Finding the Faces of War

Powerful, often poignant proof that the system fails outrageously
Nick McDonell Roopa Gogineni

“The Bodies in Person”
Nick McDonell
Blue Rider Press, $28

Nick McDonell set himself a noble mission: to put names and faces on the civilians killed and injured by U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, similarly, to identify Americans tasked with estimating that “collateral damage” in advance, attempting to limit or at least record it, accept responsibility, make amends.

But “The Bodies in Person,” Mr. McDonell’s report from the bloody field, albeit a bit of a battle itself, is powerful, often poignant proof that the system fails outrageously, perhaps inevitably, despite much formal proclamation of the value America places on innocent life regardless of race, religion, or nationality.

We get a multitude of names, physical descriptions, even a few photos.

One is Sara Mohammed, 7, of Tikrit, whose family took her to Delhi for surgery on the hole in a heart valve, only to see her fatally injured back home by the blast from an airstrike on the house across the street — after it was taken over by ISIS. An airstrike U.S. Central Command denies making.

Another is Zabiullah Zarifi, 37, of Parwan, north of Kabul, who prizes photos from his years working for Americans at Bagram Air Base since the Afghan war began in 2001. Then an American patrol shot up his car, leaving him scarred and paralyzed from the waist down. And his “unstable crook” of a brother, according to Mr. McDonell, signed for the $7,500 the U.S. meant for the actual victim of such injuries — solatia.” A sliding scale gives more to survivors of those killed.

In a camp for internal refugees outside Fallujah, we meet Noor Najem Abid, who didn’t know how old she was, but said she was nine months pregnant when her belly was pierced by shrapnel from a missile blast down the street from her garden. After which she delivered dead twins.

At least as infuriating as the case histories is the system itself. “The number of civilian casualties has decreased a great deal compared to the casualties in 2007 to 2014,” Mohammad Asim, the governor of Parwan, tells the author. But a United Nations chart on the same page shows a steady increase across Afghanistan in those years, from 5,969 dead and injured annually to 11,418.

In Iraq, civilian casualty numbers were on the rise before the flowering of ISIS, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission there (also contradicted by official Iraqi and coalition forces), from 3,238 in 2012 to 19,266 in 2016, though down to 8,079 the next year.

And even those numbers may be low, for several reasons, including that hospitals are often too frantically busy to keep records, sometimes tending to patients already dead “lest relatives with militia contacts, dissatisfied with a doctor’s efforts, demand blood money,” says Mr. McDonell.

And who is a civilian, anyway? The author introduces us to the “Ten Dollar Taliban” — a concept explained by an “erudite and combat-tested” lieutenant colonel named Mark in Kabul:

“They need ten dollars today. They need ten dollars tomorrow. So they’ll join the team for the sake of earning that ten dollars in order to put food on the table. . . . Is that guy Taliban, or is he civilian? And if we are gonna win this, isn’t he, you know, the swing voter that we need to be focusing on instead of killing him?”

A taxi driver outside Erbil articulates the essence of survival: “When Saddam was alive, we were clapping for him. The Americans came, we clapped. Then the army came, we clapped. ISIS came, we clapped. Now the army has come back, we clap.”

We learn of the military’s NCV or NCCV — the non-combatant casualty cutoff value” — “ultimately set by the president, and classified,” Mr. McDonell explains. And he quotes a Colonel Nicholas, senior legal adviser at U.S. headquarters in Kabul: “The NCV represents a number of civilians that could be killed, that might be acceptable under . . . whatever restrictions the U.S. government has put on us.”

As he spoke with Mr. McDonell, the NCV for conventional forces in Afghanistan was zero, and in Iraq and Syria 10. “No one will speak publicly about the numbers for the CIA or Special Forces,” Mr. McDonell reports. “Conversations off the record suggest they are higher.”

The projected number of civilians likely to be killed or injured in any particular operation is governed by the Collateral Damage Estimate Methodology. It requires that “target packets” meet a series of criteria or “pillars” — positive identification, a no-strike list that includes nearby mosques and historical ruins, the number of civilians in each bomb or missile’s known radius of destruction (no greater than the NCV without a special okay from the Pentagon, supposedly).

Mr. McDonell sits in the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, in southern Afghanistan when a strike is called against six men they watch on eye-in-the-sky monitor screens. One of them is digging a bunker — quickly categorized as an “established fighting position” — behind a stone wall, then firing over that wall at an Afghan National Army outpost.

After missile explosions that resemble “red flowers” on the video screens, two men are seen running off — “squirters.” Whether the digger-shooter is dead — and whether the others were comrades or under duress — is not known.

The lawyer in the room, a Texas litigator named Bobby with the body of a weightlifter, ponders how the standard of proof for such a killing strike compares with “beyond a reasonable doubt” for a murder conviction back home. “Somewhere about probable cause,” he admits.

