By Sahr Muhammedally
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, in a letter to the mayor and council of Atlanta before he besieged the town in 1864, wrote, “war is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” As a practitioner whose work focuses on the protection of civilians, I have witnessed indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and both governments and armed actors flouting the laws of war. But I have also witnessed innovative practices by militaries to minimize civilian harm. It is therefore worrying to see some in the U.S. military argue in the spirit, if not the language, of Sherman that the U.S. military ought to abandon policies and practices to reduce civilian casualties in preparation for total war against a major adversary.
Arguments from select military lawyers have alluded to a gap between the actual content of the laws of war and the more “aspirational evolution” of the law academics and nongovernmental organizations champion. But going back to just the “basics” of the laws of war, as opposed to stronger civilian protection policies, overlooks the heightened risk of civilian harm when large-scale combat operations take place in densely populated areas.