More Evidence Against the Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 7 months ago

Introduction 

In Politically Correct Rules of Engagement Endanger Troops, I used main stream media reports of soldiers and marines conveying the problematic nature of the rules of engagement under which they operate.  As a result of this article, two NCOs who were in Iraq (one near Ramadi and the other in Kirkuk) wrote me to express their agreement, sharing even more detailed and remarkable stories of U.S. forces being hamstrung by overly restrictive rules of engagement.  I discussed this in The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement.

As a result of both of these articles, my readers have paid close attention to similar stories, and faithful reader David Neumann sent me the link to the Hugh Hewitt Show where rules of engagement were discussed.  After listening, I contacted Milblogger T. F. Boggs, Sergeant in the Army reserves, who recently completed his second deployment in support of OIF.  Sergeant Boggs was happy to converse with me on rules of engagement, and gave me permission to transcribe and publish the portion of the show in which he discussed this topic.  The transcription follows, after which I will offer an assessment and commentary (the content of which is only my responsibility).

T.F. Boggs on Rules of Engagement

Caller:

I wanted to ask, regarding the rules of engagement, it’s frustrating to me and I think a lot of people that our troops have to be held to such a stringent set of rules in a war like this where everything seems blurred.  And I was wondering how the troops feel about it?

Boggs:

Yes, we feel the same way you do, and one story from my experience probably best expresses this … and officers would probably tell me that I should know the rules of engagement … I should act thereupon.  But the point is that the rules of engagement that are there now are hamstringing the soldiers because we think about what we’re doing before we can actually do it.  The second IED we got hit by – I was in the first truck – we saw the guy who blew the IED up on us.  So we were chasing after him, we were on the fly … seems like an eternity but it was like seconds … we were trying to figure out, okay, do we engage this guy, what’s going to happen to us if we engage this guy, are we going to get into trouble, what are we going to say, what are we going to do when this is all over with … so we shoot flares at him, and he doesn’t respond.  So we shoot another, doesn’t respond, so what do we do?  So we shoot warning shots to the side, warning shots to the other side.  Ten seconds of this stuff goes by, and this guy is gaining speed, taking off on us, and I finally tell my gunner, “just go ahead and kill this guy – I’ll take the rap for it.?  You know, we have to take care of the problem, and if this guy is going to be allowed to go off with a flare being shot at his car, then it’s not going to happen.

Hewitt:

And you were certain that he was the IED’er?

Boggs:

Oh, we saw him.  We saw him push the button, jump in his car, and take off.

Hewitt:

Well, that’s got to be within the rules of engagement?

Boggs:

Yea, it has got to be within the rules of engagement, but we were new to the country, we weren’t sure what would happen, and then we faced an inquisition after all of this happened.  We did what we were supposed to do, but we faced hours of paperwork when we had just gotten off the road for twelve hours.  We faced paperwork, we got to face questions, we got to go see the commander, we got to do all of this stuff, and we were just doing our job.  So the next time we go out, we second-guess.  Was that the right thing to do?  What should we do?  We don’t want to do paperwork now, so do we let this guy go?

Hewitt:

Do the Iraqi people understand and take advantage of the disabilities imposed on the American fighting men?

Boggs:

Oh yea – the enemy in particular.   I told this story earlier – if you guys were listening – about the IED, the one who let the IED off, the two other guys that were on the motorcycle.  This guy just claimed ignorance, like he was dumb.  He was wandering around like he was stupid; he doesn’t know anything.  We swipe him for explosives, he comes up negative, supposedly.  We let the guy go.  The guy walks off, and two days later, comes back – let’s another bomb off.

Assessment and Commentary

The report by Sergeant Boggs does not differ in substance or import from the reports by other soldiers and marines in Iraq, as cited in my first two articles and summarized below:

From a Marine in Anbar: “A lot of us feel like we have our hands tied behind our back,? says Cpl. Peter Mattice, of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment. “In Fallujah, [insurgents] know our [rules of engagement] – they know when to stop, just before we engage.?

From a unnamed Soldier: “I’m hesitant to do the job I was trained for. I don’t want to return fire because I might be on CNN the next day.  The hardest thing for a soldier to do, despite all his training, is to return fire when he is fired upon.”

