For years, US policy-makers criticized the communist systems of Russia and China for placing political commissars into the ranks of their militaries. This criticism was justified: These commissars were, in essence, enforcers. They revealed fundamental weaknesses because their existence suggested that Soviet and Chinese leaders did not have confidence in their commanders, and valued ideological conformity over military competence. Unfortunately, several developments in the Department of Defense offer disturbing hints of an American “commissar mentality.”
In late August, the Defense Department published a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Action plan. The plan reminds us that in war, the “protection of civilians is a strategic priority and moral imperative.” To ensure that military leaders don’t forget this, it establishes a committee focused on mitigating civilian harm, a new “center of excellence,” and “civilian harm assessment cells” that will be deployed with US troops. Implicit in this plan is a mistrust of officers’ ability to embody existing and fundamental tenets of their jobs, such as verifying firepower is applied to minimize risk to civilians.