Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy: The Case for Courageous Restraint

Publication Year

Military commanders in wartime have moral obligations to abide by international norms and humanitarian laws governing their treatment of noncombatants. How much risk to their own forces they must take to limit harm to civilians in the course of military operations, however, is unclear. The principle of proportionality in the law of armed conflict all but necessitates that they make a utilitarian calculation: potential harm to civilians must always be balanced against military value when considering actions that could hurt innocents. In asymmetric conflicts, such as most counterinsurgencies, information flows, collaboration, and ultimately the support of the local population can be key to achieving strategic objectives. Thus, limiting casualties to noncombatants and other actions that alienate the population in these types of conflicts is a key part of a winning strategy. The concept of “courageous restraint” was created to express this principle to NATO and U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.


 Deadalus, Vol. 146, Issue 1 (January 2017), pp. 44-58.

Publication Topic
Civil War, Insurgency, and Terrorism
Politics and Public Opinion
Publication Type
Academic Journal Article