Andrea Mazzarino Forever Wars Military

War as Terrorism: Conflicts We Can’t Win, Suffering We Don’t See

This is suffering that numbers can’t capture, but it should remind us that war is a form of terrorism.
Total War.

By Andrea Mazzarino / TomDispatch

Anyone who grew up in my generation of 1980s kids remembers G.I. Joe action figures — those green-uniformed plastic soldiers you could use to stage battles in the sandbox in your backyard or, for that matter, your bedroom. In those days, when imagery of bombed-out homes, bloodied civilians, and police violence wasn’t accessible on TV screens or in video games like Call of Duty, war in children’s play took place only between soldiers. No civilians were caught up in it as “collateral damage.”

We kids had no way of faintly grasping that, in its essence, war actually involves civilian deaths galore. And why should we have? In that era when the only foreign conflict most of us knew about was the 1991 U.S. tromping of Iraq, mainly an air-power war from the American point of view, we certainly didn’t think about what we would now call war crimes. It might have been cause for a therapy referral if one of us had taken a G.I. Joe and pretended to shoot a child, whether armed with a suicide bomb or not.

Having lived through more than a century and a half of relative peace in our homeland while fighting endless conflicts abroad, only in the past 20 years of America’s post-9/11 war on terror, waged by U.S. troops in dozens of countriesaround the world, have some of our children begun to grapple with what it means to kill civilians.

War in a Trumpian (Dis)information Age

As a Navy spouse of more than 10 years and a therapist who specializes in treating military families and those fleeing foreign wars, I believe that the post-9/11 wars have finally begun to come home in a variety of ways, including how we think about violence. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond have reached U.S. shores in all sorts of strange, if often indirect manners, starting with the surplus small arms and tactical equipment (some of it previously used in distant battle zones) that the Pentagon has passed on to local law enforcement departments nationwide in ever increasing quantities.

Our wars have also come home through the “anti-terror” grants of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), itself a war-on-terror creation, that have funded local law-enforcement purchases of armored vehicles and other gear. Such weaponizing programs have helped embolden police officers to see themselves as warriors and citizens like George Floyd as enemy combatants, which helps explain the increased use of force during police encounters in these years.

Additionally, in the last decade, this country’s wars have come home in the form of more mass shootings by white supremacist and anti-government types targeting minorities and people of color. Meanwhile, the DHS continued to focus disproportionately on the dangers of Islamist extremists, while overlooking the threat posed by far-right groups, despite their easy access to firearms and the reality that many of their members have military backgrounds.

And think of our wars as coming home in one more way: through the January 6th attack on the Capitol by then-President Donald Trump’s small army of coupsters. After all, about 20% of those facing charges in connection with the Capitol riot had served in the military. Consider it a symbol of our embattled moment that the Republican Party leadership would officially sanction that assault as “legitimate political discourse.”

In this age in which armed conflict seems to be everywhere, take my word for it as a therapist and a mother, kids think about violence in a way they once didn’t. After George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation in 2020, caused by pressure from a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, kids in my community have asked me more than once what it feels like to die when someone steps on your neck. Others have asked me what bullets feel like when they enter your body and whether it’s possible to stop the blood when an armed person walks into your school and starts shooting students down.

I was in a military museum on a base where missiles were displayed and overheard a young child ask his parent whether such a weapon would hurt if it landed on you. Some kids, whose fathers or mothers fought in combat zones and returned with injuries or post-traumatic stress syndrome, can intuit what it means to survive a war after they’ve seen their parent hit the ground upon hearing a child scream on a playground.

The Heart of War’s Toll: Civilian Deaths

One imperative has rested at the core of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found in 2011: to account as accurately as possible for how many people have been killed or injured thanks to the decision of President George W. Bush and crew to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with endless military actions across significant parts of this planet. It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.

According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployedhundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).

