The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Middle East civilian deaths have soared under Trump. And the media mostly shrug.

Residents walk through damaged streets at the mountain resort town of Zabadan, Syria, in May 2017 following a U.S. airstrike.
Residents walk through damaged streets at the mountain resort town of Zabadan, Syria, in May 2017 following a U.S. airstrike. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

The numbers are shocking — or at least they should be.

2017 was the deadliest year for civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, with as many as 6,000 people killed in strikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition, according to the watchdog group Airwars.

That is an increase of more than 200 percent over the previous year.

It is far more if you add in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and many others.

But the subject, considered a stain on President Barack Obama’s legacy even by many of his supporters, has almost dropped off the map.

Obsessed with the seemingly daily updates in the Stormy Daniels story or the impeachment potential of the Russia investigation, the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal.

“The media has unfortunately been so distracted by the chaos of the Trump administration and allegations of the president’s collusion with Russia that it’s neglected to look closely at the things he’s actually doing already,” said Daphne Eviatar, a director of Amnesty International USA.

That includes, she said, “hugely expanding the use of drone and airstrikes, including outside of war zones, and increasing civilian casualties in the process.”

Trump, of course, was a candidate who promised to “bomb the shit out of ’em [Islamic State],” and has since declared victory over the terrorist organization, while continuing to drop bombs.

But at what human cost?

Eviatar, and others who monitor these issues, deplore not only the deaths of innocent people but also the government secrecy that has worsened significantly over the past year.

The Pentagon no longer reveals, she said, “even the legal and policy framework the U.S. uses to guide these lethal strikes.”

That makes the role of dogged reporting even more important.

A recent New York Times article revealed that the United States launched eight airstrikes against the Islamic State in Libya, but disclosed only four.

The story noted that military commanders have decided to reveal strikes only if a reporter specifically asked about them — the Pentagon even has a name for this policy: “responses to questions.”

Too often, the questions never come.

“Drone strikes are more prevalent than ever before, and we are hearing about it less,” said Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University.

Part of the reason, she said, is a kind of distorted, post-9/11 flag-waving, combined with a heavy dose of news fatigue.

“We all know there’s stuff going on in the name of fighting terror, but there’s not much interest in the details,” Savell said. “It’s considered unpatriotic to question what’s going on with the military.”

And so, front pages, cable TV pundit panels and network news shows are far more likely to probe the palace intrigue at the White House.

“As someone whose job it is to, essentially, read every article I can find on the U.S. drone war and the consequences, I can’t help but feel disheartened when some former campaign aide’s public breakdown garners drastically more coverage on the same day as a story about how the U.S. killed 150 civilians after they repeatedly bombed a school in Syria,” said Allegra Harpootlian of ReThink Media, a nonprofit communications organization.

Although aggressive reporting on drone strikes and civilian deaths is relatively rare these days, it can yield impressive results.

A BuzzFeed investigation, for example, led to the U.S. government reversing course and admitting responsibility for the deaths of 36 civilians in Mosul. The follow-up story reported that no condolence payments to the families of the victims had been approved — and, given current policy, probably never will.

And a New York Times Magazine investigation in November — “The Uncounted” — revealed that the vaunted precision of U.S.-led airstrikes is both overestimated and underexplained.

Other reporting suggests the U.S.-led coalition’s aggressive bombing of the Islamic State may have been successful, by some estimations, but there is a heavy price to pay in how the United States is perceived.

Widespread civilian casualties, reported the Intercept, are “transforming the coalition in the eyes of locals from liberator into aggressor.”

There is an important national debate to be had about this.

But given the administration’s secrecy and the lack of interest from a highly distracted public and media, that debate will not happen any time soon — certainly not while we have the Twitter feed of Stormy Daniels to occupy us.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit