July 23, 2009
On Killing Civilians
While in Afghanistan over the past month, I found myself reading a lot of U.S. Civil War history. Despite the fact that I am from Chattanooga, Tennessee, I have never really been too interested in the U.S. Civil War. (And when I have read U.S. Civil War history, I have often found myself more drawn to heroes of the North like Buford and Grant and Reynolds -- and the more skeptical Southern generals like Longstreet. I am 100% East Tennessean in that way, I guess.) But I had been meaning to read Grant's memoirs for some time, and my friend Mike Sulmeyer gave me Shelby Foote's history of the Gettysburg Campaign for my birthday in June. As I was reading both books and with my mind on their protagonists, I found myself wondering whether Gen. McChrystal might be considered to be more like U.S. Grant or Robert E. Lee? Grant, of course, was chosen to save a foundering war by an Illinois lawyer turned president, so the comparison is obvious. Lee, however, embarked on his second invasion of the North with a glittering military reputation -- but found "the stars in their courses" fighting against him. Shades of the U.S./NATO mission in Afghanistan?
I was intrigued, though, to read what Lee had ordered of his army in terms of civilians on the battlefield in advance of the Gettysburg Campaign:
It must be remembered that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without lowering ourselves in the eyes of all whose abhorrence has been excited by the atrocities of our enemies, and offending against Him to whom vengeance belongeth, without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain.
The commanding general therefore earnestly exhorts the troops to abstain with most scrupulous care from unnecessary or wanton injury to private property, and he enjoins upon all officers to arrest and bring to summary punishment all who shall in any way offend against the orders on this subject.
Now there existed good moral reasons for Lee to have ordered his troops to behave in the way he ordered them to behave. But there was also some strategic shrewdness there. Lee, as Foote notes, had one eye on encouraging the northern peace movement when he told his troops not to harm civilians or their property.
In the same way, General McChrystal's directions to allied troops with respect to civilian casualties are both morally correct and operationally wise. My friend Erica Gaston has laboriously catalogued the way in which rising civilian casualties have harmed U.S. and allied objectives in Afghanistan (.pdf). McChrystal understands that the rule of law and principles of proportionality allow you to do a lot on the battlefield. But you might be technically correct and operationally stupid. The reason we do not drop compounds in Afghanistan has more to do with operational considerations than it does with some high-minded moral code or the laws of land warfare. Opponents of COIN doctrine who claim the U.S. Army has gone "soft" would best remember that. If dropping compounds helped us to advance the ball down the field in terms of mission success, we might be more tolerant of civilian casualties and "collateral damage." But the evidence suggests that killing civilians and destroying their property actually harms the mission more than it helps.