One of the most important lessons of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is the danger posed by the excessive use of force not just for U.S. troops on the ground but to the overall strategy for defeating the insurgency. Collateral damage – the military euphemism for the killing of innocents – is one of the best ways of empowering our adversaries. I was told that concerns over civilian casualties has reached such heights that General Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander has instituted a virtual zero tolerance policy. So important is this lesson that a message to this effect has been broadcast to the faithful by Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri.
There is another reason to look at ways of limiting the excessive use of force. There has been a change in the global ethos from the days when General Kitchner and the Khartoum relief force could mow down thousands of Mahdists, an event memorialized by a young Winston Churchill, and the present day when international norms and the objectives of many overseas military deployments dictate the very careful application of force.
The Pentagon needs a serious and well-funded program to develop what are called non-lethal weapons. These are capabilities that can temporarily disable material and people without lasting damage. There is currently a small, underfunded joint program being managed by the Marine Corps. What the military requires is a national policy to promote non-lethal force and sufficient funding to support a focused effort.
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