What Are Just “Rules of Engagement”?

July 8th, 2010 - by admin

David E. DeCosse / Commentary – San Francisco Chroncile – 2010-07-08 08:55:30


SAN FRANCISCO ( July 8, 2010) — Who should bear the greater risk of death or injury in the Afghan war: American frontline soldiers in the heat of combat or Afghan civilians caught up in the conflict?

In the last week, Gen. David Petraeus announced a review of the rules of engagement for American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. Sens. Joe Lieberman, independent-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have encouraged a change in the rules that would allow soldiers more easily to call on air or artillery support — even if such support may increase the risk borne by civilians in a combat zone.

We ought to think very carefully about emotions, strategy and morality before we roll back the primacy of the protection of civilians in war.

Of course, there are visceral reasons for wanting more protection of American troops. Who doesn’t feel for a 20-year-old Marine under fire in a mountain outpost in Afghanistan who can’t call in the artillery because of the risk of what an errant shell might do to nearby civilians?

Or, in the salty language of a former Special Forces operative critical of now-ousted Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal, who put the current rules of engagement in place: “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

But the emotional pull to protect American soldiers is not a sufficient argument to change the rules.

The logic behind the restrictive rules of engagement in Afghanistan comes from the counterinsurgency strategy that propelled the surge in Iraq to such success. That doctrine has the clear goal of protecting civilians in order to create the conditions for a viable, homegrown government.

But what is the overarching goal of a strategy dominated by “force protection”? We could rain down hell on Afghanistan and preserve American lives in the bargain. But would we leave Afghanistan better able to govern itself and less inclined to provide safe harbor for terrorists? Would we encourage the Taliban and al Qaeda elements we are there to defeat?

There are also fundamental moral issues at stake. Whatever its strategic goals, counterinsurgency doctrine restores to its rightful place the traditional moral requirement that civilians in war are to be accorded the highest degree of protection. Of course, today’s terrorists have deliberately rejected or knowingly exploited this moral requirement. Al Qaeda regards American civilians as legitimate objects of attack, no different from military targets.

And terrorists the world over often launch attacks from within a civilian context because they know that soldiers schooled in the ethics of war will be more hesitant to shoot back.

We should cling like a lifeline to that hesitancy. And it won’t be easy because the protection of civilians usually will expose American soldiers to greater mortal risk.

The justice that requires the protection of civilians as innocent participants in a war zone has the final word here. As a country, we’ve grown fond of an imperial hubris that has blocked our vision of universal justice: If you’re not with us, we’ve said in the last years, you’re against us and, well, expendable.

The better angels of the American spirit know that the commitment to justice is the lifeblood of the country.

David E. DeCosse is director of campus ethics programs for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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