Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy

April 28, 2017

U.S. Army scouts in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 2006. CREDIT: familymwr (CC)

STEPHANIE SY: Welcome to Ethics Matter. I am Stephanie Sy. I am so pleased to be joined here at the Carnegie Council studios today by Dr. Joseph Felter, a senior research scholar at the Center of International Security and Cooperation. He is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is here to talk about why civilian casualties (CIVCAS) should be factored into military plans. We are not just talking about the moral and legal reasons for that, but the strategic reasons.

Dr. Felter, thank you so much. It is nice to meet you.

JOSEPH FELTER: It's nice to be here, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE SY: You write about it in a new report for Dædalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy: The Case of Courageous Restraint." What do you want to highlight about this report?

JOSEPH FELTER: I think the big takeaway that I hope comes through in this report that my co-author, Jake Shapiro at Princeton, and I put together is that limiting civilian casualties is always morally and ethically the right thing to do. It is a moral and ethical imperative to limit civilian casualties to follow the rules of war. But in some situations, in some types of conflicts—asymmetric conflicts, counterinsurgencies, the types of conflicts we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example—it is also part of winning.

In a conflict where you are competing for support of the population, where information from the population is key to your tactical and operational successes, if you have a civilian casualty incident, for example, you start to lose support of the population and you start to lose that information flow, and hence you get challenged on the ground. You can't win without support of the population. It is hard to get the support of the population if you are harming the population.

STEPHANIE SY: Sure. I remember at the beginning of the Afghan War there was a lot of talk about winning hearts and minds. I covered the military at that time, and there were a lot of military commanders who would say, "This is important so that we can sort of co-opt the population into helping us."

Did that happen at the beginning? Was that part of the strategy at the beginning of the war, to be careful of civilian casualties?

JOSEPH FELTER: Yes. I think there is a recognition certainly at the leadership level, and it gets down to the individual soldier level, that if you lose that support of the population through harming civilians that you are not going to get the information and the cooperation you need. Ultimately, winning in counterinsurgency is gaining the support of the population and the support of the legitimate government.

STEPHANIE SY: But it wasn't initially part of the strategy, right? And there were a lot of civilians that were killed, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

JOSEPH FELTER: I'm from the U.S. military, that is my background, and we absolutely enforce and abide by the rules of war in limiting civilian casualties.

I think as those wars progressed, if you want to use Afghanistan and Iraq for examples, going in to bring down a Taliban or topple Saddam Hussein, if that was the mission full-stop, while it is very important to limit civilian casualties, again, from this moral/legal perspective, it may not impact on your ability to project power and to bring down the Taliban or Saddam Hussein.

The mission evolved after we took the Taliban out of power, brought Saddam down; it came to let's stabilize the country, let's rebuild the country. Then we actually found ourselves in what we would call a counterinsurgency type of campaign versus a forced-entry, direct-action role with the limited objectives that we thought we may have been in initially.

STEPHANIE SY: This paper really focuses on that period, after "shock and awe" in Iraq, after the Taliban had been taken down in Afghanistan, and it looks at the counterinsurgency that continues in both of those places and how to deal with that in an effective way.

JOSEPH FELTER: Sure. If we use Iraq and Afghanistan as cases in the early part of the war, if we had a civilian casualty event on the way to Baghdad, for example, to take out Saddam Hussein's government, it wouldn't have really impacted on our ability to accomplish that mission. As tragic as it would be, and against the rules—it is always important to limit civilian casualties—but it would not have impacted our mission, if it is defined in conventional terms—seizing terrain, bringing a government down.

But when you shift your mission to trying to rebuild the country, trying to build support for a new government, fighting insurgents where those insurgents are competing for the support of the population with you, then the support of the population becomes very critical and the penalties for civilian casualties become more severe and actually prevent you from accomplishing your mission.

STEPHANIE SY: Is this something that is acknowledged today by commanders in Afghanistan where there are still thousands of U.S. and international troops? Is this part of the policy now?