From an NCO in Kirkuk: You make the wrong move and kill civilians though, you not only have to live with the mistake, but you will be ridiculed unmercifully by the media/big army. You will be buried in proceedings and paperwork the remainder of your deployment, and you will not be the same. Your buddies will be affected as well. Cpl. X will see how bad it could be to make the wrong decision, and will hesitate just a hair too long when there is a real threat… and more men will die. The fear of failure leads to hesitation, and hesitation in war is a lesser form of suicide.

From an NCO in Anbar: So yes, from the grunts on the field perspective … the ROE is vague and limiting.  And every time “violations? of the ROE came up it caused our soldiers and marines to question their actions and sometimes cause casualties. If you look up the case of the [unit redacted] Soldier from the [location redacted] region you will see an excellent example.  The [unit redacted] Soldiers started pulling back after that, and even though he eventually had the charges dropped it caused problems throughout the entire Battalion.

And without going into specifics if you look at [date redacted] incident when we lost two Marine pilots and an Army Lt north of [location redacted] you will see another example of how fear of ROE kept us from hitting an enemy until after he had fired at us (and led to a downed helo and an IEDed hummer).  And it was almost much worse.  We dropped two 500 lb bombs a little later and stopped the insurgents from a planned attack that might have led to even more deaths.  And we almost didn’t do that because of ROE.

There is one issue I specifically called out concerning the new standard rules of engagement promulgated this past summer (CJCSI 3121.01B), where individual self-defense is described as a subset of unit self-defense.  This causes the legally astute among us to scratch their heads and wonder why the revision was necessary?  One example proferred was of a patrol, sent out to lure a response by the enemy.  But this kind of thing has been done in every war we have fought, and the ROE need not say this in order to recognize that it occurs.  The change leaves the soldier and marine wondering about their actions and whether they might later regret them, especially since the enlisted ranks are not allowed to know the full rules of engagement.

But I called out a number of ancillary issues associated with application of the rules of engagement in ‘The NCOs Speak’:

The problem has many ingredients.  One part media pressure, one part ROE in need of revision, one part military brass seeking protection, and one part public expectations for modern warfare combined with waning support for the war, and the result is a witch’s brew of problems for U.S. troops.

The problem is not restricted to the rules of engagement proper.  It extends to commissioned officers looking for coverage as a result of investigations, the proliferation of paperwork in order to prepare for any legal investigations or cases concerning actions taken by soldiers or marines, the main stream media and their reports which may or may not be accurate or favorable towards U.S. forces, and the hesitation caused by all of the above.  These are the considerations of the effects of the rules of engagement directly on the fighting man in Iraq today.

But there are broader, more macroscopic rules concerning our engagement with the enemy to consider.  On my previous article in the comments section, Michael Fumento chided me a bit for failure to distinguish between micro- and macroscopic rules of engagement, and then added this interesting note:

In the all-important effort to win hearts and minds (and CYA) some of these are pretty ridiculous. For example, on my first trip to Ramadi I discovered minarets were being used as sniper positions. To this day, all minarets make me nervous, including some I saw in Spain. I asked why we couldn’t just station Iraqi Police at the entrance to check for nothing more than rifles — easily done even under a flowing robe. “No way!? came the answer. The people of Ramadi would resent us. I simply don’t believe that. Anyway, in other places it’s being done.

Iraq is a land of minarets, and any one could contain a sniper.  In Snipers Having Tragic Success Against U.S. Troops, I pointed out that the insurgents were successfully using two tactics to their advantage, accounting for the vast majority of U.S. deaths: IEDs and snipers.  With such a danger to U.S. troops from snipers, the exchange of sniper attacks on U.S. troops for “winning the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people represents a deal the darkness of which would not have even been contemplated in any previous U.S. military engagement, including counterinsurgency operations.

But there is a still a larger arena in which rules of engagement have been problematic.  In the recent presidential address on Iraq and subsequently, Bush mentioned so-called ‘no-go’ zones.  An example of this would be Sadr City, where Maliki, utterly dependent on the Sadrists for his parliamentary coalition, ordered U.S. forces to stand down and terminate the blockade of Sadr City.  While it is relatively unknown to even some of the most savvy observers, the U.S. is under what the U.N. Security Council calls a “security partnership.”  This gives Maliki the power to create no-go zones, and it is not obvious that this has been rescinded or that the American public has the political will to ignore this ‘security partnership’ and engage the Sadrists.

