Heed Sen. Elizabeth Warren on War’s Civilian Casualties

Elizabeth Warren CFPB

(Photo by Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Community Banks Roundtable) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is safe to say that every major war over the last few centuries at least has brought great harm and suffering to innocent civilians (or non-combatants), people, including women and children, who have been killed, wounded, or forced from their homes. We chalk this up to tragedy and the “hell” of war, and move on into war after war.

But yesterday Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren gave a remarkable and little remarked upon speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her national security theme was that the civilian casualties of war undermine our national defense and our democratic principles, creating more potential enemies than those we commenced the war to eliminate. Here is a brief excerpt from her speech:

“As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan progressed, our military leaders increasingly took seriously the costs of civilian casualties in military engagements, and they learned how important it is to prevent civilian casualties.

But now it is time for the next question: when our country considers military interventions abroad – and especially when leaders publicly debate the costs and benefits of using force – do we factor in this same lesson? Do we fully consider the costs of civilian casualties?

When military action is on the table, do we fully and honestly debate the risk that while our actions would wipe out existing terrorists or other threats, they also might produce new ones? Do we talk seriously about the price our great nation, built on the foundation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, may pay if others come to believe that we are indifferent to the deaths of civilians? Do we fully take into account the effect on our interests if people around the world are inflamed by such casualties, or if they do not believe that our actions align with our values?”

Warren goes on to say we must do all we can to reduce civilian casualties: “Our military leaders recognize that our moral values need not conflict with our strategy. As we reflect on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as we prepare for the future use of military force, we must remember this as well.” In this Warren is being “diplomatic”, it seems to me, for the U.S. and NATO are still involved in fighting in Afghanistan and Afghan civilians continue to be harmed. And we are still targeting terrorists with armed drones, drones that have killed many innocent civilians in foreign lands.

The problem with war or “targeted killings” as a foreign policy strategy is that both inevitably kill civilians, as well as rely on violence and terror to defend and spread “our moral values.” If we do in fact, as Warren asks, “fully consider the costs of civilian casualties” we would come to the conclusion that war as a strategy for quelling conflict, resisting tyranny and spreading “peace” and democracy abroad does not work. Democracy holds that each individual is born with unalienable rights, including the right not to be abused or killed by a fellow person; human rights are based on the sacredness of each person. If democracy can exist and survive only by force and killing, what distinguishes its foreign policy from totalitarianism?

Warren in her speech does not come to a radical, pacifist conclusion–since all war kills civilians (as well as a lot of combatants on both sides), we should always refrain from war– but she does provide our nation with a new liberal and practical reason not to choose to take up arms and invade other nations: such foreign wars kill innocent people and turn the families, friends and countrymen of those people against us. This is wise advice at a time when world events and the harsh, hawkish rhetoric of some Americans may soon lead us to the brink of launching yet more wars in distant lands.

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