American troops in Afghanistan work under tremendously stressful conditions most of us cannot even imagine, with the threat of a surprise attack from an insurgent or stepping on a hidden bomb hanging over them 24/7. Still, our troops "go out of their way to protect civilians, every day," says 1st Lt. Kenneth Kunze, a public affairs officer at Camp Pendleton
More than half of the 20,000 Marines currently in Afghanistan are from Pendleton and other Southern California bases. These Marines, and their colleagues in the other branches of the service, all go through intense training to learn how to deal with and protect civilians.
But our troops are fighting a ruthless, morally bankrupt enemy that, among other despicable things, disguises themselves as women, wears US military uniforms, and even uses their own female family members and children as human shields.
Over the years, I've spoken to Marines who've inadvertently harmed civilians during fire fights and other incidents or have seen innocents injured or killed nearby. And naturally, it haunts them. It's a huge part of why there is so much post-traumatic stress in this war. So many troops come home with deep emotional trauma, and a lot of that comes from the brutal battles in which innocents, including women and children, are mistakenly killed or wounded.
Sometimes this emphasis on not harming civilians actually costs American lives because you never know who the enemy is and our troops are told over and over to be very careful before opening fire. Truth is, several Marines have told me in confidence that sometimes they feel their hands are tied. Sometimes when they are not allowed to shoot in certain situations that require split-second decisions, it puts their lives in jeopardy.
And these deaths, no matter who they are caused by, are having an obviously negative political impact.Nonetheless, civilian casualties are on the rise. US-led forces have been responsible for a fifth of civilian casualties this year, with most of the rest of the 1,300 deaths caused by militants, according to UN figures. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for example, this week condemned a recent US-led airstrike on a convoy of vehicles carrying election campaigners which allegedly killed ten civilians and wounded three in the Rustaq district of the northeastern province of Takhar. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has promised an investigation into the incident.
Each time a civilian is killed, by either side, it's not only tragic for the family and friends of those who were killed, but also for the war effort. Everyone I've spoken to, from top brass to enlisted, agree that is a moral as well as strategic imperative that we spare civilians wherever, whenever and however possible. Simply put, protecting innocents is the American way, it's what separates us from the people we are fighting.To be a truly great warrior, as any American servicemember will tell you, you have to know how and when to take a life, but you also have to know how and when to save one.