Seeing the Innocent First

From Kerrey to Greeneville, the military needs vigilance

Something more than the Geneva Conventions will be needed to protect innocent people from military operations - whether in war or in peace.

That's the lesson to be drawn from several recent news items that show why the United States military must be vigilant to prevent civilian casualties - at any time.

Reports about former Sen. Bob Kerrey's role in the killing of 13 civilians during the Vietnam war have revived a debate over the difficulties of keeping civilians immune from combat. His Navy SEAL unit was not able to distinguish between combatants and innocent peasants. Should they have been more careful? Or should civilians who indirectly support guerrillas in a war be treated as guilty, and thus dangerous?

Similar difficult questions need to be asked about the recent downing of an unarmed Cessna seaplane over the Peruvian jungle, in which an American missionary woman and her daughter were killed. They were innocents caught in the "war on drugs."

Contract employees of the CIA spotted the plane, suspected it might be carrying drugs, and notified Peru's air force, which shot down the aircraft. The tragedy could have been prevented with better intelligence and communication.

Just as worrisome are recent "accidents" by the US military in its role as the global superpower.

The carelessness of the Greeneville submarine, for instance, in hitting a Japanese ship (with nine civilians lost) revealed a Navy disregard for operating carefully in civilian waters.

Primarily trained to kill, US combat personal need equal training in how to preserve innocent life. That includes knowing how to spot the innocent in difficult situations.

In war and peace, innocence must be protected at all costs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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