We Americans Always Say We Do Our Best Not to Hurt Civilians. But Our Best Isn't Good Enough | Opinion

There's a popular fable that makes its way around the U.S. State Department, commonly attributed to Winston Lord, Henry Kissinger's speech writer. The short version goes something like this: Lord takes his boss a draft of a speech. "Is that the best you can do?" asks Kissinger. Dejected, Lord returns to his office to edit and rewrite. This happens several more times. Every time he brings it back, Kissinger says "are you sure this is the best you can do?", and Lord would again go back, each time editing the speech closer to perfection.

Finally, he brings a copy of the speech to Kissinger and says "sir, this is it, this is the best I can do.". And Kissinger says, simply, "ok, then... I'll read it."

With every news report of a major civilian casualties incident, like the drone strike recently that reportedly killed 30 pine-nut farmers, the government's response runs pretty close to "we do everything we can, but tragedies occur." Variations on this theme—many of which are offered not by the military itself but by the policy commentariat—include: "it's the enemy's fault," "we do more than other countries," "we're simply not resourced to much more," or "it's just a part of war."

And over the last 18 years, as strikes on wedding parties and funerals run together, as thousands of human beings with names and stories have died and have long since been long forgotten (if they were ever acknowledged in the first place,) we accept these explanations and then move on. But it's time we all asked ourselves, "is that the best we can do?"

Last month, a UN report found that, for the first time since they started tracking the conflict, U.S. and Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban. The U.S. military's position is that they can't do much more to avoid casualties when the adversary is trapping civilians or hiding among them.

Is that the best you can do?

Family members of people killed by U.S. drone strikes in Somalia have expressed the desire to speak to somebody from the U.S. government to substantiate the innocence of their relatives. So far, nobody from the Special Operations Task Force in Djibouti or the U.S. Embassy has contacted them. The military keeps specific grid coordinates of homes and with effort could obtain errant air strike victims' identities. Yet, of the 1,335 civilian casualties that the U.S. has confirmed in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. government has done next to nothing to compensate, or even acknowledge the tragedy directly affecting family members or communities, even though Congress has appropriated funds for years for just this purpose.

Is that the best you can do?

The press rarely, if ever, covers major civilian harm. Managing editors have admitted to not prioritizing civilian deaths in American wars with news rooms being beset by resource competition and the desire for "clicks." The Pentagon Press Corps rarely asks about civilian harm, even when Pentagon officials overtly flag the issue. For example, at a March 2016 press conference, the anti-ISIS coalition spokesperson began the session by notifying the press pool about a strike on ISIS in Mosul, Iraq that may have killed civilians. At least 15 and as many as 100 civilians had allegedly been killed by U.S.-led actions in the Mosul incident, local reports in preceding days had claimed. The only press pool follow-up to the spokesperson's statement about possible civilian casualties concerned whether any of the facilities struck by the Coalition in Iraq and Syria that week, including those mentioned for March 19, were thought to be possible chemical weapons facilities.

Is that the best you can do?

Meanwhile, Americans aren't attuned to the true human costs of the US military's operations overseas. We seem to have largely forgotten that civilians continue to die as part of America's forever war that started with 9/11. As proof, the award-winning story "The Uncounted" in the New York Times Magazine by Azmat Khan and Anand Ghopal did not even break the top 100 articles of 2017 on the New York Times website. What did? Mariah Carey's dispute with her manager over New Year's Eve and "The 36 Questions that Lead to Love."

Is that the best you can do?

Congress has passed meaningful legislation on a non-partisan basis over the past few years to improve reporting requirements and to fund compensation programs, but real, extended interest in the issue is generally limited to a few offices and a few professional staff. Some members of Congress even actively opposed the few additional revisions that have been proposed in this year's NDAA legislation.

Is that the best you can do?

Advocacy organizations like ours plug away diligently, advising, cajoling, imploring the military to acknowledge civilian casualties and take steps to avoid them in the future. We avoid being too pointed or harsh in our criticism so as to not alienate the very constituency we are trying to influence. We seek to find constructive, incremental solutions. And so we go along with the plodding pace of reform, hoping that someday, in some future war, maybe somebody's kid won't have to die.

Is that the best I can do?

Don't get me wrong. We work with many good, professional, committed people in the military who want to do the right thing. Many of them understand the stakes of their profession and genuinely despair over the death of civilians. In fact, they often see protecting civilians from groups like ISIS that terrorize and murder with impunity as very the purpose of their work. Our staff works with staff members in Congress who work into the wee hours to get what they can into legislation, sometimes making tradeoffs on other priorities to get there. Excellent journalists have reported diligently, often at great personal risk, on U.S.-caused civilian casualties. I am not calling into question their dedication or commitment.

I also know that the U.S. military employs technical gadgetry and algorithms that make its weapons more precise, its targeting more exact. These measures prevent civilian deaths. I know that the military lawyers and commanders alike would never deliberately violate the laws of war or intentionally kill people. I am not calling into question their integrity or their morality.

War is messy. I don't expect a clean war or "zero" civilian casualties.

But, it's been 18 years and we've all gotten too complacent about death. Too many people are still dying. If we're not going to end these wars, then we have to do better. And we have to do more. Because we can do better, and we can do more. The promise of a forthcoming DOD policy on civilian casualties could be the opportunity to make meaningful reforms to practice.

Until then, we all have to go back, check our work again. And again. Until we get it right. Then—maybe—we can say "this is it, this is the best I can do."

Federico Borello has been the Executive Director at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) since July 2014. He previously served as Director of Investments at Humanity United where he managed the International Justice and the Democratic Republic of Congo portfolios. His Twitter handle is @fborello1

Daniel R. Mahanty is the director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict's U.S. program. Prior to joining CIVIC, Dan spent 16 years at the U.S. Department of State. In 2012, he created and led the Office of Security and Human Rights in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. You can find him on Twitter @danmahanty.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.