JOSEPH FELTER: It is. It always has been. In 2009 when General McChrystal took over as commander of the International Security Assistance Force, I think that was when a marked emphasis on, or at least a recognition that limiting civilian casualties, protecting the population, is key to strategic success. He introduced a new tactical directive, new escalation-of-force standard operating procedures, driving directives, basically a number of documents and directives aimed at helping to limit the damage we do to civilians and collateral damage. That was communicated to the soldiers.

This is what the article focuses on; it is bringing those documents and that increased emphasis on limiting civilian casualties, what became at the time known as "exercising courageous restraint," which is what we cover in our paper. It was recognized, but again, it is not uniformly understood or implemented. It takes discipline and training at multiple levels of command to enforce those types of directives.

Every situation is different. When I was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, my last deployment, the fight in Helmand and Kandahar was very different than the fight up in the North or the West, so it is going to be situation-dependent sometimes on the amount of restraint you're going to be able to exercise.

STEPHANIE SY: Let's talk about that at the ground level, for the soldier who is faced potentially with enemy fire. You were an officer in the U.S. Army Special Forces, you conducted defensive operations and security assistance missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I know we will also talk later about your experiences during the invasion of Panama. You were on the ground.

Let's say there is this overarching policy ethos, let's call it, of courageous restraint, for moral, legal, and as you say, strategic reasons. How does that translate into practice for a soldier on the ground?

JOSEPH FELTER: For soldiers it's very difficult. When you are a soldier under fire or you are a small unit leader, and your soldiers, Marines, are under fire, your instinct is protect yourself, protect your soldiers and Marines. It is a visceral, instinctive reaction to use every means at your disposal to protect yourself and those you are responsible for.

To instill the sense of discipline and recognition that exercising restraint may in fact be the only way to achieve tactical operation with strategic success—it's hard, and it takes training, it takes discipline, it takes leadership. Then again, as a leader you don't want to deny your subordinates the ability to protect themselves, but drawing that line between employing force appropriately versus where you should exercise restraint is a fine line. It is not clear-cut, so it's really hard to know when, okay, I can call in an airstrike, it has reached that threshold, versus that airstrike might create civilian casualties and I may want to try a different technique.

STEPHANIE SY: I don't want to get too into the weeds, but just for the clarity of our audience, airstrikes and what is called "close air support" in military lingo is actually a really important component of this. We hear about that happening for Special Forces in Afghanistan, and even today Special Forces that are based in Iraq—and there aren't as many of them—but when they call in close air support, why is that tactic in particular an area where restraint needs to be considered and exercised?

JOSEPH FELTER: Sure. Encouragingly, the weapons we use today are much more accurate and precise than in previous decades, so we are able to precisely guide much of our munitions.

That said, let's take, for example, if an infantry platoon is in contact in a village in Afghanistan taking fire from a building, it's hard to know who else is in that building. If you call in an airstrike you can maybe limit that airstrike to take down that one building, which isn't always the case, but even if you limit it to that one building, that tactical ground commander doesn't know who else is in the building. There may be a family. It's a Taliban and common insurgent tactic to occupy areas that are populated with civilians for that very reason.

If you are that ground commander saying, "Do I call in an airstrike?", that is going to have the least risk to your soldiers, so that seems like the attractive option. It is strictly that private who is getting shot at that says, "Call in the airstrike."

STEPHANIE SY: What if there are children in the building?

JOSEPH FELTER: Right. And if there are, what does that mean for the future of our operations if we kill civilians? If we were operating in this area and kill that child, you have alienated an entire family and entire village for quite some time, and it may tip them to the side of supporting the insurgents or at a minimum not supporting you with information.

Back to your question, is an airstrike the right option? Another option may be let's use direct-fire weapons in fire and maneuver to the building where you can be a little more discriminate where you actually have to put the insurgent in your sights and have positive identification; probably a better way to limit civilian casualties but it puts your own forces at risk. Firing and maneuvering in that situation can incur casualties of your own unit. Or you could just walk away.

Of those three options, it's hard to know the right operation; it's situation-dependent. But that young leader on the ground has to make that decision in the heat of battle where his soldiers may be dying or put at risk. He or she may know that the costs of a civilian casualty could really be high in the long run, so it is very hard. The decisions we are asking those young leaders to make are incredibly difficult. Do you call in an airstrike, do you fire and maneuver, or do you walk away? It is situation-dependent.

What we hope, at least this is what I hope comes through in this research, is that there is an awareness communicated from the leadership that there is a cost to civilian casualties, and you have to weigh that cost with the situation at hand. It doesn't mean you tie your hands and accept casualties and don't fight back, it just means you need to be cognizant that there is a risk and a cost involved with civilian casualties in this type of conflict.

STEPHANIE SY: I wonder if in Afghanistan it was particularly hard for the commander on the field that had to decide to make that call, because I remember so many instances of U.S. soldiers being directly attacked by the Afghan soldiers they were training. To me it almost speaks to an issue of trust and who can you trust. If you can't trust the soldier that you are training, does it make it even harder to care about that life and to care about Afghan lives? This is a tough question, but does that go through a soldier's mind as well?

JOSEPH FELTER: It is very unfortunate. We call them blue-on-blue events, or blue-on-green. Very difficult for any individual in that situation.

You hit it exactly, Stephanie: the importance of trust. Certainly if you have a reputation or a track record for civilian casualties as part of your operations, you are going to lose the trust of the population.

The case you're talking about, who knows how to avoid that. It is really a hard, gut-wrenching thing. But you're right, once you lose that trust it is hard to work together.

STEPHANIE SY: I imagine when you were in Helmand Province in 2010 and 2011, you said, one of the hottest fighting areas of the war, you must have dealt with the local populations. Can you describe how your interactions were and whether by that time there was already a loss of trust between the occupying forces, Americans and other coalition forces, and the local populations?

JOSEPH FELTER: It really is, I think, locally determined. The small unit leaders operating on the ground really can affect the trust level in their area. I can give you a quick example of a Marine battalion in Helmand.

The Taliban had planted a rumor that the Americans had burned a Koran, and of course that is pretty egregious in a Muslim community. A riot broke out. The village population got together and the American Marines formed a circle and they started getting pelted with rocks—I saw pictures of this, I was there soon afterward—but the Marines held their fire. Under the rules of engagement at the time they would have been authorized to use force to protect themselves, but they held their fire despite taking serious injuries. They found out that it was a rumor, the local population realized this was a rumor, and it diffused the situation.

That restraint those Marines showed paid off. In the following weeks that unit had the highest what we call "find and cleared rate for IEDs (improvised explosive device) based on tips." So the local population was actually cooperating with that unit, telling them, "Hey, there's an IED down the road in this location. You might want to dig it up before it kills you."

They built trust in that case by their actions, by in this case exercising the restraint that really impressed, I think, the locals as well. They were throwing rocks at them and they didn't fight back. That takes a lot of discipline.

But you are exactly right: Another unit could have done something on the other extreme and lost the trust of the population, and the cooperation would have gone the other direction and they might be helping the Taliban and placing the IEDs, or telling them where the Americans are and where they are going to be.

STEPHANIE SY: I was never in Afghanistan but I covered the war in Iraq and was embedded with military units. There were certainly soldiers and officers who saw things the way you describe, but there were also those who saw Iraqis as "the other." It occurred to me as you were telling me that story that whoever commanded that platoon of Marines said, "These are human beings," and they saw things at that level, from a humanitarian level, and tried to figure it out, as opposed to just seeing them as the enemy. That is not really a question.

JOSEPH FELTER: I will say this is one thing we found in Afghanistan—even General McChrystal pointed this out—that the longer a unit stayed in an area and interacted with the population, the more limited collateral damage and civilian casualty incidents that occurred. There was a correlation between the time spent interacting with the population, getting to know them. I think you're exactly right: They develop empathy and it really humanizes the situation, it's not the enemy.