U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Iraq have failed, but not for lack of capabilities of the U.S. forces.  A new strategy is needed, and this new strategy requires an overhaul of the rules of engagement from top to bottom, macroscopic to microscopic.  The approach to success in the coming months is likely to be more population-centric.  But the softly-softly approach of General David Petraeus might not be strategically robust enough to carry the day in Iraq.  Petraeus introduced the “cordon-and-knock” approach in Mosul, but it seems a dubious proposition that the Sadrists who have promised to send U.S. reinforcements home in coffins will be persuaded to give themselves up because an invitation was extended (and if they succeed in melting into the population, there is no incentive to give themselves up).

Strategic and tactical decisions implemented in the coming months will have ramifications for decades, and perhaps for centuries to come.  Sun Tzu says that “when those experienced in war move they make no mistakes” (X.25).  Yet there is ample evidence that the rules of engagement under which U.S. forces operate have caused a lack of effectiveness of the counterinsurgency campaign, and worse, American deaths.

**** UPDATE #1 ****

As if further evidence is needed of (1) the reluctance to unbridle U.S. forces to use necessary means to defeat the enemy in Iraq, (2) the need for officers to provide cover and legal protection for themselves, (3) the debilitating affects of the above on morale of the troops, and (4) the lack of readiness of either the American public or the military establishment to fight the global war on terror, Oak Leaf at Polipundit has the scoop on Col. Michael Steele (portrayed in “Black Hawk Down”), a bona fide American hero and aggresive infantry officer whose career has ended because of orders that ended up causing the deaths of four Iraqis.  The article by Oak Leaf is a must read.

**** UPDATE #2 ****

In today’s Washington Times, Thomas Sowell contributes his input on ROE.

You cannot have law and order in any country where armed bands of competing militias can terrorize the population. Instead of confronting these militias at the outset with an ultimatum to disarm or be killed, we let the Iraqi government veto what our military forces could do, leaving Shi’ite militias intact in Baghdad’s “Sadr City” neighborhood and elsewhere.

Having pushed the “democracy” vision for Iraq, we could not simply disregard the country’s elected government. But democracy arose in Western civilization centuries after law and order had been established. We tried to do it in the reverse order in Iraq. When push comes to shove, people will support tyranny rather than suffer lethal chaos that makes normal everyday life impossible for themselves and their children.

The success or failure of the troop surge in Iraq may depend far more on whether those troops can again be hamstrung by politically restrictive “rules of engagement” than on how many troops there are.

Hat tip to John Little at Blogs of War.



  • michael ledeen

    amen, captain herschel. attempts to mitigate pain often produce the opposite effect: requires much more force, many more deaths, much more pain…or defeat. you can’t win a PC war when the enemy has only one rule: kill us.

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  • http://recycledsip.blogspot.com/ Clyde

    Where is General Patton when you need him? Or General Sherman or General Grant? We need someone who will KILL the enemy, and that enemy is anyone walking around with a weapon who isn’t Coalition forces or duly authorized Iraqi police or army. Anyone else should be shot on sight. Period. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs and you can’t win the War on Islamist Terror without killing the enemy. Our forefathers understood this: Winning a war requires a certain amount of ruthlessness when dealing with our enemies. The pantywaists in charge who have stuck us with these politically correct rules of engagement either never knew this or have chosen to ignore it, to our peril and especially to the peril of the troops on the front lines.

  • Patricia

    Well said. I hope someone in Washington is reading. It is almost as if the military had accepted the negative views of the media and the left first promulgated in the ’60s (baby killers!) and resolved to ‘reform’. Our military has nothing to apologize for, and this is a noble war.

    Let the military do its job, Mr. President. Your legacy and Iraq’s depends on it.

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  • http://www.op-for.com Charlie B.

    Clyde, you are attempting to oversimplify the problem. The theater ROE as they are written were more than adequate in our AO near Habbaniyah. They are being improperly applied in some areas by risk-averse commanders, that is the problem.

    Since our force levels in Iraq are inadequate, and our leadership wants to consolidate us on large bases to reduce casualties, the average Iraqi needs some means to defend himself and his family. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police are too weak and/or inept to provide that security. So we allow them to possess AK-47s.

    Great quote from Robert D. Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts:

    “The survey indicated that, just as I had seen in Colombia, the most basic human right is not freedom as people in the West conceive of it, but physical security.”

  • Dave N.

