Three Army Veterans Respond to a New Manual on Preventing Civilian Casualties
There are no boundaries in combat. From the American battlefields of the Civil War to the islands of the Pacific and into the backyards of Afghanistan, each location is someone’s home, and in each location, civilians have been killed. War doesn’t discriminate. Blood spills through both uniformed and civilian attire and tragically, the innocent almost always die.
Though avoiding civilian deaths has traditionally been a focus of advanced combat training, there was never an established guidebook specifically designed to prevent civilian casualties. But in the spring of 2011, a group of U.S. Army officials gathered to combine the results of a then-recent study with a new method of engaging in combat, all with the focus of preventing harm to civilians.
Timing was ironic. Work on the project began in May 2011. By June, the United Nations reported that May had been the deadliest month for civilians in Afghanistan since 2007.
In October 2011 army officials brought a draft of the manual to the Pepperdine School of Law for discussion and edits with Greg McNeal, former army officer and Pepperdine professor of law. Released in January with the approval of the Secretary of the Army, the manual became the first of its kind in the history of warfare, and will be widely distributed to army units throughout the country.
Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 3-37.11, has garnered both appl”se and scrutiny since its release. Some say it’s too political and perhaps even unnecessary bec”se the laws of war already address harm to civilians. Others support its ingenuity and the ways in which it supplements the laws of war.
But what do army veterans think? McNeal and two Pepperdine Law students weigh in based on their military experience.
A Guideline for Saving Lives
Imagine life for a military unit in today’s war zones. They are responsible for fighting the enemy, representing their country, and doing their part to secure freedom.
But they also carry the heavy burden of protecting the innocent in all military operations from airstrikes to the use of artillery to combat patrols and checkpoints. According to McNeal, the manual’s focus is on not repeating the mistakes of the past.
McNeal’s career in the army began as a commissioned officer in 1999. The Lehigh University graduate worked in communications both stateside at Fort Meade, Md. and in South Korea, where he led 80 communication specialists, 16 of whom were civilians. At the time, his was the most forwardly deployed American unit.
“What we did was nothing compared to the duties that were ahead for those who were to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan,”he said. ‚”The mindset of the military was different then. The military has learned a lot of lessons since I was in and I think it has changed in a good way.”
By the time he enrolled in courses at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, his interest in international law had grown. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were worsening and some of the soldiers that trained under McNeal were still actively serving. The issues hit close to home.
When he graduated from law school, McNeal began advising the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, while also working on issues facing the Department of Justice’s counter-terrorism efforts. Additionally he provided legal support to the Iraqi High Tribunal and the Regime Crimes Liaison Office during and after the prosecution of Saddam Hussein. All the while he had been conducting research on the prevention of ‚”collateral damage”(civilian casualties) in air strikes and in ground combat.
When he asked a friend about additional projects to sit in on, McNeal was led to Dwight Raymond, a staff member at the U.S. Army War College who currently serves with the army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. It was Raymond who was developing the manual.
McNeal contacted Raymond and offered another set of eyes. With the support of School of Law dean Deanell Reece Tacha, McNeal offered the Malibu campus as the site of a two-day workshop in which a dozen army officials and three representatives of human rights groups collaborated on edits to the manual.
“The way it’s intended to be used is in current conflicts or anytime we go into another conflict,”McNeal said. “When the planning section starts to figure out how they are going to prevent civilian casualties, instead of reinventing the wheel and making all the mistakes we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, they pull this manual off the shelf and they follow a planning cycle and a training cycle. Before you even go to combat, part of your training is how to make sure you don’t c”se civilian casualties. If you do c”se them, how do you ensure that you mitigate the damages? How do you make sure you can help the civilian population recover? How do you learn lessons so as to not repeat these mistakes in the future?”
The impact of such tactics, McNeal says, is threefold. American military units, civilians, and human rights groups all benefit from the guidelines of the manual. Guidelines that McNeal noted will be a continuous work in progress as the military continues to establish effective methods of combat.
Reaction from Those Who Served
Criticism of the manual stems from active troops and veterans with concerns regarding the suggested restrictive use of artillery and air support, a tactic that is opposite of the original approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such restrictions, some say, pose a greater threat to American troops.
“My concern with the manual will be the way it is applied at the tip of the spear,”said Raymond Areshenko, a veteran lieutenant of the National Guard and student at Pepperdine Law. “This is really going to be a command issue and hopefully this does not result in a mechanism whereby civilian leaders with deficient levels of tactical knowledge micromanage the battlefield.”
Areshenko enlisted in the National Guard in 1997 at 17. His duties at the time were primarily in the maintenance of Blackhawks both stateside and in Iraq. He then became an army officer, piloting UH-60 Blackhawks.
“Soldiers have been placed under rules of engagement that many feel are too restrictive in that they allow the soldier to be placed in too much danger bec”se they restrict the soldiers’ ability to pursue or engage enemy combatants unless the combatants are blatantly attacking the coalition forces or civilians,”Areshenko said, noting the case of staff sergeant Robert Bales, who was charged in March with the murder of 17 Afghan civilians.
“The facts of the recent shooting involving SSG Bales may be an example of the frustration soldiers experience when dealing with civilians,”he said. ‚”Civilians, especially in small village areas, often have a very good grasp of what is going on in their area. It is very common for the local civilians to know where an IED [improvised explosive device], weapons stock, or ambush site is located, but for whatever reason, whether it’s indifference or fear of combatant reprisal, they say nothing and allow the soldiers to fall prey. The soldiers know that the locals know these attacks are coming yet remain silent. It is extremely frustrating to watch your friends and countrymen be killed.”
Faridoon Baqi, president of Pepperdine Law’s Veterans Legal Society and vice president of Pepperdine’s Student Bar Association, has a different view. Born in Afghanistan, Baqi’s family fled to the United States during the Soviet invasion. They arrived as refugees on May 5, 1980. He was just 8 years old.
Baqi entered the army as a commissioned officer in 1994. He served with an air defense artillery unit in several deployments, including to Southwest Asia. His support of the manual, specifically of the artillery restrictions, stems from childhood memories of a war-torn Afghanistan. He noted a study completed by the International Council on Security and Development that found that 92 percent of Afghan civilians don’t know about the events of September 11, 2001‚Äîevents that brought American troops into their villages. He says that lack of understanding has led to Afghan villagers turning on American troops. Villagers, he says, have come to pose more of a threat than the Taliban.
“Imagine you live in your town and one day a foreign invader comes into your country, into your homes, bombs your neighbors, and kills your children,”Baqi said. ‚”They have some serious firepower, so you can’t do anything but just take it. You have no idea why they are there. No idea why they are doing this to you and your land. They claim to be here helping you, but they are shooting down your children intentionally, indiscriminately. I would imagine you would get mad and take up arms. Well, that’s sort of what the local civilians in Afghanistan are going through.”
Areshenko is leery of political influence.
“As history has t”ght us in places like Vietnam and Mogadishu, when a politician is weighing a tactical decision and places more weight on the political side of the scale, as opposed to the recommendations of the military leadership, disaster can ensue.”
Baqi believes it is a matter of accountability.
“We went in knowing that the only way to win was through their ‘hearts and minds,'”he said. ‚”We lost that part of the battle. If we want any chance of success, this [the manual] is a turn in the right direction.”