Precision warfare

We’ve seen this in the movies dozens of times: highly-trained Western special forces burst suddenly into a target building, their weapons at shoulder height. Moving rapidly from room to room, they identify each potential target within a second, unhesitatingly shooting the bad guys while keeping safe the unarmed and innocent. When it is over, the audience breathes a sigh of mixed relief and admiration.

Being the movies, this cannot really depict reality — and in fact, it doesn’t. It turns out that when special forces burst into a house, they keep their eyes closed.

A top US special forces commander visited a family in rural Afghanistan yesterday to plead for forgiveness after finally admitting that his troops killed five innocent people in a botched raid, which, Afghan officials said, the soldiers then tried to cover up.

Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven went to Paktia in eastern Afghanistan to the home of family head, Haji Sharabuddin, whose two sons were among those shot dead, and offered to enact the tribal ritual nanawate, in which a sheep is sacrificed at the door.

Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, and Haji Sharabuddin’s sons — a policeman and a district prosecutor — were shot dead on February 12 when unidentified raiders stormed their home after an all-night family party to celebrate a newborn child.

The Times of London, April 9, 2010

Now, before you hit the comment button to inform me that the special forces unit had been given misleading intelligence, that its members had gone into a house believed to contain insurgents, and that in such situations troops have to safeguard their own lives by shooting first and asking questions later, consider what this argument implies. If a special forces unit — the best of the military’s best — cannot spare the time to distinguish a pregnant woman from an armed insurgent, there is, first and most simply, no point to sending any such unit to burst into a target house. Dropping a bomb on the building would have the same effect — in this case, killing five innocent civilians — at far less effort and cost.

More sobering, what this argument also leads to is the conclusion that the protection of American troops is such an overwhelming priority that all combat risk should be routinely outsourced to the non-Americans in a given area of operations. But this makes a mockery of the very reason a military is supposed to exist. Young men and women join the armed forces pledging to put their own lives at risk so that the civilians they protect will not be harmed. In the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers claim to be doing this on behalf of both the American public and the civilian populations of those two countries. Yet in case after case, American troops have acted in Afghanistan and Iraq as though it is their lives which are the priority, with civilians routinely subject to being killed on a just-in-case basis lest any harm come to the troops. There is something deeply morally inverted in the notion that the weak and vulnerable should die so that the strong and well-armed may live another day.

The lesson is bleak. Are you a teenaged Afghan girl living in a house targeted by U.S. special forces? Then you are quite likely to be killed — not for aiming a weapon at the soldiers, not even for running, but for nothing more than being a human shape in the dark.

16 thoughts on “Precision warfare

  1. This book was an excellent read – Special Forces seem to get mixed results, depending on how they are leveraged:

    I was intrigued by the notion floated in Making the Corps by Thomas Ricks, that U.S. Marines tend to be great on humanitarian or peacekeeping missions – in their branch of the service, it’s drilled into every soldiers head that you only raise your weapon when you intend to use it.

  2. For someone who tries to portray yourself as on the moral high-ground with your “reporting,” you do a terrible job of understanding the context and facts of the case. Were you there? Hmmm…didn’t think so. In fact, I doubt you’ve been in a dangerous situationin your life, let alone deployed as a combatant in a war zone.

    1. Both eyes are open when we shoot. You would know that if you ever spent a moment in uniform or weren’t afraid of guns. That was a stupid thing to write.

    2. Of the scores of missions we conduct EVERY night, we do very, very careful work and everyone once in a LONG while, someone who should not get hurt is harmed. Sometimes it is due to target mis-identification at the macro level (i.e.: bad intel = wrong house) or the micro-level (i.e.: shoot this person instead of the real bad guy). Sometimes the wrong people are killed due to other things like being used as a human shield by the enemy, being killed by blast effects like shrapnel or concussion, bullet pentration thru a door or wall or an enemy torso, and sometimes they are even killed buy the enemy to instigate a dis-information campaign.

    3. The military takes things like this very, very seriously. The USG is hyper-sensitive to allegations and the apperance of wrong-doing to the point that it drives people like us nuts. We investigate the hell out of ourselves and quiety transfer people to jail or out of the military when the outcomes is appropriate. We don’t enjoy doing this, but it is absolutely necessary to maintain our level professionalism.

    4. There are no blood-thirsty war-mongers in Special Operations. You have the most moral men and women in the business engaged every hour of every day who are trying to the right things in very exhausting circumstances. We all seek to do right. That means protecting non-combatants at great risk to ourselves. However, see also the next and last point.

    5. A universalism: No non-combatant is worth my life. While we seek to minimize the harm and suffering of non-combatants, the people we are willing do go down fighting for are not people indigenous to the combat zone — the people we are willing to go down fighting for are Americans and Americans only. If you are an American, then that means you — I am willing to fight and die fighting for you. I and my brothers do this because you are unable and/or unwilling to do so for yourself and others. If you are not an American, then I don’t care what happens to you. I won’t kill you, and I’ll probably save you at least once, but if you are accidently killed, I’ll get over the tragedy.

  3. GBNT,

    Thanks for your lengthy and serious response. I think you are already fully aware that I’m not in the slightest attempting to “report” news, so I’ll ignore your opening criticism. You seem less aware that my observation that special forces “close their eyes” during raids was meant as black humour — so let me be clear about that now.

    Argument #2 misses my point entirely. It already seems obvious that the team was mislead about the identity of the house — what I cannot understand is why the team then proceeded to kill the occupants, including pregnant women and a teenaged girl. If it was too dark to see anyone clearly, why did they shoot anyway? Is this SOP for a night raid? Kill everyone inside, just to be sure?

    Yet argument #5 seems to explain all this, and makes my case at the same time: you simply don’t care very much about non-American lives. As a Canadian, and thus part of the vast world that is not America, this is what frightens and outrages me. Were you occupying my country, I would feel that my family was indeed at great peril from your special forces and their night raids. Your comments, alas, confirm this fear.

  4. Mark – thanks for the pointer to Huchthausen’s book. Re the US Marines, I don’t have much of a viewpoint on whether their training equips them to be “better” or “worse” at counter-insurgency than other kinds of forces — although you’re probably right about peacekeeping, if only because they’ve traditionally gotten so much more practice at it. My point is not to condemn U.S. special forces per se, but to identify and criticize a state of mind that seems to infect most occupation armies sooner or later: callousness toward the lives of the occupied.

  5. Ian,

    To continue the numbering system:

    #2. First, neither you nor I know what the team knew and did not know about the targeted location. That reporter does not know either. And the truth will never fully come to light. What I can say for 100% certainty is that there is a very deep, systematic methodology to targeting and conduct Direct Action in a insurgent environment. Understand social cognition and organizational bias and you’ll understand why it makes sense to shoot even when it is the wrong physical location. If it was the wrong physical location.

    I’m also not saying the team was/is blameless. I do not know because I was not there. Knowing how these things work, I am fairly confident in saying that no more than 25 people are fully aware of the facts of the process and the actual intelligence used to construct the Target Intelligence Package. And fewer than that know what was actually there on the target site at the time of the mission.

    #5. You only got out of #5 what you were looking for. in response to that I have two things to add:

    A. To re-state: we seek to minimize the death and suffering of non-combatants. It is part of the universalism.

    B. A new point: there is a moral imperative upon the “occupier” (your term) or a foreign counterinsurgent force to protect the population from the insurgent. There is an equally compelling pragmatic counterinsurgency principle to separate the insurgent from the population. This is done principally by force, to be followed up by an intense psychological (read that as marketing) campaign and material benefits which stimulate economic and social development (like of a commercial or middle class). There is a balance to strike that is very, very difficult discover and maintain — much like balancing a marble on the tip of your finger. it si far easier to lose the balance and screw up either being too biased toward violence or too far away from violence. Either one is bad — and it must remain in-tune with potentially drastically changing circumstances at the local level.
    The counterinsurgent force must pry the insurgent out of the population. This is only done through violence in the beginning. Violence must be the first part, and it is always very messy. There is nothing morally or ethically simple about it and we demand perfection in something that is inherently sinister in its complexities. Thus our expectations are somewhat unreasonable. As many small successes we have in executing this type of operation, there are at least as many failures — some catastrophic like what we are discussing.
    Also, intelligence is always partially unreliable. No one can confirm nor deny what the real value of the information is until you are on-target. We may have gotten this one wrong. We don’t know.

    C. Just an observation: why is it that the only popularly-voiced condemnation in the blogosphere is upon ourselves? Where is the outrage against what the Taliban, al-Qaida, Iran’s Guardian Council and other ultra-violent groups with a stated agenda that includes campaigns to destroy known and identified innocents at their discretion? They would kill you if they had the chance. Where is your “outrage?”

  6. GBNT,

    Thanks once more for a thoughtful response — particularly point “B” (thanks for changing to a letter system), in which you describe well the very difficult dilemmas that are part of a counter-insurgency campaign. I agree with you about the complexity of the task faced by Western forces in Afghanistan. But I think where you and I differ is that for you, the incident is at worst a failure of intelligence, perhaps (slightly more culpably?) a breakdown in optimal procedure; for me, it’s the violent death of innocent men and women. You say as explanation that “it makes sense to shoot even when it is the wrong physical location” — but that validates the concluding point of my original post, which is that it seems that just being a human being in the wrong building is enough to get you killed by raiding troops, not accidentally, but as part of policy.

    To your question in “C”, first, I think the blogosphere and the broader media contain more than enough outrage against the Taliban and al Qaeda to satisfy anyone. And second, I have low expectations of those groups — what they do is not shocking to me, because I’m already aware that they’re full of brutal and ruthless men. I’m far more concerned with our own values and standards, and far more outraged when we violate them or simply give up on them. Surely it’s part of being “good guys” that we should criticize ourselves when we act like bad guys? If we don’t, what’s to stop us becoming like them?

