The Banality of Rick Ayers or, Hiding in Plain Sight

Rick Ayers is rightly upset by the number of dead in Iraq and Afghanistan ("The Pentagon and the Banality of Evil") but in his ire, he blames the wrong guy -- me. I did work in the Pentagon recommending targets for the Iraq aerial war in 2003. But I didn't try to kill civilians; quite the opposite. I focused on military targets and tried my very best every day to minimize civilian casualties -- as required by the Geneva Conventions. But I have to live with the fact that, even so, many civilians died in those attacks.

If Ayers studied the laws of war he would know that they don't say civilians can never be killed in conflict; they require military forces to take constant care to spare civilians and civilian property, and never to place military advantage above excessive civilian damage.

But though I wasn't involved in war crimes (thanks, Rick, for assuming otherwise), I resigned from the Pentagon and went to work at Human Rights Watch (for less money) so that I could use my skills to assess the harm to civilians caused by conflict and, I hope, ensure there are fewer casualties in future wars.

I have been to Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch to investigate civilian deaths caused by US air power (more than 300 in 2007.) Indeed, we are soon to issue a critical report on that topic. It is worth emphasizing, though, that the toll on civilians from Taliban suicide bombers is also significant, with almost 1,000 dead last year alone. In the recent past, Ayers dismissed suicide attacks worldwide as a "tiny blip." I think Afghans (and Iraqis, Sri Lankans, Israelis and many others) would disagree.

Working in active war zones for Human Rights Watch brings me constantly face to face with how the parties to a conflict are -- or are not -- upholding the laws of war. Subsequent Human Rights Watch reports lay bare the actions on both sides: sometimes mistakes, sometimes crimes. What is important in all this is holding perpetrators responsible when crimes are committed -- not only to punish them for what they've done, but to try to prevent future abuses.

Ayers is right about how the US military tries to manage information, to suppress what it doesn't like and spin what it can't suppress. The Bush Administration has tried this on many fronts in the "war on terror" and also on the International Criminal Court -- which Ayers hopes will one day prosecute me. The Bush version of the ICC is a political puppet in the control of US enemies out to snatch innocent Americans and slap them in irons forever. The reality couldn't be farther from the truth. But Bush staffers who might have reason to fear from the US signing up to the ICC -- like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say -- have fought it tooth and nail.

Human Rights Watch campaigned for the creation of the ICC and has consistently supported it -- and I would gladly volunteer to placate Ayers and make myself an ICC test case if that would bring the US on board. I am usually easy to find, even when I'm in some war zone working to improve civilian protections. And I'll be especially available in a couple of weeks, when we plan to publish my report on civilians killed by US airstrikes in Afghanistan -- Ayers will be able to read it on In the meantime, he might like to check out a few other Human Rights Watch documents -- on the US and the ICC, on why Rumsfeld should be tried for torture, and on the multiple abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

Ayers demonized the wrong person when he called for me to be tried as a war criminal. He should save his vitriol for those who actually bear responsibility for war crimes.

Marc Garlasco is senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch and the author of reports on civilian casualties in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories