The idea of recording, identifying and acknowledging each individual victim of armed conflict – and holding to account those responsible – extends the principles underlying the laws of war.
From the Soviet Union to Libya, the story of a single American submarine – the USS Florida – throws light on the transition to the post-cold-war world. The Florida was an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine launched in 1981, at the start of the most dangerous period of that conflict, and commissioned two years later. It was then one of the most powerful warships ever built.
At the start of its career, the Florida was equipped with twenty-four vertical missile launch-tubes, each carrying a Trident missile. Each missile was fitted with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (the so-called MIRVs) armed with W-87 thermonuclear warheads rated at nearly 500,000 tonnes of explosive power. The Florida, to put it bluntly, could have destroyed every city in the old Soviet Union, and with bombs to spare – such was the ludicrous overkill of those supposedly stable days.
With the end of the cold war, the Soviets and Americans began to scale down their strategic nuclear arsenals. The Ohio-class boats, however, had plenty of life left in them and the search was on to find them new roles. The Florida was one of four boats in the class that were converted into a new role – carrying conventionally-armed Tomahawk cruise-missiles. The Florida had good potential as a cruise-missile boat. Its launch-tubes were adapted to take multiple capsules for the missiles, allowing it to deploy 154 Tomahawks instead of the mere twenty-four Trident ones.
The Tomahawk missile itself has been around since the 1970s. The ground-launched nuclear-armed version was deployed in the early 1980s – amid huge political controversy and demonstrations – at European bases such as England’s Greenham Common. There were also nuclear-armed and conventionally-armed sea-launched Tomahawks carried on warships and submarines; a modern version of the latter, the UGM-109E Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM-Block4), is on the Florida.
The capacity of each missile in this range is immense. It can operate in all weathers, and night or day; it has a reach of up to 2,480 kilometres; it can carry either a high-explosive “unitary” warhead or large numbers of cluster-munitions; and it has a guidance and targeting computer that is fully integrated into the US navy’s network-centric system, involving inputs from multiple sources including satellites and reconnaissance drones.
Why is all this “anorak” stuff worth mentioning? The reason is that the Florida was a few months ago nearing the end of a fifteen-month-long around-the-world patrol that kept it away from its home base in the United States. Then, in March 2011, the air-campaign against the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya was launched – and the Florida was by then near enough Libya’s coastline to be called into service. In the event, this boat alone is reported to have fired about 130 of its missiles at targets across northern Libya at the start of the war (see Christopher P Cavas, “U.S. Sub Force Sharpens its Sense of Self”, Defense News, 29 August 2011).
This military story has an obvious strategic aspect, namely that these modified Ohio-class boats provide the United States with yet another form of global strike. But it also carries an equally obvious but far less noted consequence: that these missiles are used to kill people, and the identity and fate of those on the receiving end are no part of this military or any other story (see “The casualties of war: Libya and beyond“, 7 July 2011).
The Florida‘s missiles are only part of a much larger six-month-long air campaign in Libya in which more than 1,000 targets have been hit, many of them repeatedly. The defence ministries in London, Washington and elsewhere have routinely provided the press with details of these targets – whether they be tanks, rocket-launchers, radar-sites, warships, trucks, intelligence bases or even psychological-warfare centres (see “The age of high-tech war: after Libya“, 9 September 2011). What is odd is that there is never any record of anyone getting killed or injured. It is as though every single target is wholly devoid of human presence.
The reality is very different, and this can be established in detail. For modern systems used for bomb-damage assessment – including drones, electronic intercepts, satellites and reconnaissance aircraft – cumulatively allow the planners to gather details of the human costs of the attacks. They know – but they, or their political and diplomatic masters – choose never to publish the facts and figures.
This refusal echoes the much wider attitude in the higher reaches of almost every army engaged in war, expressed most pithily by General Tommy Franks in March 2003: “We don’t do body counts”. In fact, “they” often do just that, but refrain from communicating the results.
A research and campaigning initiative launched in September 2011 – the Charter for the Recognition of Every Casualty of Armed Violence – seeks to highlight and address this deficiency. It is part of a broader development in which the Oxford Research Group’s Every Casualty project has played a vital role (as have other NGOs working on individual conflicts assembled in the International Practitioner Network).
Much of the impetus comes from groups such as Iraq Body Count, as well as those with experience of gathering information about victims in the wars of ex-Yugoslavia. A remarkable example is the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre, which produced the Bosnian Book of the Dead. This compendious work – published in 2007 but still being updated – records the 97,207 citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina killed and missing in war of 1992-95 war.
The Bosnian Book of the Dead – and companion projects in Kosovo, El Salvador and Guatemala – are valuable projects that combine scrupulous historical research with respect for the integrity of each individual victim of war. The new campaign seeks to extend this approach in two ways: by applying it to conflicts as they happen, and simultaneously to place responsibility on the people doing the killing.
The idea is simple: if you go to war and kill people, it is incumbent on you to say who you have killed and in what circumstances. As such it is a natural (if belated) step in extending the laws of war, not least the Geneva conventions.
There is a long way to go, but the fact that the idea already has surprisingly wide appeal may be significant (see “The harvest of war: from pain to gain“, 28 October 2010). After all, even around 2000, few people would have expected a convention on anti-personnel landmines to be agreed so soon; even in 2006, few saw any chance of getting a ban on cluster-bombs.
True, the United States – with its cluster-equipped Tomahawks – has not yet signed up to the latter. It may take many years for states to embrace the charter, and even longer for sub-state groups to accept any kind of responsibility for the violence they inflict. But at a time of bitter conflict in many war-zones – including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria – this initiative is worthy of support. The recording, identifying and acknowledgment of “every casualty of armed violence” is an idea whose time has come.