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Lessons from the Afghanistan shooting

The Afghanistan shooting of 16 civilians by an American soldier shows the Pentagon must better screen, train, and track its people who fight in war zones.

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An Army medic leads US Marines as they carry an Afghan civilian wounded by insurgent gunfire to a waiting helicopter in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Jan. 25.

Kevin Frayer/AP Photo

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Sad incidents of civilians being harmed by the US military have become so common that many tragedies are quickly forgotten. But that should not be the case after the killing of 16 innocent Afghans last weekend by a US Army sergeant.

The disturbing rampage should serve as a lesson for the Pentagon to better screen, train, and monitor soldiers to operate with the highest ethical standards toward civilians in conflict areas.

That’s not an easy task, especially with new military technologies such as drones or a volunteer military. Still, the Pentagon has steadily adapted to stricter international norms on the treatment of civilians. One reason is that humanity’s desire to protect the innocent during war has risen in recent decades, caused in large part by the conflicts of the 20th century that resulted in some 50 million civilian deaths.

Many rules of war, such as the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, are designed to help militaries act more humanely toward civilians. But public attitudes also shift, too.

In 1968 during the Vietnam War, the American public took notice of the one soldier at the My Lai massacre who refused to follow his superior’s order to kill hundreds of villagers. His moral courage, enlightened by a reverence for innocent life, should remain a model for today’s soldiers even as they pursue an enemy.

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