  7. Killing non-combatants accidently or purposefully is the antithesis of US military policy. There are multiple categories of reasons for this from the obvious to the purely bureaucratic peculiarities of the way the US miitary works.

    The way we regard humanity in terms of our profession is also multi-fold. We do indeed minimize the effects of(and sometimes lie about) killing of another human, especially non-combatants, both individually and organizationally because to admit to killing a person is always a negative set of emotions, and it takes mental resilience to be able to move past it. To admit to killing a non-combatant is horrific unless you are a psychopath.

    Individually, we cope with several issues simultaneously: fear or reprisal, disappointment and disgust with the effects of one’s own actions, fear of punishment, fear of judgment from loved ones back home, fear of judgment by other people (such as yourself), etc. A solcier must move on. But, some guys never come back from killing a non-combatant, especially if he believes that the victim was an innocent. Some are able to move on and continue to be as proffessional and skilled as anyone.

    Organizationally, it is just what you said — it demonstrates a fault of procedure. The combination of our intelligence processes and operational execution failed. it calls into question many more systems and many more people than theose who dealt with the incident first-hand. Commanders must answer to their bosses, operators must answer to their junior leadership, and systems are analyzed for the broken link that caused or allowed this to happen.

    Enter the nexus of organizational-individual coping. Many men retreat from the negative individual effects by immesing themselves in the organizational arena in order to minimize the negative effects. In a way, it is a chance to spread the blame to no single person must shoulder all the guilt and complicity of those deaths. This is especially true if there is true flaw in the system. Then no single person or small cluster of peole are guilty, but the whole organization feels the effects of the outcomes of investigations and inquiries. Then the leadership can come out and say “we have identified the problems (there are always more than one) and we will fix or adapt our systems to eliminate or account for them.” Once the organization agrees that we will collectively solve the problem that led to the killing of noncombatants, then a man can live with himself and go home to his wife and children and not be torn by guilt. Sometimes.

    We do make mistakes at the organizational and invidiual level that sometimes leads to unwanted death, destruction or suffering, but it is certainly NOT POLICY.

  8. I’ve enjoyed this exchange, GBNT, and will give you the last word so that we don’t argue forever. I will also amicably suggest two things:

    (a) You should start your own blog — you’ve got a lot of interesting things to say, and you express them in a clear and compelling manner. Why not consider writing systematically on counter-insurgency policy and conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan? I know I’d drop by and read your posts from time to time.

    (b) You should consider using your real name. Open societies benefit when citizens step up and say what they think without anonymity. Of course, disregard this advice if you’re an active member of the U.S. armed forces and are not allowed to express political or policy opinions under your own name.

    Best regards,

  9. Ian
    I think you do a disservice to your argument by your lack of context. How many such raids are carried out by NATO forces? How often are innocents killed? When innocents are killed, how often is it due to their being in the same location as insurgents as opposed to this situation where (it seems) the location was wrong. When you pick and show ONE case, it obviously carries a great deal of weight; if it were a one in a hundred case it would change the power of your argument quite a bit.
    As it stands, this seems like a forced attempt to find a story that will fit with the argument you want to make.
    When you draw the conclusion ” that the protection of American troops is such an overwhelming priority that all combat risk should be routinely outsourced to the non-Americans in a given area of operations.” we really can’t tell if that is the case at all, because we only have one story here out of close to a decade of combat operations.
    What if I used the story of the recent “honour killing” of the three girls near Kingston and presented that as proof that multiculturalism and/or immigration and/or Islam can only lead to evil? Would that seem a fair conclusion?
    A single incident may make one upset, and it may point the way to a larger trend, but it should not be used to substitute for such a trend when no other evidence is given.

  10. Hi David,

    You’re right: were I writing the post in order to prove to skeptics that the U.S. military tends to “outsource” risk onto non-combatants, I would have written at greater length and would have used statistics if available. I was writing under the assumption that most of our readers are aware that nervous occupation troops are prone to such behaviour, and that the well-known American belief in “force protection” could only be expected to make the problem more acute.

    To address your skepticism, let me focus you on a better known form of “risk outsourcing”, that of non-combatant deaths at military checkpoints and near convoys in Afghanistan. This NYT article provides a good overview of the problem and of the senior American commander’s acknowledgment of it:

    “KABUL, Afghanistan — American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul.

    “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who became the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan last year. His comments came during a recent videoconference to answer questions from troops in the field about civilian casualties.”

    “[…] Failure to reduce checkpoint and convoy shootings, known in the military as “escalation of force” episodes, has emerged as a major frustration for military commanders who believe that civilian casualties deeply undermine the American and NATO campaign in Afghanistan.”

    Does that help?

  11. Gentlemen: thank you both for bringing me up to speed on an important cultural happening. A damn funny sketch, and now I’ll avoid looking confused if anyone says “More cowbell!” in a bar.

    Yikes – I have got to get some more late night TV in my life.

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