People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines war crimes as acts that are disproportionate to the military advantage sought, that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or that fail to take precautions to minimize injuries and loss of life among civilians. It was symbolically apt that the last U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as U.S. troops were withdrawing from our 20 year-old war there, reportedly killed three adults and seven children. And yet most Americans never seemed to take in how much civilians suffered from our war tactics, widely publicized as “surgical” and “precise” in their targeting of Islamic extremists, even as they now take in how the Russians are slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that information about the harm to civilians caused by our air wars in particular hasn’t been available for years to those willing to search it out. To take but one example, check out Zeeshan Usmani, Pakistani scholar-activist and founder of Pakistan Body Count. He conducted detailed investigations of the U.S. drone war in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands since 2004. Usmani’s research shows how, in the absence of strong human intelligence on the ground, American drone operators often determined who was a militant based on imprecise and moving targets. For example, some drone strikes were aimed at cell phones that might have changed hands among several people. Such attacks have killed or injured family members and neighbors of the targeted individual, or even first responders rushing to help after an initial attack had taken place. Usmani found that, between 2004 and 2014, 2,604 civilians had died in those borderlands from U.S. drone strikes — or 72% of the victims during that period.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times set of investigations into this country’s air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria analyzed more than 1,300 military reports of air strikes between 2014 and 2018. Its journalists found that more than half of those strikes, often based on flawed intelligence that caused the Pentagon to target civilians, resulted in thousands of such deaths. 

In January 2017, for example, the Air Force bombed three Iraqi families thought to house ISIS fighters. The households targeted included civilians with no known connections to that terrorist group. An Iraqi man lost his mother-in-law and three of his children, one of whom died in his arms as he tried to get her to the hospital. (A nearby house for Islamic State fighters was untouched.) The Pentagon didn’t even acknowledge those civilian deaths until years after those bombings. Nor did surviving families affected by this and similar “incidents” receive restitution or access to the kinds of medical care that many needed to live with their disabilities.

War as Terrorism

Honoring troops on national holidays like the Memorial Day just past helps obscure a grim reality of our time — that wars are won (or in the case of this country, it seems, never won) only by making it impossible for the communities we oppose to carry on with their daily lives.

I once helped conduct research compiled by 10 major human rights and humanitarian organizations for the publication Education Under Attack. It showed how armed conflict impacted the lives of students and teachers in more than 93 countries. The most recent 2020 report found that government militaries and sectarian armed groups carried out more than 11,000 attacks globally on schools, school buses, students, and teachers between 2015 and 2019. Fighters and troops bombed and occupied schools, and kidnapped students and teachers, sometimes using them for sex or commandeering them into armies and militias. And many of those attacks were all too deliberate. (For reasons I won’t go into here, unlike the Costs of War ProjectEducation Under Attack did not specifically investigate war deaths at the hands of the U.S. military, though most of the countries profiled in its report were those our military arms, aids through intelligence, trains, or fights alongside.) 

An eight-year-old child in Yemen, a country where an estimated 12,000 civilians have died due to air strikes in a nightmarish ongoing war, survived when her bus was hit. That strike was carried out by Saudi forces to which the U.S. endlessly sells arms. Here’s how she responded to the experience: “My father says he will buy me toys and get me a new school bag. I hate school bags. I don’t want to go anywhere near a bus. I hate school and I can’t sleep. I see my friends in my dreams begging me to rescue them. So from now on, I’m going to stay home.”

This is suffering that numbers can’t capture, but it should remind us that war is a form of terrorism.

Who Is to Blame?

Our ignorance of the costs of war is cultural and systemic. The Costs of War Project was started exactly because, as America’s war on terror spread, a few of us became ever more aware of how hard it was to find honest, complete accounts of war and what it does to people and communities.  Our military certainly hasn’t proved eager to document civilian casualties in a reliable or consistent way. In fact, what the Pentagon has known about them was often actively suppressed. The New York Times investigations of U.S. air wars in the Middle East, for example, found that only a handful of those hundreds of cases in which civilians were harmed were ever made public.

In fact, members of the U.S. armed forces have been intimidated so that they wouldn’t come forward to talk about what they had seen or done. For example, in 2010 when a group of our infantrymen shot an Afghan teenager working alone and unarmed on his family farm (in addition to killing two other unarmed Afghan civilians), the military barred those who allegedly committed the murders from giving interviews. When those men were indeed brought up on charges (rare in itself), one of them stated during an interrogation that he had been threatened with death if he refused to participate in a murder.  The Army then placed him in solitary confinement, supposedly to ensure his safety. (The father of this last soldier had alerted the Army to these murders soon after they took place, but that service didn’t intervene until months later.)