    Another good post and thanks for the h/t. A couple of comments –

    There have been a number of comments about the ROE controversy, including above by Charlie B., that the top-level ROE are not the problem, but rather mid and lower-level officers add to them, in some cases making them impractical from the point of view of the NCOs and troops.

    If this is right, that is, if the main problems reported with the ROE stem from the fact that they are too often complicated by additions as they are passed down the chain of command, then this might be an example of inadequate information flow up the chain of command, or inadequate curiousity about field conditions on the part of the highest-level leadership which promulgates the top-level ROE. It is the responsibility of the highest-level general responsible for the ROE to “close the information loop,” meaning, find out for himself that every troop in the field is operating under appropriate ROE.

    If we have a situation where the ROE are being larded up with excessive complications while passing down the chain of command, while at the same time, reports of the perfect adequacy and appropriateness of the ROE are being passed up the chain of command by the very same officers who have added the excessive complications to them, and the top generals are not bothering to reality-check the veracity of the information they are receiving through their official channels against direct (unedited, uncensored, unmediated) reports from troops in the field, then Houston, we have a problem. A serious problem.

    Of course it is impossible for one or a few generals to read or receive unmediated inputs from all troops, just from the number of them. But if the troops were encouraged to put in “reality-check” inputs on a direct link routed around the potentially obscuring filtration of reports through official channels, and the top generals were to read just a randomly selected assortment of these, the generals might start asking some good questions of the officers below them. Can T-1 lines and WiFi help penetrate the fog of war? Are the people at the top trying to see if they can?

    At the very least, it is incumbent on the generals to order a review of all versions of the ROE that have been promulgated down to the troop level, with the data-gathering directly from the troop level conducted by an investigatory group of officers (or civilian DoD people) who have played no part in either the formulation, transmission, or field-modification of the ROE, that is, people who don’t have a side in the discussion, but can be impartial. Might have Navy officers interview Army troops, Air Force interview Marines, something like that. This data-gathering must include finding out the troops’ understanding of the oral briefings they have received, in the cases where the troops are only allowed one-page “summaries” of the ROE (the full versions of which are apparently classified), and are orally briefed by officers from legal units. This would include the troops’ perceptions of what they thought the instructors were trying to emphasize as important, because in the absence of being given the full ROE, it is the impressions left in the troops’ minds by the briefers and instructors that will stick with them and govern them, not what is in some document they have not been allowed to see. It doesn’t matter if generals and upper officers are contented with what they have put in a secret document, it matters what the troops themselves believe they have been instructed to do and not do.

    The other matter has to do with one of Sgt. Boggs’ descriptions, of trying to think through the rules during the few seconds of an actual combat situation. His brief description conveys the essence of the time pressure, but there are other details which have likely been left out due to the desire to compress the account of the action to fit a radio show segment. The shock and concussion of an IED going off very close. Temporary loss of hearing, and possible temporary loss of balance due to the shock to the middle and inner ears. Mentally recovering from the nearby explosion as rapidly as possible, while looking for other immediate threats and wounded friendlies. (Brain concussions, from severe to mild, frequently result from IED explosions.) Physically acting to pursue the attacker during the few seconds of time which seem much longer, as adrenaline kicks in. Communicating with fellow soldiers who are also recovering from being stunned and also have temporary hearing loss from the explosion. I am of course guessing about these things in this case but they are very common to people in close proximity to an IED going off.

    This is the mental environment of the troops who must then, in a few seconds, sort out the ROE as they apply to the situation. If the ROE are simple and straightforward, and have been incorporated in training exercises with as much realism as possible, thinking of them and applying them properly is a reasonable expectation. If the ROE are complicated, arbitrary, in some ways ad hoc, and have been changed or otherwise “tacked on” as a last-minute affair before a deployment or a mission, then this is not a reasonable expectation. The problem of “cognitive overload” has been known since at least the Viet Nam war, when fighter aircraft cockpits became so complicated that pilots were sometimes overwhelmed with unneeded information during combat. The problem can arise either from excess irrelevant information, or excess rules with which one must process information. In the type of situation which Sgt. Boggs describes, in the seconds available, the brain only has time to process a few “thought cycles” with regard to abstract rules, no matter how well they have been learned. If the rules are too complex, the brain will at best simply set them aside in favor of more immediate survival-oriented concerns. How many seconds has the ROE-authoring general “planned” for the troops in this situation to spend discussing the ROE while trying to win the fight?