STEPHANIE SY: It seems so important, especially when we—later on I want to have a conversation about drone strikes and the remote nature of that.

First I want to ask you about another wrinkle that you highlight in your research which found that whenever civilians were killed in Afghanistan, not only were the coalition forces blamed when they accidentally killed civilians, they were blamed when the Taliban had. Why was that?

JOSEPH FELTER: I think there was a sense among the population that because the coalition is there, we have this struggle, that the Taliban wouldn't be operating in this way and inflicting this damage if the coalition and the Americans weren't there to begin with.

I would say as an American it is a blanket blame on the Americans too. There are a number of different nations in the coalition, but they blame the Americans for quite a bit. That was an interesting finding in our research; our empirical results found it. Our attacks increased for a three-week period after a coalition response to a CIVCAS event, but also for a week after a Taliban CIVCAS event. So in talking to individuals we realized that they did blame even the Taliban incidents on the Americans being there in the first place.

STEPHANIE SY: Is that just intrinsic to being an occupying power?

JOSEPH FELTER: It is a challenge. As proud as I am to be in the U.S. military and have an American flag on my shoulder, that can in some cases represent something different to the local population. No one wants to be occupied, and we certainly appreciate that. That is not our intent. I said "our" but I am not speaking for the U.S. military. You are inherently challenged as a third party, a foreigner, in these countries.

Back to your original question, there is going to be distrust just at face value; who is this foreigner showing up in my backyard?

STEPHANIE SY: You look different, you are wearing a uniform. Is information and propaganda part of that as well? Did you see cases where the Taliban would disavow civilian casualties and directly blame civilian casualties on U.S. forces?

JOSEPH FELTER: Sure. The Taliban didn't have to follow the rules, so to speak. They could lie and mislead and manipulate public opinion, certainly much more than our information operations had the latitude to do.

STEPHANIE SY: They spoke the language.

JOSEPH FELTER: They spoke the language. In some cases they were able to gain more trust from the population.

STEPHANIE SY: You mentioned General McChrystal and how after he took over command there was really more emphasis on strategically avoiding civilian casualties, even more so in his rules of engagement. That meant fewer civilian deaths, and that is obviously positive, but were you also able to measure other positive strategic outcomes as a result of this shift in policy?

JOSEPH FELTER: Yes. At the tactical level we found correlations between limiting civilian casualties and increased cooperation, tips from the population.

Again, in a counterinsurgency fight, the kind we were facing in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, if you could get that information from the population that that would help you in—the big challenge in counterinsurgency is separating the insurgents from the population. They do not wear uniforms, and it is really hard to know who your enemy is. Despite all our vast technological platforms and surveillance systems and satellites, it really comes down to human intelligence, individuals who say, "Hey, this person is an informant or is participating in the Taliban." You really need that support, you need that information flow. We found a direct link between protecting the population, limiting civilian casualties and collateral damage, and maintaining that support and information.

STEPHANIE SY: It occurs to me—and you have alluded to this—that you don't want to create another generation of people who are vengeful because a U.S. airstrike killed their father, who was not a Taliban member, or their baby brother. That makes me think of drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen, and whether without the human intel on the ground of the targeting, how that plays into this idea of courageous restraint.

JOSEPH FELTER: I think it absolutely applies. Whatever your weapons system platform is, you need to limit the collateral damage and certainly any unintended civilian casualties as best you can. It also has to be weighed with how important that target is that you're targeting. It's actually a very difficult decision.

In defense of many of our leaders in a position to authorize drone strikes, many, many times if there is some indication that civilians may be put at risk, the drone strike is called off.

STEPHANIE SY: You talked about how there is data and research that shows the longer you spend within the population, the more awareness you have, the more empathy you have. I assume there must be some covert forces that help direct these strikes on the ground in places like Pakistan or Yemen. It is all classified so it's hard to know, but they aren't spending any lengthy period of time among the population getting to know them. Is that empathy gap something that needs to be considered when deploying remote weapons in this way?

