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Kahl on Civilian Casualties in Iraq

The belief that U.S. forces regularly violate the norm of noncombatant immunity—the notion that civilians should not be targeted or disproportionately harmed during war—has been widely held since the outset of the Iraq conflict. … As conditions in Iraq have moved from bad to worse, the well-documented abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib and the failure of U.S. authorities to live up to their international legal obligations to provide basic security during the formal occupation period have contributed to the widespread sentiment that the United States has discarded the Geneva Conventions altogether, including their prohibitions against targeting civilians. … Based on field research and an extensive review of primary and secondary materials, I contend that the U.S. military has done a better job of respecting noncombatant immunity in Iraq than is commonly thought. Moreover, compliance has improved over time as the military has adjusted its behavior in response to real and perceived violations of the norm. This behavior is best explained by the internalization of noncombatant immunity within the U.S. military’s organizational culture, especially since the Vietnam War. Contemporary U.S. military culture is characterized by what I call the “annihilation restraint paradox”: a commitment to the use of overwhelming but lawful force. The restraint portion explains relatively high levels of U.S. compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq, while the tension between annihilation and restraint helps account for instances of noncompliance and the overall level of Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from U.S. operations—which, although low by historical standards, have still probably been higher than was militarily necessary, desirable, or inevitable.

Colin Kahl (2007), “In the Crossfire or the Crosshairs? Norms, Civilian Casualties, and U.S. Conduct in Iraq,” International Security 32:7-46. Available here .

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