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“Courageous Restraint” Medal

May 18, 2010

NATO is considering a medal for soldiers who display “courageous restraint” in their use of lethal force to save civilian lives. According to CNN,

“Although no decisions have been made on the award itself, the idea is consistent with our strategic approach,” Sholtis said. “Our young men and women display remarkable courage every day, including situations where they refrain from using lethal force, even at risk to themselves, in order to prevent possible harm to civilians. In some situations our forces face in Afghanistan, that restraint is an act of discipline and courage not much different than those combat actions that merit awards for valor.”

The idea is controversial among some conservatives who believe it will send confusing signals to the troops and embolden insurgents. It is also unclear how a medal for a non-event/inaction would be judged. However, given the increasing frequency of tragic incidents in which occupying forces have opened fire on civilians in Afghanistan, the medal seems to be an attempt to incentivize a more a cautious and “population-centric” approach. The ultimate aim, of course, is to minimize the restment toward foreign forces that builds after each tragic incident (and may in some cases lead to shifting support toward the insurgents).

While I do not think this particular idea is practical, the thinking behind the concept is laudable as it recognizes the heroism and personal risks taken by many soldiers on a daily basis. A “population centric” counter-insurgency strategy naturally requires shifting risks borne by the civilian population to professional soldiers.

Those who argue that soldiers should not have to bear additional personal risks are essentially in denial about the nature of the occupation and insurgency. The official counter-insurgency policy recognizes that there are limits to the use of lethal force. Beyond a particular threshold the use of deadly force, particularly if it results in the loss of innocent lives, hinders the long term success of the occupation and saps the already anemic popular legitimacy of the Karzai regime. (I am not arguing that NATO’s counter-insurgency strategy will work, but the unrestrained use of force is unlikely to pacify this population if recent incidents are a reliable guide).

I think most will agree that it is as courageous to show restraint and save innocent lives as it is to fight with valor and kill armed combattants. As there are punishments for the abuse of lethal force, there should also be rewards for restraint. The issue is how to reward that risk taking in a way that does not create confusion about the rules of engagement or embolden the enemy. I don’t have a solution, but I commend NATO for trying to come up with a way to recognize alternative forms of heroism and to address this incentive oversight.

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia