Do Less Harm

Protecting and Compensating Civilians in War

Everyone knows that civilians suffer in war. Even in lawfully conducted conflicts waged for legitimate causes, they lose lives, limbs, and loved ones. What fewer understand is that there are no laws that oblige warring parties to help the civilians they've harmed, as long as the action that caused the harm is considered legal. A fighter jet can strike a weapons cache next to a home, a guard can shoot a suspicious biker at a checkpoint, and a convoy can speed through a playground, but so long as in each instance the armed forces follow the Geneva Conventions' rules of discrimination and proportionality, they never have to explain, apologize, or pay for those losses.

Aside from being ethically bankrupt, indifference toward the plight of civilians has practical drawbacks: for survivors of war, nothing can generate more hatred toward a foreign government than never having their grief acknowledged. Responding is not simply an act of compassion; it is an act of strategic self-interest.

The United States learned that lesson the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq. For years, Afghans and Iraqis whose family members were killed or maimed took to the streets to protest what they saw as the Americans' callous indifference to civilian casualties. After the U.S. military finally came to understand that survivors' anger undermined the mission, it started tracking the damage it caused and responding directly to affected families. It managed to create a new culture geared toward understanding and addressing the civilian costs of its combat operations.

The question now is whether this shift will survive as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come to an end and Washington increasingly fights terrorism through drone strikes and special operations raids. After the Vietnam War, policymakers quickly forgot the lessons they had learned about the importance of winning over local populations. In order to avoid having to painfully relearn the lessons of the importance of recognizing civilian harm in its next war, the United States needs to turn its

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