By the time World War II was over entire cities had been devastated and hundreds of thousands of civilians had been killed by the Allies in one of the last wars whose virtue we were all able to agree on. The civilians were not limited to enemy German and Japanese civilians, but included French civilians in occupied territory, Jewish prisoners and numerous others who were caught in the war zone.
To the professional pacifist these numbers appear to disprove the morality of war, any war, but they were the blood price that had to be paid to stop two war machines once they had been allowed to seize the strategic high ground. There was no other way to stop the genocide that Germany and Japan had been inflicting on Europe and Asia except through a way of war that would kill countless civilians.
A refusal to fight that war would not have been the moral course. It would have meant that the Allies would have continued to serve as the silent partners in genocide. The same thing is true today.
War is ugly. It is made moral by why it is fought, not by how it is fought. If we are fighting a war to prevent mass murder, our moral obligation is to win it as quickly as possible. Not as cleanly.
Our attempt to streamline the ugly parts into a drone taking out a terrorist target with no collateral damage is a moral fiction. Civilians die in drone strikes as in any other form of attack and believing that we can have our moral cake and eat it too has convinced some that any other kind of war is immoral.
If we had set out to win World War II as cleanly as possible the price for our morality would have been paid by our own soldiers as well as by the countless victims of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
As we can see the way that American soldiers and Afghan civilians paid the price for Obama’s morality.
As I wrote in The Great Betrayal, “the number of Afghan civilian casualties caused by American forces had dropped between 2009 and 2011, but civilian casualties caused by the Taliban steadily increased… 2009 proved to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians with over 2,400 killed… with the Taliban accounting for two-thirds of the total. While the percentage of casualties caused by US forces fell 28 percent, the percentage caused by the Taliban increased by 40 percent making up for American restraint. This fell into line with the increase in NATO combat deaths which rose from 295 to 520.”
“By 2011, the ISAF forces were responsible for only 14.2 percent of Afghan civilian deaths, while the Taliban were responsible for 79.8 percent of them.”
American soldiers were killing fewer Afghan civilians, but more Afghan civilians were dying. The rules of engagement allowed the Taliban to win which meant that they would be able to kill more civilians. Instead of helping Afghan civilians, we were causing more of them and more of us to be killed.
Obama’s moral approach to war was what the Jewish sages had called the “righteousness of fools.”
This issue takes on a renewed urgency as the United States confronts ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria. To stop ISIS, we will have to do what we were unwilling to do when it came to fighting the Taliban. We will have to hit them and hit them hard.
There was a time when we could have dealt a setback to ISIS with drone strikes. Obama golfed that golden time away. Pinpoint strikes will no longer stop the Islamic State. Only decisive force will.
The White House was panicked enough to relax the rules on “near certainty” allowing more freedom of action against ISIS, but it’s also not nearly enough. ISIS is not a group of terrorists hiding in caves. It operates like an army. It sustains its forces by maintaining a constant forward momentum. This is something that it has in common with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, both of whom were running fragile military and economic enterprises that depended on a steady stream of new conquests.
Stopping ISIS will require a willingness to either put boots on the ground or accept heavy civilian casualties. We once again have a choice between “Shock and Awe” or years of occupation.
We made the wrong choice in the past. We have to be willing to make the right one now.
We can break ISIS if we are willing to clear away the obstacles in the kill-chain by moving as quickly as the enemy does. Instead what we have is the worst of both worlds, a process of approving strikes that treats ISIS as if it were a ponderous conventional foe combined with minimal strikes better suited to the kinds of terrorist enemies we were fighting a decade ago.
Our enemy is mobile and resourceful. It knows our tactics and our limitations. Our people need to be free to take immediate and responsive action on the spot instead of relying on a process that has become too slow and inflexible under the bureaucratic pace of drone warfare.
Obama’s delays closed the door on our opportunity to rescue American hostages being held by ISIS. The dithering which has accompanied all of his military decisions is completely unworkable when confronting groups that have learned to quickly adapt and respond. If the war against ISIS continues to be run through the White House, filtered through its advisers and polls, then the war will be lost.
On the battlefield we have to be willing to accept that if we use large scale bombing to go after a military group that uses civilians as human shields, there will be large numbers of civilian casualties. But that number will be far less than what it would be if ISIS gets to carry out its genocides and continues to drag out the war across the region.
The lesson that we should take away from Afghanistan is that finicky attitudes about civilian casualties only end up costing more civilian lives.
Ending a war requires the use of decisive force. The alternative is the miserable situation in Israel in which it hurts Hamas enough to buy some time, but not enough to stop another war two years later.
Sparing terrorists to save civilians is morally and practically backward. Terrorists kill civilians. Sparing terrorists means that more civilians will die.
On September 10, 2001, Bill Clinton said that he could have had Bin Laden taken out if not for the collateral damage in Kandahar. As a result of his inaction, 3,000 people in the United States and countless civilians in Afghanistan died. By trying to prevent 300 civilian casualties, he actually caused ten times and then a hundred times that many civilian casualties.
We can’t afford any more Clinton moralizing that sacrifices the World Trade Center to spare Kandahar and then has to bomb Kandahar anyway. We can either learn the lessons of Afghanistan or continue losing thousands of Americans to wars that never end.