JOSEPH FELTER: Certainly if you're not on the ground then you have some limitations on your ability to actually target, so that is factored in. In an ideal situation you can confirm a target and confirm that it's something that can be engaged without collateral damage. These are really challenging operations. If there is what we call a high-value target, an individual who we know is responsible for many deaths and much damage and will continue to do that, there is an incentive to try to address that threat, if you will, but you have to weigh that with what the risk is with the information you have.

You are exactly right, drone strikes are a challenge and it's not easy for our commanders to make these decisions. I will say, knowing many who do make the decisions, they have exercised some extraordinary judgment and restraint if there is the chance of civilian casualties.

STEPHANIE SY: I want to get your opinion about Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Obviously this research focuses on the asymmetric enemy. First, why don't you define in laymen's terms what you mean by that?

JOSEPH FELTER: As we talked earlier, insurgents are not going to fight a powerful military like the United States toe-to-toe, head-to-head on their own terms. They are going to use any kind of tactic they can to exploit their weaknesses as opposed to fighting— 

STEPHANIE SY: Like dogfights in the air, or armies.

JOSEPH FELTER: Yes. In a counterinsurgency-type of threat environment—which we would consider an asymmetric threat—what is also a very distinct characteristic is, again, the role of the civilian population. In a conventional conflict it's usually two armies fighting each other and the stronger army prevails. In a counterinsurgency fight it could be—let's call it the government, insurgents, and population. It's kind of a three-way game, if you will, and the government competes for the support of the population for a number of reasons, one of which is for information so they can target the insurgents. The insurgents compete for the support, or try to coerce the support, of the population so they can also get information and improve their ability to attack the government.

It is that critical role of the population that is really key to these counterinsurgency and asymmetric types of conflicts that we describe in our research.

STEPHANIE SY: Okay. Going back to the intent of my question, how does that factor in when you're dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Libya and Afghanistan?

JOSEPH FELTER: ISIS is not trying to win hearts and minds necessarily. They will coerce and intimidate. They're happy to have their own small group of followers.

For example, in some insurgency scenarios the insurgents are really trying to win the hearts and minds of the population and maybe even establish their own government. Certainly ISIS has established the caliphate. I would argue in the ISIS situation that they are more coercive and intimidating than persuasive and trying to win the support.

STEPHANIE SY: When you're looking at the concept of courageous restraint, is that not an enemy you have to worry about with?

JOSEPH FELTER: If ISIS is controlling an area, and if coalition forces are operating there, trying to interdict the forces, they are going to need information from the population.

STEPHANIE SY: Like Mosul, for example.

JOSEPH FELTER: Sure. If you go in heavy-handed and have a lot of civilian casualties, while they may not like ISIS, they may be less inclined to support a foreign-forces movement into their town that are being destructive and creating collateral damage and incurring civilian casualties. So you have to worry about it, certainly. I would say in the case of ISIS, ISIS isn't really popular.

STEPHANIE SY: It's a different ballgame in some ways as far as winning hearts and minds. You don't have to worry about that. Having said that, I want to ask you about the deployment of a weapon recently against ISIS. President Trump recently—well actually I don't know that we should say President Trump. Under the Trump administration a weapon that the American people had never seen before was deployed. It has been described as "the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. military's arsenal." It has also been nicknamed "The Mother of All Bombs." The technical term for it is"GRU-43B.

When you think about weaponry, how does courageous restraint play into it?

JOSEPH FELTER: In the case of this particular weapon that you're describing, as I recall—and this was I believe in the spring of 2017 that this particular incident occurred—it was a remote area. I believe there were 36 confirmed ISIS casualties and no civilian casualties were reported. I suspect, and I don't have any inside information, of course, but that great pains were taken to make sure that this was a remote area where we weren't going to have civilian casualties. In this case the military commander made the decision to employ this weapon system which had the effect that I think they had hoped for without any civilian casualties.

I think if they had used this particular weapon in a populated area and they had a lot of civilian casualties, certainly that would not have been consistent with our rules of war or courageous restraint.

