'Clean war' is the unicorn of armed conflict
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Wake up, America: There is no such thing as a "clean war," where the only blood that spills is that of the enemy. After reading several media sites these past few months, I noticed a resurgence in discontent over recent military operations, operations that resulted in civilian deaths. My aim in writing this is not to discount these deaths as anything less than tragic; my aim in writing this is to remind the reader that as tragic as these deaths are, they are a cost of war.

America is at war, a war that knows no boundaries or borders and oftentimes finds civilians caught in the crossfire. As unfortunate as this is, it is an unavoidable truth.

Pundits may lead you to believe this is not the case, but it is.

We all desire a clean war with no civilian deaths, which is not unreasonable given the precision-guided weapons we grew up watching on television — a capability that afforded U.S. pilots the ability to steer weapons through a specific window, on a specific building, on a specific street in downtown Baghdad, all while viewers watched in the comfort of their homes.

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These new types of war with "new" weapons led us to believe that civilians were immune and only "bad" people died. While these strikes showcased impressive technological advances, they also prejudiced us into believing that this new capability ushered in a new type of war: A war best described as clean.

 

While technology provides today's warfighters with advantages World War II pilots could never have imagined, it will never be able to hurdle the pragmatic realities of war. Are we better off today because of technology? Yes, without question; however, technology will never reach the summit where civilian casualties are a moot point because the enemy, along with Carl von Clausewitz's "fog" and "friction," always has a vote.

War is not clean, but it is a lot cleaner than it used to be. Today's wars look drastically different than yesterday's. Gone are the days when uniformed armies opposed each other in the open, using armor and aircraft to expose weakness and overpower. Gone are the days when it was acceptable to launch thousands of bombers against cities in Europe and the Pacific, attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Today, the battlefield has changed, and the United States finds itself immersed in a new type of war, one best described as dynamically confusing, where the enemy plays by a different set of rules — rules that, among other things, include hiding among civilians, making differentiating between civilian versus combatant and friend versus foe extremely difficult.

This is also a war followed in real time by anyone with a smart device, a technology that delivers instant updates, and oftentimes partial truths, to smart screens across the globe.

Let us appreciate that today's fight is fierce and only getting fiercer. Today's enemy is scattered across the globe and wants nothing more than to destroy human values, the same human values that are woven into America's moral fabric — a moral fabric that guides America into action versus sitting back and doing nothing. A fabric that, in the face of terrible acts against humanity, serves as the moral compass that compels America to intervene regardless of the cost.

The decision to use military hard power is a serious one and never taken lightly. The military establishment does everything in its power to mitigate risk in a battlespace that can only be described as "murky" because, no matter the amount of intelligence or planning, the only certainty is uncertainty.

It is uncertainty that constantly tries to derail the best-planned missions and it is uncertainty that oftentimes finds civilians caught in the middle. Yes, any civilian death is a tragedy. However, it is also important to understand that for every civilian killed in an operation there are hundreds, if not thousands, that are alive because of the skilled mission planning and the real-time split-second decision-making made by the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine in the air or on the ground.

When weighing action, it is important to ask ourselves a simple question: Would you feel safer at home if America sat this one out, giving the enemy the rest and space needed to regroup, plan and, if given the chance, the opportunity to carry out and celebrate the killing of as many Americans as possible, regardless if civilian or not? That is an opportunity our enemies have already leveraged across the globe and one they would not hesitate to act on again.

Robert Makros is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Air Force senior fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.


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