Blinded by Haditha

Sarah Sewall, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, was deputy assistant secretary of defense from 1993 to 1996. (NEW YORK TIMES, 13/06/06):

DEALING with the reported massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, last fall may actually turn out to be an easy case for the military. After all, American troops don’t need refresher training to know that killing children at point-blank range is wrong.

The hard cases are the ones that happen nearly every day: these are the grindingly routine judgment calls, the snap decisions soldiers have to make when their foes (like suicide bombers) refuse to wear uniforms.

In the spiraling violence of Iraq, American troops are constantly learning on the job. Their actions must be closely monitored, especially the bellwether of civilian harm. Yet the military consistently denied the value of tracking civilian casualties. It therefore had no early warning system.

What’s more, the military’s institutional procedures helped keep the reality of abuses at a distance. The mechanism to make war more humane — the law of war — paradoxically limited understanding of war’s impact.

Such a legalistic lens can create a blind spot. Investigations are not routine; they occur when the system suspects a problem. With civilian casualties invisible, it’s harder to find a problem to suspect.

This spring, though, the military began investigating civilian deaths not simply to assess culpability but to enhance effectiveness. This groundbreaking approach builds on efforts, begun last year, to track incidents involving civilian harm at checkpoints and during convoys. Commanders were told to investigate the most serious of these incidents.

Why? To minimize civilian harm. The effort appears to have succeeded. Since January, Iraqi civilian deaths in these situations have been reduced from four to one per week. American forces have finally begun using meaningful metrics to improve their tactics and guard their professionalism.

If Haditha spurs outrage, it should be directed in the right place. Determining culpability is the best we can do after the fact. But prevention is a far better goal. The military didn’t start analyzing checkpoint shootings until well into the war. Had it acted sooner, arithmetic suggests we could have spared hundreds of Iraqi lives.

This is why the coalition should broaden its inquiry of civilian deaths to include house raids and aerial bombings. And this is why the military should focus on expanding an array of counterintuitive techniques that are now being woven into field doctrine: less force may be more effective, assuming greater risk can make you safer, and your best weapons may be money, services and relationships.

To learn from Haditha is to learn to notice not just the alleged massacres but the steady stream of civilian deaths that for too much of this war have remained invisible.