Talking Points

War can never be 'humane'

There is no such thing as a "humane" war, much as we might want there to be. The New York Times on Sunday published an exposé of a U.S. military unit called "Talon Anvil," which was reportedly quite effective at fighting ISIS in Syria — but achieved that distinction by playing fast and loose with rules designed to minimize civilian deaths. 

In its efforts to destroy the terrorist group, Talon Anvil "circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants, and alarmed its partners in the military and the C.I.A. by killing people who had no role in the conflict: farmers trying to harvest, children in the street, families fleeing fighting, and villagers sheltering in buildings," the paper reported. 

The unit "made a lot of bad strikes," one former Air Force officer said. Which is a nice way of saying that U.S. forces routinely slaughtered innocents.

Since the emergence of "smart bomb" weaponry during the first Gulf War three decades ago — and especially since drone strikes became a tool against suspected terrorists and even U.S. citizens under President Obama —  the American government and its allies have tried to convince the public that they can and do inflict fearsome destruction on their enemies, but with a rigor that allows them to largely avoid causing injury and death to bystanders. 

It's never really worked out that way: U.S. forces have repeatedly bombed civilian facilities over the last three decades, often with horrifying results. More than 400 Iraqis died after their air raid shelter was hit by two laser-guided bombs in 1991, while more than 40 died during a 2015 attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. More recently, an Afghanistan family was wiped out by an August drone strike during the panicked American withdrawal from that country. These are just the examples that have drawn widespread attention: The Pentagon has a reputation for undercounting civilian deaths, but hundreds of thousands of civilians have probably died as a result of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tech might be rigorous, but the people who push the buttons are often sloppier — often intentionally. The Times reports that Talon Anvil circumvented U.S. rules of engagement by using expansive definitions of "self-defense" to justify their strikes. (The unit also apparently started directing drone cameras away from targets, seemingly in order to avoid documenting possible violations of the rules.) If that's true, those low-level operators were just following the example of leaders like Obama who allowed fuzzy regulations to put a nice face on ugly results. 

Yale historian Samuel Moyn has provoked controversy recently by suggesting that the promise of "humane" wars lets the United States go to war more often, with less objection from the public. It's a false promise. Warfighting kills people, civilians, and soldiers, and leaves its survivors shattered. Nothing can change that. The Talon Anvil story is just a new reminder of a very old truth.