Protecting Civilians Still Matters in Great-Power Conflict

In this file image made from video taken on Monday, April 9, 2018, bodies are recovered by volunteers in Mosul's Old City.

AP Photo/Balint Szlanko, File

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In this file image made from video taken on Monday, April 9, 2018, bodies are recovered by volunteers in Mosul's Old City.

It’s easy to see why counterinsurgency campaigns tread carefully around local bystanders. It’s no less important in larger-scale war.

As the U.S. military shifts its focus from counterinsurgency to large-scale combat against near-peer competitors, the value of preventing civilian harm in the battle for “hearts and minds” has been largely displaced by an emphasis on the speed and decisiveness needed to survive first contact with a major military power. 

FM 3-0, the Army’s new field manual, focuses almost entirely on deterring and defeating a major adversary, predicting a war “more chaotic, intense, and highly destructive than those the Army has experienced in the past several decades.” Far more than an abstraction, the changes set in motion by this shift are likely to change how  civilians are considered in training, planning, and executing U.S. military operations. 

When speed is the difference between winning and losing a first engagement, the tactical patience, time, and resources needed to prevent, investigate, and remedy civilian harm can actually be cast as costly vulnerabilities – especially in a near-peer or peer conflict when the stakes may be existential. Yet in the military’s haste to shed real or perceived constraints on flexibility and speed, military leaders would be wise to consider the many reasons why it should preserve its proficiency in preventing and mitigating civilian harm.

Related: How Many Civilians Die in Covert US Drone Strikes? It Just Got Harder to Say

Related: In Coalition Ops, Civilian Protections Are Only as Strong as the Weakest Link

Related: Counting the Dead in Mosul

In his oft-cited “tactical directive” of 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, put it this way: “We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.” The military developed standard tactics and processes to suit, including the formal tracking and investigation of civilian casualty reports, disbursement of condolence payments to victims and their families, and operational reforms such as limits to nighttime aerial and ground operations in Afghanistan. 

Although this approach was not universally popular among the rank and file, a growing body of research supported its strategic wisdom. Andrew Shaver and Jacob Shapiro examined local responses to civilian harm in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, finding that civilians shared less intelligence with U.S. and allied forces in response to accidental civilian harm. Former Army Col. Chris Kolenda and his co-authors assessed “with high confidence” that “civilian harm by U.S., international and Afghan forces contributed significantly to the growth of the Taliban” and weakened “the legitimacy of the U.S. mission.” And in 2016, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the objective of reducing civilian casualties as U.S. government policy. After a decade and a half of protracted counterinsurgency operations, the concept of civilian casualties mitigation seemed to achieve a status of institutional and policy permanence on the basis of sound, strategic rationale.

But during the campaign against ISIS, U.S. rhetoric and practice around civilian harm mitigation changed. The fighting was more intense than the previous decade; entire cities were ravaged. In less than five months, the Marines alone fired 35,000 artillery shells, more than in any American conflict since the Vietnam War. Coalition officials say their airstrikes killed 1,190 civilians — though independent estimates put the actual toll, conservatively, between 7,500 and 11,800. As the death toll soared, the processes developed to track, investigate, remedy, and learn from civilian harm were replaced by expedited protocols better able to manage large volumes of allegations, and geared more toward responding rapidly to domestic political and media scrutiny than to reconciling harm with those directly affected. The practice of providing condolence payments all but stopped: the United States made only two known payments during Operation Inherent Resolve, even after the liberation of previously ISIS-held areas of Iraq and Syria. 

It was tempting to attribute the changes to President Trump’s push for increased aggression – matched by newly relaxed constraints on the rules of engagement or delegation of targeting authorities – or even his own stated disregard for human life. And little doubt remains that the location of fighting—in densely populated cities—greatly complicated efforts to protect civilians from the direct and indirect effects of the air war. But the campaign’s intensity may also be explained by the fact that, as the Army’s Gen. Stephen Townsend noted, ISIS in Iraq and Syria was organized more like a conventional military than an insurgency. With over 30,000 fighters at its peak, ISIS controlled lines of communication, governed territory, and used heavy armor and artillery. In some ways, the U.S.-led campaign and its features of speed and overwhelming force suggested a return to the combined arms operations needed to win a major conventional war. 

