Unless you’re currently waging war for “the Caliphate,” I think we can all agree that it sucks when civilians die in war. There are many reasons why unarmed civilians pay the heaviest price in modern conflicts, but I’m not going to discuss those reasons here. If you’re looking for politicized clickbait to tell you what you want to believe, read something else. This is about airstrikes — specifically in Mosul, where the US-backed Iraqi military is fighting to uproot ISIS from their last major stronghold in Iraq.

It’s also where I spent my last month serving as a volunteer “frontline” medic. I’m not a soldier, war reporter or genius on the topic of combat operations across the Middle East; I’m just a recently graduated Gaucho who has treated enough casualties in Mosul to know that U.S. air support in Iraq is more than warranted. As well-meaning yet naïve pacifists protest “civilian casualties” caused by U.S. airstrikes abroad, I’m going to argue from my own experience in Mosul: that airstrikes save lives.

The author reads on a rooftop during an airstrike in Mosul, Iraq. Courtesy of Max Gelink

First off, we need to acknowledge that ISIS is not a “normal enemy.” They’re an apocalyptic death cult with significant resources, funding and military experience all geared towards the destruction of human life in the construction of their Caliphate. Daesh snipers are deliberately shooting kids trying to escape the extreme poverty that lies inside their territory; they have no problem slaughtering unarmed women and children or raping their sex slaves to death.

I’ve treated the victims; I’ve put the dead in body bags. ISIS fills mortar shells with weaponized chlorine gas and drops them via drone in populated town squares; they’re straight up evil. There’s no negotiating with ISIS; those who’ve tried have been massacred, such as the entire police force of Mosul in 2014 who laid down their arms in exchange for “safe passage” back to Baghdad.

Data courtesy of The Global Coalition
Graphic by Kevin Son / Daily Nexus

Daesh is not “junior league” and although they are indeed getting the shit kicked out them in Mosul right now, they are still capable of tremendous harm in the world. Whether or not the United States intervenes militarily in Iraq, ISIS will keep slaughtering unarmed civilians indiscriminately. We cannot sugar-coat this reality if any serious discussion regarding military intervention is to be made.

When most Americans hear the term “airstrike,” they tend to imagine a massive, inaccurate bomb being dropped from a fighter jet that obliterates everything in its path “for the greater good” of killing bad guys at the expense of any unlucky kid that finds themselves in the same blast radius. However, this perception arises from an inherently flawed understanding of what airstrikes actually are and why the U.S. military uses them in the first place.

Iraq is where the line between humanitarians and warriors is blurred. My team, many of who are former combat veterans, have to carry guns sometimes for protection. Courtesy of Nik Frey.

In fact, airstrikes are effective (albeit expensive) and accurate relative to other tools of war that our Iraqi partners will use if American air support is unavailable … such as mortars fired in “a general direction,” tank shells, RPGs, and even hand grenades.

This means that without American air support — which relies on advanced targeting systems and extensive intelligence gathering — the Iraqi military will alternatively use less-advanced weapon systems to push into ISIS territory. Our Iraqi partners will charge into Mosul with or without Uncle Sam to back them up; after fighting a tough war against ISIS for three years in their own country, let’s just say the Iraqis are understandably less concerned with “rules of engagement” (ROEs) than Western nations like us.

It is also important to recognize the fact that American airstrikes have been extremely effective in crippling ISIS offensive operations into Kurdish and Iraqi territories. In fact, one can reasonably argue that U.S. airstrikes are the reason that ISIS has not overrun the entirety of Iraq by now.

Treating a civilian patient in a recaptured Mosul mosque. Most of our patients are wounded by IED’s, mortars, RPGs, gunshots and, occasionally, chemical weapons; only rarely do we receive airstrike casualties. Courtesy of Alex Kuhni.

Do mistakes happen? Of course. When Daesh uses babies as human shields, innocent people die. I’ve seen the bodies, the blood, the broken homes. It’s terrible. Unfortunately, the Old City of Mosul is a dense, urban hellhole, so any effort to liberate it will mean casualties with or without U.S. intervention. The locals can’t “just leave;” if they try, their ISIS warlords shoot them in the back as they run. This of course doesn’t stop the locals from escaping; multitudes of families are fleeing ISIS territory every night under the cover of darkness, fog and rain.

Can you guess what else is giving the fleeing civilians cover? Airstrikes. American AC-130 “Spooky” Specter gunships can be heard throughout Mosul obliterating ISIS positions every night; their sound essentially serves as a “green light” of safety for local families to sprint full speed to the liberated sections of Mosul.

This family escaped from ISIS territory at 1a.m. under the cover of night, fog, rain, and an AC-130 “Spooky” gunship. Their mother was shot in the breast as she ran; my team and ISOF medics were treating her wounds as the local Iraqi commander gave these kids something to eat. They were very hungry and cold. Courtesy of Nik Frey.

