As anyone who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces knows, avoiding civilian casualties where possible is an integral element of American war fighting. These “rules of engagement” go all the way back to General Washington’s Continental Army. There was a time in the beginning of the Korean War when it was not uncommon among basic training cadre to remind new recruits that “No one shoots at somethin’ in a pagoda, no matter what’s goin’ on — unless, of course, you get an order from some officer above the rank of a butter bar [2nd Lieutenant].”
With all due respect to “second looey’s” of the “brown shoe” army of the early fifties, neither they nor the enlisted ranks were quite sure what to make of those ornate oriental buildings that were supposed to be treated as if they were churches — and thus sacrosanct in American eyes. The communist North Koreans, on the other hand, viewed pagodas as very useful sniper sites, field aid stations, and often excellent booby-trapped hospitality suites — sort of exploding Motel 6’s. They also hid among the streams of refugees as they moved south. The collateral casualties didn’t bother them; the Americans could always be blamed.
It seems that the U.S, military is once again being urged to avoid civilian casualties. This time Afghanistan is the new theater of operations where American soldiers, Marines, and airmen are supposed to kill the enemy, but do it as decorously as possible to avoid civilians becoming collateral damage.
A hard-charging Ranger special operations officer, Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, was purposely named to be commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR). He had express orders to push forward vigorously against the Taliban. Virtually immediately after this hand-picked warrior assumed command, he received new instructions from the White House via the Pentagon to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. If a firefight appears to be expanding so as to endanger “resident non-combatants,” the engagement must be broken off. Air attacks must be limited to targets of strictly confirmed hostile character, with no civilian co-mingling.
Once again, as in the Korean War and in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as other conflicts, U.S. forces have received rules of engagement aimed at securing maximum avoidance of political backlash in a war with an enemy to whom the use of the civilian population as protective cover is an accepted part of his fighting tactics.
Veterans of Afghan affairs knowledgeable of the numerous power centers of local tribal politics are near unanimous in recognizing that the Taliban will make sure there are civilian casualties whether or not the American or other ISAF units actually are responsible. The fact is that the Taliban leadership contains many ranking personalities who are quite well acquainted with the politics of the developed world — and they know how to exploit the weaknesses. Civilian casualties are high on that list.
From the Afghan side both President Hamid Karzai and his presidential rival, Abdullah Abdullah, urge a decentralization of governing authority. And both candidates place special emphasis on the need to protect against civilian casualties while moving ahead firmly against the Taliban. This election rhetoric is what the Obama Administration is reacting to. In Afghani terms it’s hard to explain to the unsophisticated American mind that civilian deaths are more important before an election than afterward.
Secretary of Defense Gates has mistaken what is a political aim for a military strategy. Of course civilian dead and wounded play into the hands of the Taliban. But avoiding these casualties is nearly impossible if the enemy essentially and effectively uses innocent tribes people as shields. This is the kind of war it is. Not recognizing this fact is tantamount to ignoring the enemy’s strength.
Granting a very few atypical incidents, avoiding civilian casualties is an integral element of all American war fighting. No special rules of engagement need to be issued. Not recognizing this fact ignores and insults the basic character of the American fighting man and woman. It might be a good idea for President Obama and his civilian advisors to spend a few weeks with the Army and Marines to get some idea of what really motivates the U.S. military. Apparently General Jim Jones, USMC Ret., the national security advisor, has forgotten what he once knew.
Better yet, ask former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey: He lost his right leg below the knee in the process of an action in Vietnam that won him the Congressional Medal of Honor. On a previous mission to destroy a VC headquarters at Thanh Phong, he led a SEAL team that inadvertently killed a substantial number of women and children. That’s war, Mr. President, and you better damn well get used to it!