Friday, April 29, 2011

Atrocities in War

Luke Mogelson, a freelance writer, has a long, thorough, but ultimately not very insightful piece in the Times on American soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians. He takes his title from a statement by George C. Marshall, who observed American soldiers committing atrocities in the Philippines:
Once an army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.
Soldiers must be killers; they must be able to do things quickly that they should never do outside of combat. Whenever there is war, there is the risk that soldiers will start killing the wrong people. This is one reason why modern armies insist on a strong chain of command and discourage "freelancing"; they don't trust their soldiers to keep their guns pointed in the right direction. Military investigations of problem units, like the ones responsible for most of the unlicensed killings in Iraq and Afghanistan, usually find that there are big problems with the whole chain of command. Properly led men, who respect their officers and are given clear direction, are much less likely to commit horrible acts, so behind most atrocities is some clear dereliction of duty by commanders.

Counter-insurgency conflicts like the ones Americans have been fighting lately are especially prone to degenerate into indiscriminate killing. American soldiers are most in danger from enemies they never see, who attack using roadside bombs. The soldiers who lose friends to these devices know that some of the civilians living around knew about the bombs, and some probably knew the bombers. Over time they become increasingly angry toward the civilians who are not protecting them, and increasingly frustrated that their real enemies will not show themselves to be shot at. Under these circumstances I am surprised that more American soldiers don't just open fire on the nearest natives.

The new doctrine of counter-insurgency, or COIN, says that soldiers are supposed to be peaceful change agents who spend as much time helping to build civil society as fighting or patrolling. But young men don't usually enter the army to dig wells; they want a different kind of action. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general, emphasized this disconnect when he talked to Mogelson. US counter-insurgency doctrine, he said,
hasn’t caught up to understanding the mind-set of these young kids. I even see it when I sit down with the squad leaders and the platoon sergeants. They’re in the war-fighter mentality. They’re gung-ho. They’ve got to have combat skills, there’s no doubt about it. It’s what’s going to save them. But I don’t think it’s set up in a way that also teaches them what they have to know for the COIN doctrine.
This problem is made worse by the mixed messages some soldiers are getting from their officers. The commander of the Striker Brigade, which had the worst record of war crimes of any unit in the recent conflicts, was openly scornful of COIN and wanted his men to be shooting "bad guys," not building schools. Between this confusion and what military investigators called a "disfunctional command climate" in the brigade, it was all but inevitable that some soldiers would get out of control.

Solving political problems by fighting wars is like controlling wildfires by lighting your own controlled burns, or snuffing out oil well fires with dynamite. It is inherently dangerous. There are no wars without atrocities, and long conflicts between regular soldiers and guerrillas often produce many atrocities. Of course we want to limit the damage, and soldiers who commit murder should be punished. But such killings are inevitable. The real fault for them rests on the civilians who ordered that the wars be fought, and who have supplied such vague or unrealistic goals.

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