The US military is years ahead of its rivals around the world in technology, training, and overall strength.
But critics say it may be lagging behind other nations in solving human-rights problems that have become emblematic of the evils of modern warfare.
Recently, the US military and government have used their influence in international politics to stall popular measures to prevent the proliferation of child soldiers, ban land mines, and establish a permanent international war crimes tribunal.
The primary reason is the traditional concern of troop protection - and an accompanying greater political desire by the Pentagon to resolve conflicts without the loss of US lives. Another reason, analysts say, is American unwillingness to give up control of its military to international bodies such as the United Nations.
"This is part of a broader pattern in which the US does not want to change any of its practices to meet an international standard," says Jo Becker of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "This especially applies to the military."
While military officials have different reasons for opposing each human-rights measure, one theme predominates: troop protection, which has reached a high level under President Clinton.
High altitudes, low risk
In the US-led NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, for example, the allies did not lose a single soldier to enemy fire. But pilots flew unusually high and, because of that, may have caused more civilian casualties.
In the case of banning land mines under the Ottawa Treaty, which the US has not agreed to in its entirety, the US is hesitant to do so because it would mean giving up a protection zone between North and South Korea.
A measure to ban soldiers under 18, proposed by a United Nations agency, is primarily aimed at third-world countries where young children are recruited or required to fight in rebel movements. But the US military recruits 17-year-olds, and fears that new restrictions would only exacerbate existing recruiting problems.
On war crimes, the US has traditionally supported prosecutions against other countries, particularly in Africa and the Balkans, but it does not want to see establishment of a permanent court that would have jurisdiction over American soldiers.
"It's difficult to have it both ways and that's the problem facing the [Clinton] administration," says Diane Ohrenlicher, a war-crimes prosecution expert at American University in Washington. US concerns about its troops being vulnerable were recently justified, at least in part, when the court was asked to consider charges against NATO for committing war crimes in Yugoslavia. Among those named in the accusation, on which no action has been taken, is Mr. Clinton.
While few Americans would argue against the military doing everything it can to prevent casualties, the political attraction of war without significant risk presents a new challenge for the US. In the past, it was well understood by the military and the public that American operations abroad would lead to the death of US soldiers.
Now, some critics argue, the Pentagon is overly worried about casualties and their effect on public opinion. Because of that, officials may have adopted new techniques with questionable effectiveness, such as the high-altitude bombing of Yugoslavia.
"The military has become very, very skittish about force protection - and not exposing soldiers to any casualties," says Peter Feaver, a researcher at Duke University in Durham, N.C., specializing in civil-military relations.
Public would accept losses
Some of that is tied to memories of the Somalia intervention of 1992-93, when Americans witnessed the image of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in front of a cheering crowd.
But human-rights activists say the case is different with the issues of land mines, draft ages, and an international court. The necessity of mines in Korea is debatable, they say; there are only some 3,000 17-year-old US soldiers on active duty at any given time; and, by largely dismissing the war-crimes charges against NATO, the Hague tribunal signaled that that US need not be overly concerned about prosecution of its soldiers.
Finally, says Mr. Feaver, recent studies show that the American public is willing to accept some casualties - more or less at the same rate that is acceptable to military brass.
"The military thinks that if it takes casualties the American people will abandon them," says Feaver, "but that is not necessarily the case."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society