Although impunity and lack of accountability are rampant in war, war-crimes trials like Nuremburg after World War II or Kyiv’s recent first trial of a captured Russian soldier who had committed acts of horror are all too rare. And even when they do condemn specific war criminals, they seldom condemn war itself.

I only hope, as the children in my family and my community grow up, they come to understand that war crimes aren’t just a byproduct of recklessness but of an all-too-human decision to “solve” problems through armed conflict rather than the range of alternatives available to us. I also hope that ever more of us accept how important it is to teach younger generations about the horrific suffering of civilians who live through war.

Here’s the truth of it: if we lack empathy for those who suffer in our wars, we endanger humanity’s future. The kids who ask pointed and graphic questions or wake up from nightmares spurred by playing Call of Duty are saner than parents who thank soldiers for their service or celebrate Ukrainian holidays. Purchasing Ukrainian flags is no substitute for trying to investigate the nightmare really underway in that conflict. We should be supporting organizations that protect local journalists. Instead of buying guns ourselves or voting for lawmakers bent on sending our troops all over the world to fight “terror” (and, of course, cause terror), we should be sending money to organizations that document war’s casualties or the humanitarian agencies that aid refugees, displaced people, and survivors of violence.

And it’s time, above all, to ask ourselves what stories we’ve been missing in all these years that our military has been fighting abroad. In such a world, the true costs of war should be endlessly on our minds.

Andrea Mazzarino

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


  1. Notice even here that the author writes of Russian soldiers as guilty, especially the young one “tried” by the Ukrainians, while the constant much more serious behavior of the Ukrainians is ignored. The USA needs to keep out of such “wars”. The overthrow of the elected government in 2014 by USA influence and the arming of the “far right” groups who refused any plan to have peace and fairness in Ukraine, right next door to Russia, led to the present terrible conflict, blamed on Russia by the USA and most of the West. Not “unprovoked and unjustified, or even brutal”, as the Russians tried to remove the military danger to themselves without civilian deaths or even infrastructure damage. The complete refusal of Ukraine to negotiate for all these years is met with US∕WEST encouraging the carnage.

    1. Yes, I saw that. You’re right. The “trial” of that soldier is nothing more than propaganda. The US is bound by no laws or treaties or agreements at all. It does what it wants, and then has the supreme hypocrisy to put on a great showing of its phony high-mindedness. And this show is believed by many here, including virtually every national politician.

      1. @Red Hornet
        There are different degrees of guilt. Killing an enemy soldier is one thing, killing a civilian or a prisoner is quite another. I’m anti-war so I hate all of this, but I also realize that some soldiers are drafted and did not volunteer to do this. Those people have a lesser degree of culpability than those who volunteer.

  2. The American public is shielded from knowledge by the volunteer armed forces as well as a soporific press, a step the Pentagon took after the draft uprisings and fraggings of the Vietnam war.

    The result is a kind of internal mercenary force, quite different politically from the majority, riddled with white nationalists and Christian fascists.

    In the inevitable war with the US, one of China’s advantages will be personnel — killing off as many of these volunteers as possible in the shortest possible time — presenting the option of backing off or trying to re-establish the draft.

    Since many of these homegrown mercs are going to be available for armed suppression, the more of them that die elsewhere — the better.

  3. Andrea Mazzarino – My heart hurt as I read about war’s obscenity wreaked upon the innocents. How graphic the substantive difference in solidarity with others between the cheap Ukraine flag purchase and knowing the awful human cruelty and destruction of today’s warfare. Horrible especially is the absence of integrity among the military’s big guns to own their travesties. How phoney, how cheap, how absent their moral fiber is. A patriarchal attitude of blinding arrogant toxic masculine superiority so divorced and cut off from the feeling function that they are but cold tin men with medals on their chests. Brutal and amoral. Bringing democracy to the heathen. Mercenary criminals. How can the ethos of these mostly men ever be supplanted by those of integrity and honor?

