“There is no such thing as ‘clean’ warfare”

Lauren Gould studies the local impact of remote warfare

Photo by Pax/Ayman al-Amiri, February 2022
During Lauren Gould’s field research in Hawija in 2022, the neighbourhood was still in ruins seven years after the attack. Photo: PAX/Ayman al-Amiri

Through (drone) airstrikes and the training of local partners, Western advanced militaries can engage in riskless warfare. Lauren Gould is assistant professor in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and researches the consequences of remote warfare. “My motivation is more than just generating knowledge for an academic debate. I want this knowledge to have an impact on societal debates and lead to political transformations.” How does she go about it and what does that lead to?

‘Precision warfare’ as a reassuring frame

When Western states wage war on another continent and the consequences are no longer immediately visible or felt through returning military body bags, there is a decrease in democratic control, Lauren Gould observes. This process is only intensified with the advent of autonomous weapon systems.

Dr. Lauren Gould. Foto: Lize Kraan
Dr Lauren Gould. Photo: Lize Kraan

Gould thinks it’s an interesting paradox. “Do we still care about the wars waged in our name if we don’t suffer the consequences? Interventions are called ‘precision warfare’. It is said: ‘yes, we may be bombing in urban centres, but we can hit the targets we aim for. Thereby we can minimise the harm done to civilians.’ But there is no such thing as ‘clean’ warfare.”

Residential area in Hawija destroyed

This is underscored by Gould’s research into one of the biggest civilian harm incidents in Iraq. In 2015, the Iraqi town of Hawija was bombed during the United States-led remote war against the Islamic State (IS). In an attempt to disable an IS bomb factory, an entire residential area is destroyed and many civilians are killed. Only four years later, journalists from NOS and NRC managed to reveal who was responsible for the attack: the Netherlands.

It is no coincidence that it took so long for this to become known. “In the wake of dropping over 100,000 bombs, we saw that the Netherlands and its allies employed three strategies to keep civilian casualties out of the public and political debate. First is denial: ‘we have not caused any civilian casualties’. Next, secrecy: ‘we cannot share information about civilian casualties for security reasons’. And then, when denial and secrecy no longer work: ignorance. ‘We don’t know and can never know how many civilians perished’.”

Scholars can play a far larger role in addressing global challenges than they sometimes give themselves credit for.

Investigating civilian harm

Gould was convinced that she could generate knowledge on civilian casualties, as well as other forms of harm. “This is what we coined ‘the reverberating civilian harm effects’: aside from deaths, remote airstrikes cause direct and indirect forms of civilian harm that compound each other. For instance, wounded people in Hawija could not get medical attention because the electricity infrastructure was destroyed. They also could not flee because Hawija was still under the IS regime. Eight years later, they are still unemployed due to their injuries.”

Effective teamwork requires clear agreements

With her team, Gould also wanted to get insight into who the local population holds responsible in such an incident. “As a scholar, I knew I could only achieve so much, therefore I sought collaborations with societal partners. From previous research, I knew NGO PAX for Peace. They have a strong track record in working on civilian harm ánd they in turn have connections with local NGOs in Iraq.”

Gould also got her interdisciplinary Conflict Studies students involved under the umbrella of Community Engaged Learning: not only did they conduct a social media analysis of Iraqi reactions to Hawija, eventually they also played an important role in analysing the 160 interviews conducted in Hawija.

Working effectively with all these stakeholders requires a considerable amount of coordination, Gould points out. “You have to identify and respect everyone’s expertise and interests. It is also important to reach clear agreements in advance, including about who takes on which role.”

Hawija, Irak. Foto: Lauren Gould
Photo: Lauren Gould (2022)

The investigation into Hawija resulted in a popular science book and report, which established that at least 85 civilian victims were killed. The research is not only the basis for a scientific article, but it also now plays an important role in the lawsuit of Iraqi victims against the Dutch state.

Negotiations with the Ministry of Defence

Gould and her societal partners engaged in dialogue with the Ministry of Defence for years. “If we really wanted to change something with our research, we had to talk to the ministry. Otherwise, you publish a report and give interviews in the press, but then what really happens?” The research indeed led to political transition: the Ministry of Defence has announced a new civilian harm transparency policy. Uncoincidentally, they did so in the same week the Hawija investigation report came out.

The ministries have now commissioned independent academic research on twenty years of Dutch interventionism in Afghanistan. For the coming four years, Gould will play a leading role in this research project while she is seconded at the War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD).

Research with social impact

“Beyond the walls of the university, scholars can play a far larger role in addressing global challenges than they sometimes give themselves credit for. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of being able to paint the bigger picture as academics. Alongside the specialist knowledge of my societal partners, I can tell the larger story about the changing character of warfare in the 21st century. About why, in the short term, this may seem riskfree, but in the long term this can lead to new cycles of violence; creating new forms of insecurity further afield as well as closer to home.”

Lauren Gould

In inter- and transdisciplinary teams, Lauren Gould investigates the consequences of this changing character of waging war. She has previously done so in Uganda, Iraq, and Syria in the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme, which she co-found with Jolle Demmers. And together with Jessica Dorsey she has set up the Realities of Algorithmic Warfare programme.

In the coming years, Gould will research the Dutch involvement in the Afghanistan war with the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and the Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH).