Sad incidents of civilians being harmed by the US military have become so common that many tragedies are quickly forgotten. But that should not be the case after the killing of 16 innocent Afghans last weekend by a US Army sergeant.
The disturbing rampage should serve as a lesson for the Pentagon to better screen, train, and monitor soldiers to operate with the highest ethical standards toward civilians in conflict areas.
That’s not an easy task, especially with new military technologies such as drones or a volunteer military. Still, the Pentagon has steadily adapted to stricter international norms on the treatment of civilians. One reason is that humanity’s desire to protect the innocent during war has risen in recent decades, caused in large part by the conflicts of the 20th century that resulted in some 50 million civilian deaths.
Many rules of war, such as the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, are designed to help militaries act more humanely toward civilians. But public attitudes also shift, too.
In 1968 during the Vietnam War, the American public took notice of the one soldier at the My Lai massacre who refused to follow his superior’s order to kill hundreds of villagers. His moral courage, enlightened by a reverence for innocent life, should remain a model for today’s soldiers even as they pursue an enemy.
The principle of civilian protection is not accepted in many countries or even in most of today’s war zones. Soldiers easily put their own safety or that of their fellow soldiers ahead of civilians. Rebels often hide among civilians.
Even defining “civilian” is tricky, as many people in combat areas may support one side or own a weapon. The Geneva Convention only defines civilian in the negative, such as “noncombatant.”
In democracies, people often want a quick end to a war, creating pressure on soldiers who may take more risks as they try to prevent harm to civilians. That could be partly true for the US role in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
To help ensure that soldiers can make the kind of difficult decisions necessary to protect civilians, the Pentagon must be careful in the kind of young people it recruits. Ethical choices in combat must be learned and reinforced.
Various theories of “just war,” first begun by St. Augustine, often include an allowance for unavoidable, unintentional civilian deaths (“collateral damage” is the sanitized euphemism). Not every civilian death is a war crime. But that limited leniency also comes with a call for militaries to take all reasonable measures to prevent such killings.
The Pentagon, for instance, warned Congress last week about the high risk of civilian killings if the United States were to intervene in Syria. “There would be some severe collateral damage,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
His caution reflects the military’s understanding from past experience that the killing of civilians can easily damage a war effort. Such deaths can erode political support at home or embolden an adversary’s ability to keep civilians on its side – as the Taliban try to do.
One possible solution lies in the use of nonlethal weapons, such as noxious gases. But even in those examples, militaries run afoul of the chemical-weapons treaty or indirectly encourage other countries to use lethal gas. And sometimes nonlethal weapons, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, can kill.
Simply decrying the death of civilians in warfare isn’t enough to reduce the problem. Soldiers must be selected who can be trained to act with moral courage in tough situations.
With every new report of American forces killing civilians, whether it is on purpose or unintentional, there must be a new resolve to instill the highest values in each soldier. The world’s rising humanitarian sentiments demand it.