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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Colin Kahl

Last Build Date: Tue, 05 Dec 2006 00:11:03 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

How Americans Fight

Tue, 05 Dec 2006 00:11:03 -0600

If the marines' responsibility is confirmed, the Haditha killings will be the gravest violation by U.S. forces of the legal prohibition against the wanton targeting of civilians since the invasion of Iraq. A bedrock of the laws of war for more than a century, noncombatant immunity encompasses two key concepts: distinction and proportionality. (Although the United States has not ratified all the relevant international conventions codifying these rules, it treats most of them as binding.) Parties to hostilities are expected to always distinguish combatant forces and military objects, which are legitimate targets, from civilian populations and hospitals, schools, places of worship, and important cultural sites, which are not. Under no circumstances is force to be deliberately applied against strictly noncombatant targets. But according to the principle of proportionality, collateral damage to civilians and civilian objects is acceptable if it is the byproduct of attacks on legitimate military targets and the damage does not obviously exceed the anticipated military benefit. If the allegations are proved true, the Haditha incident will represent an egregious violation of these principles. What is less clear is whether this incident was the result of the reprehensible actions of a few or just one instance of systematic misconduct by U.S. forces in Iraq. In other words, is Haditha the exception or the rule? Judging by a June 2003 Pew Global Attitudes survey, many people are likely to conclude the latter. The poll found that over 90 percent of Jordanian, Moroccan, Palestinian, and Turkish respondents and over 80 percent of Indonesian and Pakistani respondents felt that the United States "didn't try very hard" to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq. That view was shared outside the Muslim world by over 70 percent of the Brazilians, French, Russians, and South Koreans polled. And yet, despite some dark spots on its record, the U.S. military has done a better job of respecting noncombatant immunity in Iraq than is commonly believed. Over the past year, I have conducted dozens of interviews with commanders, judge advocates, and others who have served in Iraq; investigated operational "lessons learned" during a recent trip to Baghdad; observed the predeployment training of forces; and extensively reviewed unclassified Pentagon documents, official and unofficial histories, troops' memoirs and blogs, and human rights reports. I have found not only that U.S. compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq is relatively high by historical standards but also that it has been improving since the beginning of the war. THE RULES OF THE GAME In 1863, in response to the horrific treatment of civilians during the American Civil War, the U.S. armed forces adopted the so-called Lieber Code (named after its author, the political philosopher and jurist Francis Lieber), the first comprehensive set of regulations covering the conduct of land warfare. The Lieber Code recognized noncombatant immunity and provided the foundation for later treaties codifying the laws of war. Still, the U.S. military's commitment to fully institutionalize its norms and socialize U.S. forces remained slack for most of the twentieth century. U.S. forces engaged in extensive bombing (including two nuclear attacks) targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure during World War II. They clearly violated the principles of distinction and proportionality on numerous occasions during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The 1968 My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, has become the most enduring symbol of these practices. Since then, U.S. policy and practice have changed. An investigation into the underlying causes of the My Lai massacre, the Peers report (named after General William Peers, who headed the investigation), concluded that systematic shortcomings in the training of U.S. forces were partly to blame. In response to these findings, the Department of Defense adopted a directive in 1974 (reissued in 1979 and 1998) requiring th[...]