This post is a combination of personal anecdote, argument, and tragedy. I’m writing this because a young boy I once knew has died, a victim of the protracted and intense fighting in Northeast Syria. Although I’m not blaming anyone for his death, his life was tragically cut short because people don’t listen to us who study the use of technology in warfare.
Fares Al-Khodor is dead
IMAGE SOURCE: Zeinoun Naboulsi via Daily Mail
On 9 July 2015 Fares Al-Khodor was killed near Al-Hasakah, Syria. I don’t have a lot of information about exactly what happened, but according to the linked article, a “coalition air strike” was carried out near Hasakah, where the boy was staying. I contacted a good friend of mine in Lebanon, Zeinoun, and asked him for more information. He wrote back, adding a few details:
He died by an american drone missile strike on his village on syria
This is the only information I have on the incident, and not all of it can be verified. So far the US has not claimed responsibility for the attack, and I doubt they’d be forthcoming if they were responsible. Therefore, I cannot say for certain whether or not the US had a hand in Fares’ death. But still, air strikes….
What did you think would happen?
In college I took a class called “Technology of War,” offered by the incredibly intelligent Aaron Karp. During this class I became obsessed with how technological innovation can—under the right circumstances—undermine military strategy. Karp was instrumental in encouraging me to attend graduate school where, while working on my masters, I majored in Conflict and Cooperation (you might call it “War and Peace,” but that is a little misleading). Indeed, currently in my studies “Conflict and Cooperation” is my minor.
For the last six years I have studied many, many aspects of international conflict—from nuclear armament to nuclear technology, from revolution to reaction, from terrorism to war crimes. But the technology of our wars has always been a special project of mine. I refer back to Karp’s class on a regular basis. And after I heard about Fares’ death, one thing immediately jumped out at me: What the fuck did you think would happen when you conduct an air war against a land-based target?!!
Many of us in my field are extraordinarily cautious about the pursuit of air dominance against ground forces. Sending jets (or in this case, drones) to conduct pinpoint eliminations of specific targets at very specific places can be a very good use of technological innovation that can have immediate benefit to the holder of that technology. But conducting air strikes against general areas—particularly areas with a civilian presence—can have immediate consequences. The least of these is that your target (in this case, what? The Islamic State generally??) has a greater chance of escape and survival. The worst of these is that innocent people die all the time!
I was going to make a short list of combative aerial failures against ground forces, but I really only need to mention two: Israel’s 2006 campaign against Hezbollah and Operation Allied Force’s NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Indeed, the reason I’m capping the list at two is because Wikipedia has an entire page on civilian casualties during Operation Allied Force. Check out the link. It has massive failures, such as the Grdelica train bombing, when we bombed a civilian passenger train on accident… and then turned around and bombed it again just to make sure (I’m stretching the truth a little, to be honest, but not that much).
The point is, although political science has no consensus regarding offensive/defensive technology and how to use it, I would never advise an aerial attack against a non-specific, non-combative target. This is why I call for boots on the ground. While it might be tragic to lose soldiers, losing Fares because we’re too lazy to use our technology in a responsible manner is unacceptable. I just wish generals would actually pay attention to us.
Rest in peace, Fares
I write this not because Fares’ life was worth more than the tens of thousands of other civilian lives lost in Syria, many of whom are children. I’m writing this because I knew Fares. He was a staple in Hamra, Beirut, a place I once called home.
I saw him every night, carrying his bucket of roses, which he would sell for LL3,000 ($2.00). I often spied a pretty lady across the alley and would pay Fares to take her a rose. Other times I’d buy a rose from him just because I like the smell of roses. And it wasn’t just I who knew Fares either. This post isn’t just about my friendship with him. I would be willing to bet that Fares knew each and every resident of Hamra—every student, every vendor, every doctor, every artist. He knew them because he was the friendliest soul in Hamra. And he knew them all because Fares was the kind of child who fit in perfectly with the adult world, even if he was too young to understand it. He was given respect without demanding it. I don’t think I ever really thought about the fact that he was a child until he died. To me, Fares was a peer. And when I return to Lebanon I will feel the profundity of his absence. I’ll miss the sting of his deceptively powerful high fives.