Kansas and Missouri are home to 35,000 active duty military personnel. The two states have provided two wartime presidents and host six major military installations. There is no doubt that people here have always had much at stake in questions of when, why and even how the United States goes to war. Right now, major decisions are being made in Washington on these subjects that will have direct bearing on the people of our region — and the country — for many years to come.
First, when, where and why should the United States send its men and women to war? Last week, Congress began debating the domestic legal basis for the use of military force. A bipartisan consensus recognizes that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force is out of date and places too few constraints on the president to prevent unintended consequences. A “good” version of a new authorization could rein in what has become an “everywhere and forever” war against terror, now ongoing in seven countries.
A new version could also prevent unnecessary wars in the future under a president of either party. As important, while not addressed in current drafts, the Authorization for Use of Military Force is an opportunity to restore appropriate bounds on the use of lethal force such as drone strikes under international and domestic law. American leadership on this issue is drastically overdue and increasingly important, as the U.S. has a stake in managing the consequences of the proliferation and use of armed drones by other countries.
On what grounds should we ask American soldiers to kill more civilians, and are more civilian deaths really necessary to win? Right now, the White House, as well as the Defense and State departments are considering revisions to standing guidance (Presidential Policy Guidance) governing the use of lethal drone strikes and civilian casualties outside of war zones. They are reportedly near completion of a new plan to defeat ISIS, which could also in effect increase the tolerance level for civilian harm inside of war zones.
No war has zero civilian casualties, but the U.S. military has traditionally set a high bar for preventing them. The president and the American public should think carefully before asking the Pentagon to lower that bar. Scant evidence exists to support the argument that the additional effort and resources applied to minimizing civilian harm need compromise the overall success of military operations.
On the other hand, doing so has traditionally distinguished the United States military from its peers in the care placed in protecting civilians in wartime. Minimizing harm also provides the key strategic benefit of international and local support and legitimacy, which the U.S. sorely needs to defeat an adversary like ISIS in the long run.
Can we expect the Defense Department to uphold a commitment to transparency and civilian oversight? Even as Americans hold tremendous respect for the armed forces, American democracy has always demanded public oversight and civilian control of the military. When we lose sight of that principle, trouble usually follows.
As the debate begins on the next National Defense Authorization Act, we should look to ensure that key features related to military transparency are preserved, including its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. The Defense Department should be required to release civilian casualty data and make it publicly known when it changes its policies on such casualties.
These and many more questions about America’s role in the world should be asked in the debates over the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the Presidential Policy Guidance on the use of force and the next National Defense Authorization Act. The time has never been better for Kansans and Missourians of all political persuasions to seek answers.
Daniel R. Mahanty is the senior adviser for the U.S. Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict and lives in Leawood. He spent 16 years at the State Department.