STEPHANIE SY: But mistakes have occurred; hospitals have been hit by U.S. bombs. When you're talking about a bomb of that size, doesn't that need to be discussed publicly?

JOSEPH FELTER: Again, I think in this instance it was a remote area. Let's not forget the enemy we are confronting here. This is a pretty ruthless, vicious, violent enemy that has inflicted extraordinary damage. In my opinion, those 36 ISIS casualties, without any civilian casualties in the process, that was a successful mission.

STEPHANIE SY: A few days before that bombing nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles struck an airbase in Syria, and after that President Trump said he has given the military "total authorization." First of all, what does that say to you?

JOSEPH FELTER: I think the intent of that comment is the military needs to have the ability to exercise initiative to take advantage of rapidly emerging situations on the ground so they can have a greater effect. If you constrain the chain of command too much, you are going to lose opportunities and be much less effective.

I'm not sure exactly what the commander-in-chief's words were, but I would suspect that his intent was to communicate that he has faith in his commanders on the ground and trusts them to make decisions that are consistent with our interests and to take advantage of situations. If you have an overly constraining chain of command where you can't make a decision at the ground level, you are going to be paralyzed.

STEPHANIE SY: It is interesting. The Trump administration has several high-level former generals within it. I know there has been some concern in conversations I have heard that that means there's going to be some sort of militarization of government. Yet I can certainly think of examples where I've interviewed a lot of generals who have exercised more restraint and more reasoned ethics because they've actually been in battle.

Is that how you see what's happening, or do you think there is a risk that there is more of chance for military action versus, say, political solutions or diplomatic solutions, because there are military men at such high levels of government now, and so many of them?

JOSEPH FELTER: Our senior military leaders have just extraordinary experience. If you have served at the four-star level, like a combatant command position, central command, that is a position of incredible responsibility where it's not just the military instrument; you're very much cognizant of all instruments of power and how they need to come together to achieve their interests.

I may be a little biased because I had a military background before coming to academia, but we have some extraordinary people serving in government that happen to have military backgrounds. I think their military backgrounds really help them in their ability to carry out their current responsibilities.

STEPHANIE SY: Do you have any reason to believe that the idea of courageous restraint is under threat in any way?

JOSEPH FELTER: I wouldn't say it's under a threat. I would just say it has to be situation-dependent. When I was in Afghanistan, one of my responsibilities in the job I had, I was leading what was called a counterinsurgency advisory assistance team, which is a unit that General McChrystal had started to be what he called his "directed telescope," to go down at the ground level and communicate his guidance and make sure that soldiers understood what his intent was. I would go around the theater and talk to commanders and express to them the importance of what is courageous restraint and why we do it.

Importantly, General McChrystal and certainly later General Petraeus, never intended for the interpretation of courageous restraint to be "tie your hands, don't fight back, don't engage the enemy." It meant to be aware of the downside risk of civilian casualties and factor that in when you make that very difficult, gut-wrenching decision of what type of munitions to employ or what actions to take.

When you say, "Is courageous restraint under threat?" I don't think so. I do think it's important to maintain our vigilance as far as in training and preparation and discipline and leadership. We are asking an awful lot of our young men and women serving to exercise that restraint, but there are cases where it's important to do so and we need to make sure we are making the investments in the quality and the human capital of our forces so they can make those tough decisions.

Sometimes that means overriding your instinct to defend yourself. Imagine if you're taking fire from a building and on the radio you've caught an aircraft that can drop a bomb on it and eliminate the threat, and then your platoon is safe and you don't have to write those letters home to grieving parents, and your platoon is looking at you: "Sir, drop the bomb." If you exercise it, it's really hard not to.

Now you may know that there are civilians there, and that may turn them against us, and we may take more casualties going forward, and certainly it's going to undermine our strategic objectives, but that's a hard decision to make. It's an awful lot to ask of those young leaders.

Back to your question, I wouldn't say courageous restraint is under threat, but I think we cannot forget the importance of investing in the human capital of our forces.