It is in these moments that ISIS leadership is far more concerned with avoiding an early death from above than enslaving the local population. Furthermore, American air support gives the Iraqi military the cover they need from the highly-skilled ISIS snipers that have been wreaking havoc on my Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) friends and delaying the liberation of Mosul. Air support means consistent advances into Mosul, which means a faster and safer escape run for the local civilians held hostage within the city.

I won’t pretend that civilians aren’t killed by airstrikes, but when media sites go on to exaggerate civilian body counts — and we must acknowledge the fact that such stories make for awesome, income-generating clickbait— it’s little wonder as to why protestors take to the streets. Unfortunately, those quickest to criticize are often the ones slowest to seek understanding. I challenge you therefore to consider an alternate possibility: that “all’s fair in love and war, including false casualty counts.”

Mosul ambulance driver. It is common knowledge that driving an ambulance is a fairly dangerous job, even on well-paved roads in America. Multiply this risk by 10 and add the possibility of gunfire, and this is what war-zone ambulance drivers deal with on a regular basis. Courtesy of Nik Frey.

This brings me to my next point: FAKE NEWS. Most Americans are understandably sick of this term by now, but it wasn’t until I went to Iraq that I realized how bloody awful some “notable” media corporations really are. While I met some incredible journalists in Mosul, the reality is that many “war tourists” — and yes, CNN spawns plenty — are so eager to deliver a “new war story” to whatever crummy media site put them there that they will say just about anything.

Guess what kind of headline sells the most clicks in the West? AMERICAN AIRSTRIKE KILLS 200+ CIVILIANS IN MOSUL. When this story came out in late March, international outrage against the U.S. was imminent. Literally a week later, as media sites started reposting the story from “a respected source on the ground” (who nobody with ground experience in Mosul actually respects), political will against U.S. intervention in Iraq sky-rocketed. American air support ceased almost entirely.

A kid bled out and died in our ambulance after Daesh placed a chain of IED’s overnight on a grass field in West Mosul, where 12 children hoped to play a pickup soccer game. ISIS knew what they were doing; the locals used that field often. This is what ISIS does to maintain “law and order” in Mosul. Courtesy of John Reith. 

The entire Iraqi operation against ISIS in Mosul was halted; they simply didn’t have enough soldiers to risk without American air support. ISIS snipers came out of the woodwork and, free from aerial bombardment, started shooting Iraqi soldiers and civilians like flies.

The worst part of the whole story is that it was all based on a FAT LIE. Did it matter that the number was grossly exaggerated? No. Did it matter that nobody officially investigated the site of the airstrikes, since it was deep in ISIS territory? No. Did it matter that only a single German airstrike landed in that area, not an American one, during the whole week of the alleged civilian “mass murder?” No. If there were 200+ dead civilians, there would have been at least 800+ wounded. My team (the Academy of Emergency Medicine) and our friends from NYC Medics were the only medics operating close enough to the frontline to have responded to that kind of trauma; we never received the bodies or the wounded.

The Iraqi military always sends civilian casualties our way before channeling them to the nearest United Nations hospital so there is simply no way this could have happened without us knowing. Ironically, we called that week “ISOF Shit Week” because the overwhelming majority of our patients that week were military, not civilians.

Locals carry on with their daily lives among the wreckage caused by a U.S. airstrike in Mosul. It’s odd and paradoxical that these same locals stop by our Casualty Collection Points (CCP) to say “thank you,” even with the American flag displayed on my body armor. Courtesy of Nik Frey. 

Considering that the guys I served with were regularly briefing the United Nations on the situation in Mosul — we operate closer to the frontline than they do — it came as a surprise to us that the only people who seemed to know anything about this “ghost airstrike” in Mosul were European journalists (not actually in Mosul!). And who knows? Maybe some pissed off reporter got stopped by the Kurds on the second checkpoint, interviewed some random guy on the side of the road, and wrote this whole airstrike myth up since he couldn’t tell his publishers that he failed to reach his destination?

I wouldn’t put it past a war tourist. But the West believed it, airstrikes stopped, the ISIS snipers got back on their rooftops to shoot our Iraqi partners.

War is a disgusting thing. However, after invading and destabilizing Iraq — and then abandoning their government in 2014 — the United States has a duty and obligation to put down the intentional threat of ISIS in Mosul. We don’t need to put boots on the ground, but I can honestly say that U.S. air support is appreciated by our Iraqi military partners and even many of the Mosul locals I interacted with.

It definitely sucked as an American to treat airstrike patients, but I can honestly say that such cases were extremely rare and isolated. Much to my surprise, I found that many Iraqis and Kurds I met in Iraq were appreciative of U.S. support despite our complicated history in their lands.

I’m looking forward to going back out to Iraq as a volunteer medic for the next battle against ISIS in Tel Afar, but until then, all I can do is share my experience.

Nik Frey thanks you for hearing him out.