Fighting carefully


By Frank Wessling

The American military today is serious about fighting carefully. Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are trained to take reasonable risks in order to avoid harm to noncombatants.

This is not well enough known. It should be, especially among Catholics with our long tradition of care for rules of justice in war.

Marine General James Mattis spoke about this development in an interview for the online magazine Slate. He is commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, in charge of coordinating the activities of American Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy in the combat zones.

He pushes the troops to think, not just shoot. He pushes training that helps the troops respect local customs. He reminds them to treat people and places with respect as much as possible: they don’t break into homes unnecessarily and they don’t speed through streets as if the town life is meaningless.


The new Counterinsurgency Field Manual he developed along with Army General David Petraeus is based on the principle that using less force while accepting more short-term risk will gain acceptance from local people that will bring long-term security. Special training is provided so that troops gain confidence in their ability to make good split-second decisions in threatening conditions. They also understand from Mattis that when conditions call for fighting they are expected to do so with full fury as well as precision.

All of this is extremely difficult in an environment where anyone might be a threat. The person carrying a baby in a market one day might be the person who wants to kill you that night. But the extra risks of thoughtfulness are taken because they pay off in the long run — and it’s the right thing to do; the humane, human thing even amid the inhumanity of war.

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