The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) is currently investigating an airstrike in Iraq, which took place in the hotly contested city of Mosul. The details are still very murky, but preliminary fears are that upwards of 200 civilians were killed. This, along with similar instances in Syria, has brought the issue of civilian casualties into the public eye once again.
The claim, if legitimate, is one of the most deadly incidents involving a civilian loss of life in recent years related to the ongoing war on terror. It’s still early in the investigation, so speculation would be inappropriate, however, we can still look at how and why something like this would happen.
One of the most frustrating aspects of fighting ISIS or similar terrorist groups, is their blatant disregard for life, both their own and the lives of others. They have been employing a strategy of using human shields, and that strategy has been used to an extreme degree in Mosul. This has put the US and other coalition forces in the difficult position of having to fight an enemy embedded with an innocent civilian population.
This type of situation can be avoidable at times, when the target simply doesn’t justify the loss of civilian life, when the city isn’t strategically important, etc., however, this isn’t always the reality we have to confront. Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq, and ISIS must be pushed out before some sense of stability can ever be restored. This is where the greatest challenges of the modern battlefield lie.
OUR APPROACH TO THE USE OF FORCE
In the past, war was a different kind of animal. There were clear enemies and allies, clear military and civilian targets, and clear objectives. Ambiguity is the defining characteristic of the wars we have spent over a decade fighting. Now I have heard the calls to turn the middle east, or other places with hostile actors into a parking lot, with people shrieking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki , Dresden, and other instances of mass civilian casualties as a justification for these desires.
These calls are often accompanied by a rallying cry to attack nations these terrorist groups have set up in, as well as those possibly financing them. If we pursued this strategy, our allies would abandon us in an instant, leaving us to fight a multi-continent, multi-decade war, by ourselves for the foreseeable future. This type of mentality does not work on the modern battlefield, and in my opinion, would simply result in an even larger and more fervent level of hatred for the United States globally. Our haphazard jump into a new war and figure it out later approach has caused enough unintended consequences, and any large-scale efforts must be joined by the international community en masse, in order to be successful. Adding additional fronts to this war without a clear strategy for an end-game would simply be an unmitigated disaster. As General William T. Sherman once said;
“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
The way we approach the use of force on the battlefield has shifted heavily towards preventing civilian casualties compared to those WW2 days, or even the early days of the seemingly endless wars we are currently engaged in. If a target will result in even a single civilian casualty, more often than not, that target will not be engaged. We have realized that in order to make legitimate long-term progress, we need to not just kill terrorists, but we need to ensure they can’t point to someone’s child in fresh rubble as a recruitment mechanism. This shift in mentality has been difficult but necessary. Unfortunately, it’s resulted in the forces we are fighting pursuing even more aggressive strategies of civilian shields.
The reality of the modern battlefield is a messy one, and this issue among others such as IEDs, Suicide Bombers, and VBIEDs are all a part of the fabric that makes up the experience of war a new generation of warfighters must confront. There truly aren’t any easy solutions to these problems, and that is painfully obvious. We have seen well over a decade of war, and we aren’t any better off or closer to a productive exit strategy in the countries we currently have forces in. When I was in Afghanistan, neither myself or any of the other Marines I spoke with had any delusions about the groundhog day we all seemed to be a part of. We all want to serve, we all want to destroy the enemy and protect the innocent, but now we don’t seem to have a clear understanding of what that means anymore in execution.