Protection of the innocent in war time is a marker of civilization itself — a concept so central to international law and the ancient “just war ethic” our laws and norms grew out of that it has been recognized across the millennia.
So we can hardly be complacent about the unacceptable number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes under President Barack Obama.
Or about evidence that a growing number of noncombatants have been killed in even more aggressive airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since President Donald Trump was sworn in. There were 1,000 such deaths last month alone, according to the U.K.-based monitoring group Airwars.
And we have to wonder if this spike is evidence of campaign promises kept.
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As a candidate, Trump said that if he were elected, we’d kill not just terrorists but would “take out their families” — again, in clear violation of international and U.S. law — and “bomb the s--- out of” the Islamic State. He hoped to revive interrogation methods “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” and was surprised to hear from his secretary of defense that interrogators learn more by offering suspects cigarettes than by torturing them.
When Fox’s Bill O’Reilly told Trump in a February interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer, after all, his rejoinder was that we all are: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
Some more than others, actually.
So has the moral nonchalance of that exchange been translated into policy? American commanders insist that the rules of engagement haven’t changed and that we remain committed to minimizing the risk to civilians.
But that doesn’t seem to square with what’s happening, which is a streamlined approval process for more airstrikes in densely populated urban areas.
Last week, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights begged the U.S. and our allies in Iraq for “an urgent review of tactics to ensure that the impact on civilians is reduced to an absolute minimum.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, wrote Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about his concern that “the death of innocent children and women from U.S. airstrikes sets us back strategically, makes it more difficult to secure peace and increases terrorist recruitment.”
This is not a partisan worry. It was Obama who, on his way out the door, first made it possible for lower-level officers to approve airstrikes. That shift has continued under Trump.
The result, particularly during more aggressive campaigns in residential areas, is both morally and strategically horrifying and reminds us that “bombing the s--- out of” ISIS in this way only strengthens our enemies.