DOD Secretary Austin And Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs Milley Hold Briefing

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 28, 2022.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Pentagon is not known for staging revivals of classic movies, but it just reenacted a famous scene from “Casablanca.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin — after months of news reports about civilians killed by U.S. bombs, including the deaths of seven children and three adults in a Kabul drone attack — just issued a directive to reduce what the military traditionally describes as collateral damage. “We can and will improve upon efforts to protect civilians,” Austin vowed this week. “The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations, and as a significant strategic and moral imperative.”

His two-page directive calls for the creation of a “Civilian Harm and Mitigation Response Plan” in 90 days that will lay out a comprehensive approach to improve the training of military personnel and the collection and sharing of data, so that the wrong people don’t get killed so often. He also ordered the establishment of a hazily defined “civilian protection center of excellence” to institutionalize the knowledge needed to prevent wrongful killings. The underlying idea is that military culture will be changed so that protecting civilians is a core goal.

If you were just tuning into the catastrophe of America’s forever wars, you might be impressed by Austin’s directive, in the same way you might be impressed by Capt. Louis Renault in “Casablanca” when he shuts down Rick’s Café because, shockingly, gambling was happening in the casino. Renault’s horror was feigned, of course. He was a regular visitor to the cafe, and after blowing his whistle on gambling, he was handed his winnings for that night.

It’s not as though the Pentagon is taking action — or pretending to take action, as is much more likely — because battlefield abuses have suddenly been brought to its attention. From the beginning, one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 wars has been the widely reported killing of civilians by U.S. forces. These things have been revealed in exhaustive detail year after year by generations of journalists (I even did a bit of it during the Iraq invasion), as well as nonprofit organizations and military whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Daniel Hale.

There has even been a begrudging chorus of admissions by the Pentagon that go back more than a decade. In 2010, the Joint Chiefs of Staff completed its classified “Joint Civilian Casualty Study.” In 2013, a Pentagon office called Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis published a report titled “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties: Enduring Lessons.” The remarkable thing about that 2013 report — other than the fact that it included most of the remedies Austin mentioned this week — was that it contained a list of a dozen other reports on civilian casualties that JCOA alone had published in the previous five years.

And five years later, in 2018, the Joint Chiefs completed yet another classified report on civilian casualties. The Washington Post, which revealed its existence, described that report as “a major examination of civilian deaths in military operations, responding to criticism that [the Pentagon] has failed to protect innocent bystanders in counterterrorism wars worldwide.” Sound familiar? And that secret report came two years after President Barack Obama had issued an executive order that said the military was killing too many civilians and needed to take a range of actions to change that.

The Pentagon’s protestations of disappointment at what has happened, and its promises to do better, are the standard confetti of insincerity.

You get the point. The Pentagon’s protestations of disappointment at what has happened, and its promises to do better, are the standard confetti of insincerity. In many ways, it’s similar to executives at Facebook expressing dismay and regret at some of the ways their platform has been used and abused, and promising to do a better job. The important thing to watch is not what powerful institutions promise to do but what they actually do. And when they do nothing after promising again and again to make changes, you would be foolish to regard their latest vow as meaningful.

“While a serious Defense Department focus on civilian harm is long overdue and welcome, it’s unclear that this directive will be enough,” noted Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “What’s needed is a truly systemic overhaul of our country’s civilian harm policies to address the massive structural flaws, likely violations of international law, and probable war crimes that have occurred in the last 20 years.”

The best template for understanding the endurance of the Pentagon’s failures on civilian casualties might be its record on curbing sexual abuse in its ranks. This is a problem that has existed forever but jumped into the public realm in a particularly strong way with the 1991 Tailhook scandal, when 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted at a Navy conference in Las Vegas. Since then, the military has continually promised to do everything it could to fight sexual abuse. There has been no shortage of studies and plans and hearings, but the problem persists, with nearly one in four servicewomen reporting sexual assault in recent studies, and more than half reporting sexual harassment.

There is now hope of real change after Congress finally passed legislation in December that transfers to independent military prosecutors the authority to pursue sexual assault cases. Under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden this week, sexual harassment has also been added as a crime to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These moves came more than three decades after Tailhook.

It would be good if we could save ourselves another decade or two of insincere Pentagon reports and jump forward to the day when commanders no longer have the ability to protect their subordinates, and themselves, by standing in the way of prosecutions after civilians are recklessly killed. (There was no disciplinary action taken against any soldier after the Kabul drone bombing, for instance.) But that day is probably a long way off, especially when the current defense secretary is a former general who for many years commanded U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the meantime, there is one thing Biden could do that would show the government is just a little bit serious about reducing civilian casualties. Daniel Hale, who pleaded guilty to leaking classified military documents that revealed the scale of civilian killings by U.S. drones, is currently serving a 45-month sentence for violating the Espionage Act. He should be pardoned, to demonstrate that it was terribly wrong to punish someone who tried to stop the murder of innocent people.

“I stole something that was never mine to take — precious human life,” Hale said at his sentencing. “I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretend that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honor, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.”