Since at least the 18th century, the rules of war have put increasing stress on uniforms. Not only do uniforms help prevent the good guys from shooting each other, they also allow a clear distinction to be drawn between a uniformed combat unit cut off behind the lines -- still entitled to be treated as prisoners of war -- and spies and saboteurs purposely disguised as civilians, who are pretty much entitled to be lined up against the wall and shot.
In 1991, U.S. forces overran Iraq quickly. Then our troops noticed something odd. Enemy artillery pieces appeared abandoned, but there seemed to be a lot of adult males of military age loafing around the area in civilian clothes. Once our troops passed by, these characters would run over and fire the artillery piece. What were they? Soldiers, civilians, spies or saboteurs? If, following such an event, you chased down and shot an Iraqi male in a flowered shirt but wearing combat boots, was that an "atrocity"?
In the "asymmetrical" combat now typical of the Third World, the combatant-civilian distinction can be not only meaningless, but deadly to those who try to continue playing by the rules, as learned back home.
What does it mean to imply something has gone wrong if an American rocket attack in Afghanistan causes civilian casualties? While no one wants to target or kill non-combatant women or children, the fact is the Taliban have little in the way of a standardized uniform. As in Vietnam, Taliban fighters can easily hide their rifles in the hut and pretend to be goatherds at convenience.
On Sept. 8, Afghan forces and their U.S. trainers approached the Afghan village of Ganjgal. There, journalist Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy Newspapers lived through a deadly firefight to report: "U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines -- despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village."
Four Marines died, largely because their remote commanders -- be they American or NATO -- refused to provide air or artillery support, for fear of hurting "civilian" villagers.
If members of our chain of command are not willing to accept some level of unintended collateral casualties, our commanders have no business sending American boys into harm's way. The best way to limit civilian casualties in the long run is to exert maximum power, killing lots of enemies, and thus winning the war as quickly as possible. If we're not willing to do that, we shouldn't be there.
In the meantime, saving American lives comes first. That's the deal.