The U.S. Military Says It Killed About 500 Civilians Last Year. Outside Groups Put the Count Far Higher.

A lot of people are dying in unauthorized wars.


Brett Critchley/

The U.S. military killed 499 civilians and injured another 169 in 2017, according to a new report from the Defense Department. The government is still investigating 450 other potential civilian casualties from 2017, so the official total may eventually move higher. Since 2014, the U.S. and its allies estimate that they've killed 896 civilians while fighting ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Those may be severe undercounts.

The British nonprofit Airwars estimates that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition was responsible for anywhere between 3,923 and 6,102 civilian deaths last year, and a minimum of 6,259 since 2014. It does not have a U.S.-specific total, but given that the United States is responsible for a majority of coalition airstrikes it is reasonable to assume that a good portion of those 6,000+ deaths are on America's hands.

The Defense Department acknowledges that other groups put the number of casualties far higher than it does, chalking up the disparity to differing methodologies.

According to the Pentagon's new report, U.S. military gets its tally on civilian casaulties by comparing outside reports from non-governmental organizations, local media, and social media with its own information on the location and activity of its forces, as well as any intelligence it has on the site of alleged civilian casualties.

Airwars depends on a mix of Arabic-language media and social media sites, along with reports from local casualty monitors, NGOs, international agencies, and international media. It is obviously unable to draw on U.S. intelligence.

The big problem, according to Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International, is that American government, whatever its informational advantages, fails to follow up on most reports of civilian casualties.

"The Defense Department has deemed that the vast majority of claims of civilian casualties are not credible without ever investigating them. Its numbers therefore likely severely undercount the actual civilian death toll," Eviatar said in a statement. She added that "the investigations that do occur by the Defense Department also do not appear to involve interviews with witnesses nor survivors, nor visits to the locations of the strikes."

Whatever the ultimate death toll may be, it is unsettling that so many innocent people are being killed by U.S. forces, especially in wars that are not authorized by Congress and have an increasingly tenuous connection to American security.