Practicing to fight wars limited to the warriors

The United States is probably not the only nation whose military forces are involved in something like this. But it very likely puts us in a distinct minority.

At a time when public outrage is rightly focused on the tragic mass killings of Afghan civilians, a horrible crime with which Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged, something going on at Fort Benning over the last few weeks deserves attention.

A team from the Department of Defense was on post to work with the Fort Benning Maneuver Battle Lab on the use of non-lethal weapons.

That's not an oxymoron or a punch line. It refers to a very serious attempt to save civilian lives and prevent casualties, particularly at the roadside checkpoints where too many lives, of civilians and American soldiers alike, have been lost. The Pentagon lists casualties at checkpoints as a cause of civilian deaths second only to air strikes.

So troops at Benning have been practicing with a beam to temporarily blind a driver, an ultra-loud speaker to alert drivers in their own language, and even a spiked mat, like those long in use by law enforcement in pursuits, to blow out tires.

There are practical and tactical, as well as the obvious moral, advantages to any approach that reduces civilian deaths and injuries. For one, these tools for checkpoints enable soldiers to stop and identify vehicles from a greater and safer distance -- in this case, from between 100 and 500 meters.

For another, civilian casualties have a devastating effect on a mission like the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. That's true not only of an aberration like the Bales case, but also of the collateral casualties that are the grim reality of war.

"In a counter insurgency where you are trying to win the hearts and minds and trying to protect civilians," Ken Sheehy of the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate told the L-E's Ben Wright, "every civilian casualty acts against your mission."

The violent reality of war is that chaos, collateral death and destruction, and even atrocities are inevitable. That chaos, and the stress and confusion that go with it, has to be especially prevalent in a war with an undeclared, un-uniformed and all but unidentifiable, yet always ruthless foe.

"The more we have in our tool kit the more we can reduce casualties," said Sgt. Cory Tanner from Fort Stewart. "Keep the soldier safe and my brother safe. That is what we want. We want our guys to come back."

It is the very origin of this nation's mission in Afghanistan -- the mass murder of Americans on Sept. 11, 2001 -- that underscores a fundamental difference between the United States and its enemies. American troops are learning how to save the lives of civilians -- in a war against an enemy that specifically targets ours.