American military with an NCV of zero would, of course, still be an American military, an organization endowed with the power to carry out violence on behalf of some people and not others. Americanness in general would still be wielded on behalf of Americans, with or without their consent.
The NCV is about one specific type of civilian casualty; there are, of course, others, just as civilian casualties merely scratch the surface of the violence of globalization. Drawing on Neta Crawford’s book Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars, McDonell lists three broad categories: genuine accidents, systemic collateral damage and “foreseen proportionality,” the latter of which is covered by the NCV. “If you know an accident will happen,” McDonell writes, “it isn’t an accident.” Visiting the Baghdad Teaching Hospital, McDonell contemplates the concept of “excess mortality”: “deaths that wouldn’t have happened without the war—either caused directly by combat, or indirectly, by the consequent degradation of public health infrastructure.” McDonell points to a 2007 study by the Lancet which concluded, to a confidence interval of 95 percent, that “at least 650,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the first three years of the war.” That figure has been questioned in the literature, and other figures have been produced since then, both higher and lower. But it’s difficult to know how to limit such estimates. Causation grows more vague with distance from the inciting incident. Should we include people killed by ISIS in our definition of “excess mortality”? What about people killed by climate-change-induced droughts which might have been mitigated if the money spent invading and occupying Iraq was instead spent on developing renewable energy sources or capturing atmospheric carbon?
In fact, apportioning specific responsibility for civilian casualties in the first place ends up being quite a thorny problem, only partly because of the difficulty in defining such casualties. Asked by McDonell if he’d “ever want to be in a position where you’d be making the call,” a drone targeter responds, “No … I like having the responsibility and authority, but not that much, to be honest with you.” Later, McDonell notes that “each man involved tells me he shares responsibility for the killings, but also that authority is carefully circumscribed and informed by rank and task. No one bears responsibility alone.” Because, as he has so clearly and meticulously demonstrated, responsibility and agency are fragmented all down the line, McDonell cannot really give us a prescription. At most, the Secretary of Defense or the President could be a little more discerning about what they’re willing to tolerate, or what NCV they choose to set.
The book’s crown jewel is McDonell’s exposure of an airstrike on Sar Baghni, a remote village in Afghanistan. The airstrike occurred a decade ago, although it has not been publicly acknowledged. Of the Sar Baghni incident, McDonell points out, “For my part, I do not know exactly how many civilians were killed that day … My own list is 234 names long, but I’ve heard and read and recorded conflicting figures, ranging from a low of 90 to a high of 312. Of all the organizations and researchers, only the Coalition claims official certainty, a particular number. Their number is 0.” Classified reports suggest otherwise; one such document, which McDonell provides more or less whole in his endnotes, suggests a payment of “approx. 800,000 USD” in relation to this incident. McDonell calculates out what this means: “At the time, American compensation guidelines call for no more than $2,336 to be paid per innocent death. Eight hundred thousand dollars, therefore, would cover up to 342 dead Afghan civilians. According to a State Department employee then working in Helmand, the actual amount paid was $836,722, which would cover 358 dead Afghans.” The allegations around Sar Baghni are extraordinary. “It is probable,” McDonell writes, “that the bombing of Sar Baghni is the deadliest civilian casualty incident of the war in Afghanistan. To date, none of these casualties have been acknowledged publicly by the United States.”
This is an exceptional piece of reporting, but while McDonell has clearly revealed a case of gratuitous malpractice, there’s once again not much in the way of a prescription following the diagnosis. Gesturing at the book’s central tension, McDonell concedes:
It is normal that Americans should care more for their countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors, and friends define a life. One cannot love a stranger, a little girl in Tikrit, as much as a daughter. But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl, or risk killing her, to save our own. Killing innocent people to increase our own security is cowardly. This idea does not require an understanding of classified intelligence, cosmopolitanism, sovereignty, utilitarianism, or geopolitics. It requires only a little courage.
This is not incorrect—of course we should prefer not to kill innocent people—but it’s not fully satisfying either. One might argue (although McDonell doesn’t) that the quasi-anarchist critique here is all well and good, but citizenship isn’t going to be abolished any time soon, and that in the meantime we should try to limit civilian casualties in the various ways available to us. As McDonell points out, public pressure does sometimes work. Presumably this is the theory underlying his practice of moral journalism; it’s also why one could reasonably argue (as McDonell does) that the current American approach to civilian casualties is, for all its failings, the most humane framework in the history of warfare—both the best ever and still unacceptable.
This position, though, seems similarly dissatisfying. Once we’ve accepted that citizenship exists, we’ve yielded the theoretical high ground; and once we’ve yielded the theoretical high ground, it is difficult to provide rigorous counterarguments to people who take that to its inexorable conclusion, the unavoidable implication of the logic of the state. Apropos of almost nothing unless you’re reading it from a certain angle, McDonell notes that “during the campaign for Mosul … a portion of the Larsen C ice shelf, roughly the size of Delaware, breaks off Antarctica into the ocean. Discussion of the wider world, however, rarely occurs on the battle lines.” Although he only ever hints at it obliquely, the parallel is there, waiting to be drawn: climate change is another one of those questions that defy us to insist that the state, somehow, is still the right answer.
