The Curious Definition of “Combat”

As you may know, the US currently has approximately 3,500 troops on the ground in Iraq as part of a so-called “train, advise, and assist” mission. Officially, these troops are not in an “active combat” role, and there is no official war in Iraq or Syria, either declared or authorized in any other fashion by Congress. And yet, last Thursday, an American soldier died in a gunfight, during a raid of ISIS prison.

Under any plausible definition of the word combat, a firefight would seem to be included. But the Administration would have us believe that actually, US soldiers were not expected to be in harm’s way during the operation. Just think about that for a second. During an offensive, night-time raid on an ISIS prison in which we were trying to free 70 people, US officials claim they did not expect the troops to experience combat. What? Did they honestly think the prison would be just mysteriously unattended in the middle of the night? No, apparently, US troops were just supposed to stay behind at the last minute while the Kurdish forces did all the fighting.

Obviously, this is completely absurd. The Obama Administration is just trying to change the commonsense meaning of words to make its policies sound less terrible than they truly are. This is similar to how they have changed the definition of militant (i.e. not a civilian) to be any fighting-aged-male killed in an airstrike unless they are proved innocent after the fact. (This definition change explains why the monitoring organization, AirWars, recently reported more than 450 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq as a result of airstrikes, while the US-led coalition had acknowledged just two over the same period.) It is also similar to how the Bush Administration previously invented the term “enemy combatant” out of whole cloth to try to claim legitimacy for denying detainees the rights guaranteed to them under the Geneva Conventions. And of course, who could forget the fact that we’ve actually ended the war in Afghanistan under Obama–even though we still have troops and we’re still routinely launching airstrikes there.

The point here is that lying about war and manipulating language to that end is a decidedly bipartisan tradition. The only real difference is that when Republicans do it, some politicians and mainstream pundits will try to call them out for it. When Democrats do it, they have immunity as long as their lies favor the cause of more intervention, as evidence by the recent Benghazi hearing debacle. This, in turn, explains why it’s actually an open question whether the US would have a worse foreign policy under a Democrat or a hawkish Republican. For instance, Ted Cruz would certainly try to launch more wars than someone like Bernie Sanders, but there’s at least a chance Cruz would face some kind of substantial opposition. Meanwhile, if Hillary had the reins of power, mainstream liberal thought would praise her for the inevitably “humanitarian” interventions while the Republicans would just be glad to see us bombing someone.

But regardless of the domestic politics that produce the intervention, the results on the other end of the policy tend to be the same. More dead Americans, more dead civilians, more anti-American sentiments, and more instability in regions that can scarcely afford it.

If you’re interested in learning more about the combat raid and the Administration’s response that we discussed at the beginning of this post, this article offers a good write-up:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/first-combat-death-iraq-combat/412261/

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