DoD's Plan to Reduce Civilian Casualties Will Humanize Endless WarRoundup
tags: war, human rights, humanitarianism, civilian casualties
A few days ago, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the completion of a “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan” promising institutional changes so that American warmaking kills fewer innocent people.
The plan is a clear step forward in the humanization of endless war — the ethically fraught project I attempted to spotlight in my book, “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” which appeared a year ago and is out next week in a paperback edition.
The Pentagon commitment — and the dynamics that led to it — fit well with some of my arguments in the book. While making American war less brutal is an uplifting project when it works, it can also function by intentional design to create a new kind of war that results in greater legitimacy. The plan is entirely open about this. It begins: “The protection of civilians is a strategic priority as well as a moral imperative.”
Abetted by critical outsiders and sympathetic insiders who decry the brutality rather than existence of wars, humanizing war reflects ethical progress in the fighting of American war, while entrenching its permanence.
Heroically, humanitarian activists have been dramatizing civilian harm for decades, and with special intensity since the Global War on Terror began after September 11, 2001. But when the order to develop an action plan came down in January, it was clearly in response to the extraordinary Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times reporting led by Azmat Khan, which gave unprecedented visibility to the costs of American warmaking on civilians by documenting the extraordinary levels of casualties in airstrikes.
As a New York Times editor observed, “Military officials credited the work of Azmat and the other Times journalists who rigorously reported on this subject as important factors in driving change.” And it is no doubt quite an accomplishment to prompt that transformation.
As the plan explains, reforms will bring more concern for harm to military culture and organization. Read carefully, the plan amounts, for now, to a set of promises to hire more people at the Pentagon and in combatant commands to raise consciousness, in hopes of further remaking American war in the crucible of care. The plan will also provide a hub for information-gathering about far-flung operations conducted across service branches. The military, it says, should even consider acknowledging the episodes when it causes too much death and injury. The overall goal is to mainstream ethical compassion in American military operations without disturbing the eternal and necessary project of putting civilians in harm’s way. But while good might come of it, for sure, more is at stake in such mainstreaming.