    It is the responsibility of the top generals, to take the ROE as they are briefed to and understood by the troops, (not just as they might be written in secret documents available only to higher officers), and subject them to experimental verification as best as can be done, such as might be set up in a combat-simulation course (“hogan’s alley”). For example, of several companies which have just completed work-ups and are ready for deployment to Iraq, task a few platoons for temporary duty (described to the troops as simply a couple weeks of extra training), which is in reality an investigation into the effects of various versions of ROE content and training methods. Various squads get trained in the different versions of the ROE which have been found by the investigators (described above) to be employed in the field. Make the training as similar as possible in style, method, and wording, as what the deployed units have gotten. Then conduct simulated combat situations (especially surprises) in environments as similar to “realistic” as possible. (Experienced troops as “red team” actors dressed and acting as innocents and muj, complete street scenes similar to Iraq, moving vehicles, everything, full size, full speed.) Have everything recorded on video, etc., with many cameras and mikes from all angles, so that every communication (whether voice, hand signal, etc.), every weapon firing, every troop’s movements and reactions, is timed, down to tenths of seconds. Paintball rounds or laser-type devices on the weapons are used to record where hits go; flash-bangs used in place of IEDs, etc. The questions are, how fast are the troops capable of reacting to surprises with the various sets of rules, and how effective really are the various rules, in preventing the harm of innocents while enabling success over the enemy?

    Some squads will have had training on the basic “top level” version of the ROE, which the generals may think are being used in the field. Others will have had the various versions actually in use in the field, as discovered by the investigators.

    Such an investigation and set of experiments into the effects of variations of ROE would provide a sound basis either for claims that the ROE that the troops actually operate under are acceptable, or that the ROE or the system by which they are promulgated need systemic improvement. Either way, it is the responsibility of the leadership to produce such data to justify their claims, or at least provide convincing evidence that such research has been or is being conducted. We’ll know that it has been, and that results of such research have been implemented, when we start hearing from troops in or returned from the field, that the ROE are, rather than being overly complicated and restrictive, actually useful and helpful, both in prosecuting the war against the enemy, and in ensuring the safety of friendly Iraqis, not only in immediate combat situations, but also in a reduction of future combat situations, due to attrition of the enemy.

    When designing things like fighter aircraft and naval ships, the military uses extensive simulations and experiments to make sure that what they end up with will be effective. Nobody would buy fighter planes without testing models of it in a wind tunnel first! Why then are we using our troops in the field as live “human experiment” fodder, to try out variations of ROE that may never have been run through realistic combat simulations? The ROE for our infantry need to be as extensively and scientifically tested and proven out as is possible, before they are given to the troops, and not “added to” willy-nilly, in the field, any more than an aviation maintenance officer would order the addition of some “extra fins” to a squadron of F-16′s simply because he was worried they might crash without them. We owe our men and women in uniform nothing less. The legal profession is not somehow exempt from the type of scientific scrutiny we routinely apply to engineering, medicine, and every other discipline and human activity. If they make claims to the adequacy and appropriateness of what they do, they need to be able to point to objectively gathered data, from both experiments and from the field, to prove what they are claiming is so. I look forward to reading of the implementation of and results from ROE effectiveness simulation experiments.

  • Jim

    I understand troops in Iraq are given a card containing ROE.

    Will someone please post a copy of this card, or a posting of the exact words on the card.

    I would like to see what the troops are being instructed to do (or not do).

    Thanks.

  • http://www.op-for.com Charlie B.

    The ROE card is not for public distribution, and should not be posted on this, or any other website.

  • Herschel Smith

    Thanks Charlie, but relax. It won’t be posted here. I know OPSEC when I see it. The things I say about ROE are all (and are all based on) public domain, open source information.

    It doesn’t take OPSEC material to know that there is a problem. Some things are just prima facie obvious.

  • http://www.op-for.com Charlie B.

    Herschel, the comment was more for the benefit of your readers like Jim. I just wanted to make sure it was stated in no uncertain terms.

    Honestly, I think restrictive ROEs are caused by a fundamental problem of our campaign in Iraq – we are fighting an unconventional war with conventional forces. Our grunts are some of the best in the world at “locating, closing with, and destroying”, but commanders try to rein that mentality in by using administrative controls such as the ROE.


You are currently reading "More Evidence Against the Rules of Engagement", entry #452 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Iraq,Rules of Engagement and was published January 21st, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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