McDonell’s core point—that the U.S.’s approach to civilian casualties suggests that the American government values American lives more highly than it values foreign lives—is true but, stated in this way, somewhat trivial. What other conclusion would we expect? And while his criticism—that much of the behavior that results from this core premise is cowardly—is valid, it is hard to see what the next step might be. If we accept McDonell’s critique, then is it not also cowardly to provide health care (not that America does, really, but suppose) to American citizens and not to others?
McDonell chronicles the failings of American foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan eloquently, and extremely well. But his undrawn conclusions are significant in part because they reflect the broader challenges facing those attempting to develop a “left foreign policy”—a debate to which McDonell clearly sees himself contributing. There are values and moral outrage here, but the plan remains opaque. The problem is not unique to McDonell. While left-leaning economists can point to, for instance, Marxism as a theoretical analysis to frame policy goals, there is no such obvious organizing theory for the left on foreign policy. The problem begins with the words: once we’ve accepted “foreign” as a legitimate construct, we’ve accepted the international system that comes with it, and thereby reduced the scope of political possibilities. From here it’s not much of a leap to consider that the incoherence of our approach to civilian casualties mirrors the incoherence of our approach to migration and climate change: lacking an organizing principle, we are reduced to debating technocratic pros and cons, and little by little the ideological valences are squeezed out.
This is why, unlike on domestic policy—where left-leaning policy-makers may disagree on specifics but are often (though clearly not always) in general agreement about the end goals—on foreign policy it is quite possible to envision (or observe in the wild) perspectives developed in good faith which take entirely opposing positions on, say, intervention in Syria, or membership in NATO. The question of why it is wrong to interfere in the affairs of other states rests on the idea of a simple correspondence between state and citizenry. Surely most people on the left would agree that murder is something to be generally avoided, but is rigorous non-intervention a coherent stance in cases where the state with which one could be said to interfere is itself an impediment to popular self-determination? Or, as McDonell might put it, can impure power ever be wielded for notionally pure ends?
One useful framing device here might be Philip Abrams’s distinction between the “state-idea” and the “state-system.” In an influential 1977 essay titled “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State,” Abrams expands on the idea, at the time novel, that “the state” does not, as such, exist. Although there are clearly flags and government buildings and individuals drawing salary for their government jobs, the generalities underlying all these activities are, for Abrams, misleading: “The state, like the town and the family, is a spurious object of sociological concern.” Nevertheless the state is worthy of study; even if it does not exist as a general category, it still exerts an influence on the world. Hence the bifurcation: the “state-system” refers to all those things which a purely material analysis would point to as evidence that the state indeed exists, like police cars and ministries of information. The “state-idea” is what everyone agrees, in abstract social space, is actually going on.
McDonell, in Mosul, observes airplanes designed and built in America dropping bombs that kill and maim people born and living in Iraq. A “state-system” analysis would reduce such an incident to its most literal significance, in the passive voice: a bomb was dropped from an airplane, some people were killed as a result. A “state-idea” analysis would lead us down something like McDonell’s path: as an American citizen, he says, American soldiers were deployed on his behalf. But they were deployed without his input, and by the end of the book we have no doubt that he, an American, didn’t want them to be deployed at all. By unifying the “state-system” and the “state-idea,” as Abrams would, we end up with something much more complicated. Citizenship, after all, is only an allegation made by a mutable document, like money or marriage. In light of this, it strikes me as potentially non-crazy to ask what an anarchist foreign policy might, in theory, be like. What would it mean, for instance, to make foreign (or even domestic) policy decisions while taking the correspondence between state and citizen with a grain of salt, something like what the political scientist James C. Scott called an “anarchist squint”? To some extent, this is what the logic of globalization demands, insofar as globalization suggests a blurring of the line between foreign and domestic policy. The violence of globalization—airstrikes, but also drought—is not thoroughly state-centric, but it is not really anarchist either. It’s in this space—the gap between the state (both ours and others) as an idea and the state as a practice—that a left foreign policy must orient itself.
Violence, McDonell says, “is not like the rising of the sun. It is more like the weather. For a long time it seemed we could not influence it, but now we know otherwise.” But violence is not only a matter of body counts: there is also conceptual and ideological violence, the violence of elision, or conflation. That is how we end up with military documents with such spiritually desolate titles as The Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System, useful in McDonell’s analysis of the Sar Baghni airstrike. It’s how we start counting civilian casualties: how to pay for them, how to mitigate them, how to hide them and how to define them out of existence. It’s how we can talk about the interests of Americans, or Iraqis, as if such people actually exist and have coherent interests. McDonell returns to this point over and over: “Everything elided,” he writes, “is part of some other story.” And meanwhile, like a clock ticking softly in the background, the temperatures rise and the glaciers melt and the birds, as if fleeing a war zone, move north.
Art credit: Andrew Schoultz, courtesy of the artist and Joshua Liner Gallery