“I’m trying to figure it out in my own head, in my own heart, whether it is appropriate sometimes to kill innocent people to get what we want,” Mr. McDonell tells Callie, a contractor from defense giant BAE Systems, who also works in the TOC.

“I just don’t know if there’s a mitigation on how not to do that when you’re fighting an enemy who will protect himself with women and children,” she says. “I mean, that’s the evil, right?”

Even the most modern technology is no guarantee against dreadful mistakes. One officer recalls a strike involving a man who, on the monitors, seemed to be running with a rocket-propelled grenade. After the smoke cleared, it turned out to be his blanket roll.

Not accidentally, I think, the style of this book itself creates a kind of chaotic battlefield confusion. Mr. McDonell won fame at age 17 with the novel “Twelve,” about privileged Manhattan kids like himself. Here his narrative seems purposely fragmented, as if itself blown apart by a grenade, lurching forward and back in time, from Iraq to Afghanistan and back, with frequent digressions and complex ethical considerations.

His footnotes do not simply specify sources but constitute whole paragraphs seemingly moved from the main text, sometimes with key facts.

For example, in describing how a Civilian Casualty Credibility Assessment Review Board compares allegations of such injuries with official military and civilian records, available video, and other intelligence, Mr. McDonell saves for a footnote (128) that members of the investigating team “do not typically visit the sites.” But a few pages later we learn that media attention can prompt just such visits.

Digressions often stop moving accounts of death, injury, or other dangers. Noting that 10-year-old Hidran Ali Abdullah, paralyzed by an airstrike during the Third Battle of Fallujah, would never likely fly herself, leads into a history of weaponized flight starting with hot air balloons directing French artillery fire in the 1890s.

At a bombing site in west Mosul, the call for body bags described as “cheap, bright blue, and made, probably, of polyethylene,” prompts comment on a massing of plastics in the Pacific Ocean.

After ISIS moves into the town of Albu Hardan in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and airstrikes against it begin, Mr. McDonell reports the tears of a Sufi woman named Aisha. The remains of her husband, Mohammed, cannot even be found in the rubble that was their home. Then he defines three types of human tears (basal, reflexive, psychic).

There is no official confirmation of that strike. Mr. McDonell doubts Aisha will ever receive compensation, then adds: “She will not knock, perilously, on the door of the American embassy, which cost $750 million to construct.” As if anyone could think she would, or find the cost relevant.

But he goes on: “She is not permitted anywhere near that compound, across the river in the Green Zone, around which the sons of Iraqi oligarchs, made wealthy by the U.S. invasion, raced me on their jetskis, across the oil-slick Tigris. . . .”

Wait! What? Our noble war reporter off-duty was also jaunting on a Jet Ski? Or just speeding along a riverbank road? But why such a self-indulgent counterpoint to Aisha’s tears?

Mr. McDonell frequently argues that privileged, powerful America sees the innocent lives it takes abroad as less worthy than those it is protecting at home. But this is not World War II; America is not really killing those likely to take U.S. lives.

In fact, the actual trade-off is, in a way, more chilling: taking lives — innocent and otherwise — in far-off nations to bring what America sees as the blessings of political stability, public safety, dare we say democracy. And, yes, maybe for access to some natural resources.

Without doubting Mr. McDonell’s earnestness, I found his personal moralizing in many places ponderous, at the very least distracting from the real drama he has covered. In another footnote (235), he seems to acknowledge “this ‘voice-of-God’ rhetoric.”

Still, if it helps him get through the night after all the sniper fire he’s ducked, blasts he’s felt, blood and gore he’s seen, who can say nay? And if war is hell, should not reading war reporting be a bit hellish too? So let Mr. McDonell have the last words:

“The only non-combatant casualty cutoff value consistent with our values is zero. . . . To set a limit of zero in good faith requires a radical reduction in our use of force, a rejection of violence equal to the full measure of devotion that many of our citizens have given throughout history, in defiance of cruelties at home and abroad. It is to recommit ourselves to equality, and so to a difficult moral truth: that Americans should be more willing to risk death, so that others might live, because those others are our equals.”

And this: “No litany of sufferings will reduce our tolerance for violence. Only life can do that, not death alone. And so for my part I am grateful for swimming in the ocean, and for the desert, too, and for bats over rubble. For iron, which is found not only in missile fragments but Paris’s wrought railings. For everything, really . . . because they are elements of our universal but as yet scientifically unarticulated shared consciousness, representing grace, which makes needless death all the madder.”


Nick McDonell’s other books include the novel “An Expensive Education” and “The End of Major Combat Operations.” He has family in Amagansett.

David M. Alpern was a reporter, writer, and senior editor at Newsweek, ran the “Newsweek on Air” and “For Your Ears Only” radio broadcasts for more than 30 years, and later hosted weekly podcasts for World Policy Journal from his home in Sag Harbor.