The Pentagon’s counter-ISIS strategy, while primarily motivated by the defeat of an adversary, also appeared to replace the “instrumentalist-strategic” logic of protecting individual civilians as a matter of COIN strategy with the “humanitarian-utilitarian logic” of saving many by moving faster and more assertively. While American commanders still took measures to avoid civilian casualties, including the use of precision munitions and sophisticated targeting measures, they also justified the coalition’s relentless bombardment by pointing to the threat ISIS posed to civilians. “The best way…to put an end to this human suffering, is to win in Mosul and win in Raqqa and do it fast,” Gen. Townsend said in March 2017. Though anecdotal, statements like this are consistent with a doctrinal approach that emphasizes the benefits of winning quickly, in part for the humanitarian benefits of doing so, rather than an approach that emphasizes “tactical patience.”

The counter-ISIS campaign may foreshadow further change in the military’s approach to civilian harm on the battlefield, especially as it shifts its gaze further from COIN and towards conflict with peers and near-peers. How, exactly, is unknown. Gen. Mark Milley, the Army Chief of Staff and presumptive chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has acknowledged the challenges associated with large-scale combat, and emphasized the need for future military leaders to be skilled in discriminatory fires and ethical judgement. John Spencer, formerly of the Modern War Institute at West Point and a leading voice on urban conflict, has called public attention to the calamitous effects of an Army ill-prepared for civilians in future urban warfare. But these concerns are not visibly or seriously represented in any major military planning document, making it difficult to assess how civilians feature in broader institutional planning assumptions for major combat operations of the future. There is one mention of non-combatants in the 366-page FM 3-0 – down from 17 in the 2008 version – and not a single mention of civilian casualties. Anecdotes from military contacts indicate that civilians are conspicuously absent from today’s training and exercises focused on near-peer combat. (When they are considered, civilians are assumed to have been evacuated – a bold assumption given the assessed impossibility of major urban evacuations.)

Perhaps the military is neglecting civilians in its future conflict planning because it believes they will not feature as contested instruments as they have in recent counterinsurgency operations. Or that they will be present merely as a humanitarian concern for others — that is, the State Department or USAID — to deal with. Meanwhile, the military may take for granted that commanders suitably trained in ethics and the laws of war, and guided by a highly capable corps of military judge advocates, will suffice to ensure the legal and ethical integrity of the force when confronted with the horrific dilemmas presented by a major war. 

From our point of view, there are a few good reasons to challenge these assumptions, and to reassess the benefits of thinking more seriously about civilians in the coming wars. As the military undergoes its institutional transformation while also reportedly drafting its first policy on civilian casualties, we offer some things to consider:

No matter who the adversary or where the battlefield, civilians will be there. Predicting the next war is a historically futile endeavor. But whether or not planners have misdiagnosed the most likely future scenario, one thing is clear: the mythical, civilian-free battlefield doesn’t exist in any of them. And civilians will always have agency in war: they may choose to fight, flee, or stay – any of which have significant bearing on the conduct and outcome of war. The fact that it will be difficult to predict which option they exercise is all the more reason to consider all of them.

Perceptions of civilian harm will matter. Even beyond counterinsurgency, public perceptions of the legitimacy of U.S. operations will depend on how the U.S. military conducts itself, and that conduct will be measured in large part by the experience of civilians. In a multi-domain future, information – including evidence of civilian harm – could be a powerful weapon in hybrid influence operations, as has already occurred in Ukraine. Today’s rapid information flow also means that war will be broadcast to the American and global public. In the end, just as in the counter-ISIS campaign, the Pentagon may end up spending time and energy justifying the war by defending its policy toward civilian harm – not only to win local hearts and minds, but also to maintain the legitimacy of the operation in the midst of domestic and international scrutiny. 