  4. Americans long ago stopped caring about anything but themselves….and profit. You can”t forget the profit…..

  5. Though I can appreciate the piece and the numbers put forth in an attempt I suppose for folk to do – what? The disaster that has unfolded in Ukraine is just beginning and with the Neocons firmly in place and in control- the same folk for 20 years or better, nationalism at home and a 24 hour propaganda barrage, things look bleak. The truth is, a study or more than one has been done some 10 years ago that since World War 2 90% of all casualties in war are civilians, men ,women and children. It’s so stunning of a number that any pretext of spreading democracy is absurd, unless your Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton or it seems Joe Biden. The U.S isn’t the only driver of the numbers but it’s damn close. If we as Americans can’t except that number and be moved to action, nothing else will do it

  6. Although Andrea’s husband is more of a promoter than a warrior, stop and consider how wrenching it must be to criticize the nation and military in which he serves. There must be a cognitive dissonance between the couple that projects upon their daughter and son. So I extend my sympathy that the Mazzarino family is victimized by a malaise of systematic terrorism. This clinical social worker tries to make amends by treating injured minds and by working in projects that document careless collateral damage (innocent civilian deaths, but how discouraging that must be.

    Last time she wrote (The Costs of Another War) on Scheer Post I said: “Most importantly, I wanted to caution you about false hopes. My estimation, from reading and observation, is that the horrors predicted for 2100, are much closer than authorities predict.” Andrea, my garden is maturing and my figs and pears are hanging outside on their trees. I hope some of your expectations are being met and that you continue to possess the motherly fortitude to hold your circle together. We have the consolation of knowing that the crops are swelling to maturity in Krasnador Krai (and other enemy territory) as well by the same forces of nature we enjoy here. There is no God who gives them seven skinny cows while our seven are buttery fat. The entirety of humanity lives on the same farm.

    My caution to virtuous workers like Andrea is that the familiar seeming firmament they tread is not as solid as it might appear and that any moment it might shatter in a shocking cascade. Until we are directly impacted all of us fortunates exist in a state of partial denial (exceptionalism?). Some fearful Americans are violently obstinate in their denial . That’s to be expected in a nation with leaderships so hubristic they are propelling the planet to oblivion. Doesn’t surprise me and I hope it doesn’t surprise you. The UN Reports’ consensus is that tipping points have been crossed. The Time of Useful Consciousness, in which pilots retain enough oxygen to save the passengers and plane, may be gone. We may be in an interregnum of disjointed reflection after systems collapse has become inevitable.

    Because of our milieu persons who would normally be destined prime produce are stunted and rotting on the vine. That is a consequence of insanity at the top. Poor and short-cutted agricultural methods are an apt analogy. Our masters are reaping what they sowed. Sadistic collusion in focusing on personal gain and profit are killing us all, not just those caught in the rainmakings of war.

    Resistance should be proportionate to the magnitude of oppression. I saw a spark in 2020 when first the markets began to melt down before the Pandemic was unleashed. Powerful decision makers have done some cruel and awful things to us, seemingly with impunity and without remorse. Because they are right now so complacent and so crass, so confident they can subvert our consciousness I am inclined to entertain the idea that we have been deceived about all terrorism and war for a long time. Because Capitalism and Empire are in crisis our oppressors have decided that no injustice toward the masses is too extreme. And that is why I say to responsible crusading people that the time for politeness and restraint is over. Just compiling the statistics and documenting the exterminated is not enough.

    In “Lost In Translation” (scene available on Youtube) two immensely privileged individuals, an older actor and a newlywed woman confer about marriage. “Does it get easier?” she asks him ” The Bill Murray character explains to the much younger Scarlet Johanssen that it gets easier by accommodation and habit but always more strained, complex and foreshortened. The truths of lifespan also apply to our political cosmos. In the near term dissent and civility shall get much harder. The only joys available will be found in our valiant struggle to recover justice and fairness. And it’s not assured…

  7. Just A,
    Profits from M I complex and gun manufacturers fund our politi-tudes, and pressi-tudes for war and gun violence.
    These lobbyists create jobs, employment and? Perverse entertainment?

  8. In some societies, wars were fought on battlefields only, with no industrial weapons like guns, and limited to willing participants. I have no problem with people doing that, though it’s not at all what I’d encourage people to do. But as soon as you start harming the natural environment or harming & killing civilians, then your fighting becomes totally evil and I totally oppose it.

    1. I am always reminded of the Dutch in New Guinea using automatic weapons to stop ritual warfare between neighboring groups. What were they thinking? (Looking back we fully understand their motivations were not humane.)

  9. this amerikan fascist imperialist falsely implies Russia targets civilians–despicable liar…no surprise this nazi opposes denazification in Ukraine

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