U.S. troops who overcome their natural urge to slaughter civilians will get awards for showing heroic restraint - at least that’s the message being sent by a proposed new service medal.
The proposal circulating around the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan would establish a decoration to be awarded in those situations in which troops refrain from using lethal force, even at risk to themselves, so as not to endanger civilian lives. An ISAF spokesman said that, “in some situations our forces face in Afghanistan, that restraint is an act of discipline and courage not much different than those seen in combat actions.”
Medals for saving lives are nothing new. Many recipients of the Medal of Honor received the award for preserving the lives of others in noncombat situations, such as rescuing people from drowning. An existing award, such as the Bronze Star, could be applied to cases where troops make extraordinary efforts to save Afghan lives. Adding a new decoration to the swollen list of ribbons and awards that festoon our troops is unnecessary.
A separate award for “heroic restraint” or “courageous inaction” or “gallant self-control” - or whatever it winds up being called - would simply be a public relations stunt, part of the campaign that ISAF has been waging to improve the image of coalition troops in Afghanistan. It smells of politics. And the fact that it is being given serious consideration is testament to a military establishment that has run out of ideas.
As a public relations ploy, the medal sends a strangely mixed message. The United States is saying that when our troops don’t take out dozens of civilians during normal operations, it is worthy of commendation. This award sends a message to the Afghans that when Americans do the right thing, it is so rare, so exceptional, so noteworthy that we have to come up with a medal to celebrate it.
The current rules of engagement in Afghanistan, adopted in July, were meant to decrease civilian casualties and help win hearts and minds. But an ABC News poll taken in Afghanistan last December showed 43 percent of Afghans saying ISAF’s record of avoiding civilian casualties has gotten worse, against 24 percent saying it has improved. Afghan Interior Ministry data from March 21 to April 21 show almost six civilians a day being killed in Afghanistan, a 33 percent increase over the same period in 2009. Meanwhile, U.S. troop fatalities in Afghanistan for the first three months of 2010 were double the number over the same period in 2009. Since April, they have been triple. All of those statistics are moving in the wrong direction, and a smiley face medal is not the solution.
Training and discipline will ensure that troops do the right thing and make the best decisions in stressful situations. Sometimes, that will mean taking extra risks to keep civilians out of harm’s way. Other times, that will mean making the much harder choice of doing what needs to be done to complete the mission and preserve the lives of American soldiers, even if that means noncombatants will be placed at risk. Adding this medal to the already complex calculus troops face in those tense moments is a needless complication - and it could wind up getting Americans killed. We can only hope this award will never be awarded posthumously.
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Frank Perley is senior editor for opinion. Joining the newspaper at its inception in 1982, he served as a reporter covering Fairfax County, Va., and Prince George’s County, Md., and as an assistant editor for the national news desk. For the past 18 years, he served on the staff for opinion, where he has written articles, editorials and book reviews. ...
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