Beware the lure of sharp war. The Civil War-era military theorist Francis Lieber is reported to have coined the term “sharp war”: “The more vigorously wars are pursued, the better it is for humanity. Sharp wars are brief.” But “sharp war” theory is complicated business. On the one hand, there are strong ethical arguments to be made for limiting the duration of war. But it’s not clear that the intensity of war and its duration are necessarily, or even typically, related in the way that the theory’s armchair proponents suggest. Moreover, the idea that more “intense” war is better for civilians takes several assumptions for granted; for instance, that the military must make battlefield sacrifices in order to enhance precautions in the attack, or that shorter, more intense war is better for civilians than a protracted era of manageable violence. 

Preventing civilian harm is a strategic, long-term investment in peace and stability. Reducing risks to civilians in a large-scale conflict will directly affect the sustainability of post-war peace. As J. Boone Bartholomees, formerly of the U.S. Army War College, has noted, the United States tends to “win the war but lose the peace.” Failures to prevent and address civilian harm could negatively affect the legitimacy of peace or victory in the eyes of a population, increasing the risk of conflict and instability. Whether civilians are killed in counterterrorism operations or large-scale combat, the pain remains the same – as does the potential for violent reprisal. Second- and third-order effects of conflict on public health, sanitation, and other essential services may also fuel protracted humanitarian crises, with similar results. War is also fluid, with the potential for conflicts to oscillate between conventional methods and the asymmetrical tactics of insurgencies. 

U.S. military planning is also an export. Even as the U.S. shifts its planning towards readiness for near-peer conflict, it will continue engaging with partners around the world through training, equipping, advising, and partnered operations, often centered around internal conflict and insurgency. For ethical and strategic reasons, the U.S. and its partners have an abiding interest in ensuring that our partners’ operations protect human rights and mitigate civilian harm. The U.S. military must not lose its proficiency in this area even as it shifts its own training emphasis to conventional warfare. 

Values still matter. Protecting civilians acknowledges individual agency and human dignity, concepts at the foundation of political liberalism and just war theory. It’s taken for granted that individual military leaders fight from a place of morality and that the U.S. military ethic is imbued with deep moral sensibilities. But upholding moral values on a complex, lethal battlefield requires practice in ethical decision-making. The military should include civilians in its planning not only for civilians’ sake, but also as a service to those in uniform who have to make the toughest calls. Individuals will face vexing ethical dilemmas when it comes to civilians on the battlefield. During the height of U.S. counterinsurgency operations, the military could take ethical judgement by its leaders for granted because, as Joe Chapa recently articulated in a brilliant article, strategy required it. But with each passing year, fewer in every new class of leaders will have seen a combat tour in Afghanistan or Iraq; even fewer will have been involved in decisions involving the life or death of non-combatants. It is one thing to condition new recruits and leaders to be more decisive and lethal in their decision-making – it may be altogether harder to counsel prudence when it is most needed. 

The consequences of war should be understood – and publicly communicated – by policymakers. The large-scale conflicts envisioned by defense planners would be catastrophic for civilian and military lives alike, regardless of the safeguards put in place. This reality must drive an informed public debate about the costs of war and what the country is willing to bear for what cause. Even as they strive to reduce civilian casualties, civilian and military leaders should be careful about overstating the extent to which war can be sanitized as a means of assuaging the public, and force policymakers to own the gravity of their decisions. The military should also be wary of contributing to threat inflation, which the political elite can use to justify military force. The more the American public feels threatened, the more they expect – and tolerate – in war. 

One of the favorite parlor games in Washington is contemplating what the future of war holds. Entire conferences, magazines, and books have been dedicated to the spectre of near-peer or hybrid war, killer robots, swarming drones, cyber-attacks, and little green men. But neglected in the analysis are the civilians who stand to lose the most in the coming war, whatever form it takes. It may fall to the military itself to ensure they are not forgotten entirely.

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