Of Many Things

The Quadrennial Defense Review is a Congressionally mandated report by the Secretary of Defense on U.S. strategic goals and the personnel, hardware and financing required to realize them. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates presented the 2010 Q.D.R. on Feb. 1. His willingness to cut big-budget weapons systems that are relics of the cold war helped to bring the defense budget in line with meeting actual threats and the ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they yielded no overall savings in defense spending.

The report pays attention to the needs of the active military, veterans and their families, who have disproportionately paid the price for war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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The military will be asked to prepare for rescue and relief operations following natural disasters both at home and abroad. Americans should be proud of the transport and logistical capacities that make U.S. help indispensable in complex humanitarian emergencies like the current rescue effort in Haiti.

But the variety of threats cited by Secretary Gates, as well as shifts in military technology, demand further examination, especially as they strain military law and ethics. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism will continue to be major foci of U.S. defense efforts. Under General David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command (Middle East and Central Asia), counterinsurgency efforts have begun to reduce civilian casualties, primarily for strategic rather than moral reasons. An army cannot win counterinsurgency campaigns until the people are ready to trust it more than the insurgents.

In the recent Marja campaign, under Petraeus’s supervision, the allies gave notice of their intentions well in advance of the attack, so civilians would have time to leave the region; they received prior agreement to the campaign from local elders, and when a rocket went off-target and killed civilians, the weapon was withdrawn from service until the cause of the error could be found.

The military tries to learn from its mistakes. What has not happened in Afghanistan, however, is the disciplining of personnel for inflicting civilian casualties. In northern Afghanistan, when an isolated unit was exposed to prolonged attack by the Taliban, field officers were disciplined for their failure to protect the unit. Similar discipline seems not to have been applied when civilians were killed.

In counterterrorism operations, the problem of instilling accountability for civilian deaths is complicated because the C.I.A., rather than the military, operates many of the drones responsible for collateral casualties. The C.I.A. does not operate under restraints of the laws of armed conflict or the discipline of military justice. Targeting in these attacks is both morally and legally problematic because it involves assassination or, to use a term favored by the Israelis, “targeted killings” (see Jane Mayer, “Predator War,” The New Yorker, 10/26/09).

Some argue that these killings are justified acts of self-defense; others, that outside the field of battle they are prohibited by international law. Misleading intelligence from local informants, which has lead to noncombatant casualties, is cited as another reason for not authorizing assassination by drone as a tool of national defense.

As the number of threats against which we feel we must defend ourselves grows and as new political realities like global terrorism and new technologies like drones muddy the old clarities, the need to determine the moral and legal limits under which the military and civilian agents carry on that defense grows more and more necessary. Moral scrutiny, like that by Mary Ellen O’Connell and Maryann Cusimano Love in this issue of America, will be required.

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