STEPHANIE SY: Can you talk about a personal situation you were in when you were in the Army where you had to exercise courageous restraint?

JOSEPH FELTER: Sure. Let me go way back to my first combat experience. This will date me. It was late 1989 during the invasion of Panama. I was a lieutenant in the Alpha Company 3rd Ranger Battalion—"Hooah."

We parachuted in to an airfield to secure it and we were taking fire coming in. The rules of engagement were at that point you could return the fire, you could use deadly force. In this case while securing the airfield—it was a military base that had one of these units that was loyal to then-president Manuel Noriega. There was a barracks, and we were authorized to clear a barracks in this situation when we felt we could be shot at, with a grenade and then clear the barracks.

STEPHANIE SY: And you had not taken fire at this point?

JOSEPH FELTER: Not from the barracks itself, but we had been shot at coming in, and our aircraft was shot at under a canopy, and when we parachuted we were shot at on the ground. This may have been short-lived, but when you're in it, it feels intense. We took some casualties at that point.

But this young squad leader going in, while he was authorized to use a grenade, opted not to. He went in there and fortunately he found out this was a barracks full of teenagers, they were like military cadets.

STEPHANIE SY: Did he know that before?

JOSEPH FELTER: No. He made the right decision. But if he had walked in there and there was a soldier that had shot him in the face, it probably would have been the wrong decision. Sometimes there's an element of chance. To his great credit, he took a little risk. I say "to his great credit" because it turned out well. But like so many things in combat, the term "hindsight is 20/20," it's always clear what was the right thing to do in hindsight.

I remember, it would have been just horrible on all our consciences to walk in and see potentially dead and wounded teenagers in the barracks, just a horrific sight that that would have been. Fortunately he took some risk, went in there, and determined that it wasn't a threat and we were able to move.

That was one of my first combat experiences, and that's something you carry around on your conscience forever. If you feel like you were part of that or responsible for an incident like that, it's pretty tough. What also would have weighed on my conscience is if they went in there and took casualties. Then you feel responsible for not enforcing that. It's hard, it's really hard.

STEPHANIE SY: It is actually a classical ethical dilemma so it's appropriate that we're talking about it in this show.

Was that particular incident informative in your later work? Did it make you specifically interested in this concept?

JOSEPH FELTER: It did. As I have transitioned to an academic career it reminds me that there is no answer. You can use game theory, and add up utilities, and come up with "here's the right decision." The fog of war, as Clausewitz called it, is difficult; it's difficult to see the right response.

It's important to have a moral foundation grounded and have that training to have that base to draw on when you're scared, when you're at risk, when people you care about or are responsible for are under threat. It's good to have that basis to draw on to make that decision. And it's never easy, and you never know if it's right until after you've made it. You may be visiting Arlington Cemetery blaming yourself for the rest of your life if you're responsible for one of your soldiers being killed, or if you've seen a civilian casualty then that's going to be burned in your memory too. These are really hard decisions.

STEPHANIE SY: These rules of war for moral reasons have been enshrined in international law for a long time, and you allude to that in your research as well, that this is what all armies and nations are supposed to do, is to try to limit civilian casualties. In reality that's not what is happening today. It seems like there's a particular importance to research in a paper like this today that America continues to lead in a moral way. I know the focus is strategic here as well, but did that occur to you, that the timing of the publication of this paper in Dædalus was significant as well?

JOSEPH FELTER: I think it's always the right time to lead in a moral way, so I don't know whether it came out this year or next year or earlier it would have been too different.

America gets involved outside our borders, so our reputation is important; how we are received, how we are reviewed, is important. It's hard enough to go in and engage insurgents. It's even harder if you go in there with a trust deficit, if you will, based on previous performance, so all the more reason to emphasize the importance of following these rules of war and exercising restraint when appropriate, but also not to the detriment of defending yourself or tying your hands.

STEPHANIE SY: Dr. Felter, thank you so much. Really fascinating insights.

JOSEPH FELTER: Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less