This consideration of the cost of war is long overdue. For too long, the Pentagon has dismissed reports of civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as false claims or enemy propaganda. But it’s an admirable quality of the US military that leaders like Clarke have now recognized that something went wrong in casualty assessments and are trying to fix it.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week announced a new ‘civilian damage mitigation’ plan, to avert disasters such as the August 2021 strike in Kabul that was expected to kill an Islamic State terrorist , but instead hit a van carrying an innocent non-governmental organization worker and seven children. It was just a notorious incident. Senior Pentagon officials know there were dozens, if not hundreds more.
For officers like Clarke, who commanded the warriors at the sharpest tip of the American military spear, this overhaul of civilian casualties goes to the heart of their profession as soldiers. He told me in an interview on Friday that he had come to recognize that avoiding harm to civilians is both an operational and a moral imperative. The United States cannot fight like Russia does in Ukraine, oblivious to the civilian cost, and succeed.
Clarke started our conversation by explaining combat logic to avoid civilian deaths. “If we are working within and among the population in places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, our people on the ground, usually with partner forces, have to be trusted to do the right thing” , did he declare. “We cannot create another generation of terrorists because we have been lax in our procedures and unnecessarily injured civilian bystanders.”
Clarke then spoke of the moral cost, not just to the victims, but to the Americans who pulled the trigger. “You hurt the individuals who call these airstrikes,” he explained. “They have to live with themselves the rest of their lives. Living with this can sometimes have long term effects leading to behavioral and psychological issues that I don’t want our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines to have to go through.
Clarke recalled the commander’s dilemma from his days as a two-star army general when he oversaw US and Iraqi troops pushing back Islamic State fighters from the Euphrates Valley. He wanted to be sure that the Iraqi partners were precise when requesting fire support against the enemy. “Time is running out, and you look at targets through a soda straw to determine if they are valid targets,” he recalls. These assessments were not always fair.
The special operations forces that Clarke led, known as “SOF” in Pentagonian, carried the heaviest load in America’s wars in the Middle East. They did the hardest work of fighting and killing in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes, as in the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, the combat cycle had a corrosive effect. Gallagher was convicted in a military court for posing in a trophy photo with the corpse of a dead Islamic State prisoner in Iraq. But he wasn’t the only SOF warrior to cross the lines in those 20 years.
“I believe over 99% of the time our special ops forces did the right thing,” Clarke told me. “They made tough calls and they dealt with the results afterwards. But mistakes in our community sometimes happen. Humans are fallible. The constraints were compounded, he said, “because SOF capabilities were highly valued. We were quite scattered, constantly deployed in combat zones.
After the Gallagher case made headlines in 2019, Clarke ordered a full review of SOCOM – SEALS, Army Rangers, Marine Raiders and other special forces. I described in a column last December how that review — and an intensive internal effort by SEALS Commander Rear Admiral H. Wyman Howard III — helped restore standards within this elite Navy force. .
America’s wars in the Middle East have taken their toll. It’s a good thing that one of the results is a new code that says, in the words of Austin’s directive last week: “The protection of civilians is a strategic priority as well as a moral imperative. War changes countries, usually for the worse. But here is a change that is for the better.