Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 3 months ago

I have extensively covered and commented on rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I doubt that there are any other weblogs for which seven articles have been published under the subject tag.  The comments (totaling in the hundreds now) range across the spectrum, but one thing has become clear.  The commenters (and this author) are talking past each other because of failure to engage the discussion at its root: pre-theoretical commitments.

Permit me a bit of philosophical meandering, and forgive me for what will be a long article.  The problem lies not in whether the ROE are “right” or “wrong,” as there are NCOs, officers, and civilians who, regardless of the so-called “evidence” that there are problems, will deny it and assert with full confidence that the ROE are fine, or regardless of the testimony in favor of the current ROE, will assert that there are problems.  This is not surprising, and points to commitments or beliefs that philosopher Alvin Plantinga would call properly foundational or basic, not being subject to “proof” since they are in fact used as axioms or presuppositions to prove the consequent(s).

So that we don’t remain in the realm of the incomprehensible to most people, let’s tackle a couple of examples, the first coming from my sniper coverage.  There has been an evolution even during OIF in how the sniper threat is treated when potential non-combatants are in the vicinity.  The first example comes from Camp Habbaniyah and Lt. Col. Desgrosseilliers’ Battalion after it had sustained a sniper attack.

Within eight minutes, the jump team slid to a stop in front of the surgical unit at an air base near Camp Habbaniyah. Desgrosseilliers joined several jump-team Marines and orderlies in carrying the wounded man inside on a stretcher.

After a few minutes, Grant came out, blood all over his jumpsuit, and sat on the ground, wordless.

Later a doctor came out and told Navy corpsman George Grant it looked as if the Marine would live, that he’d been stabilized and would be flown to a larger hospital. 

Desgrosseilliers emerged and stood silent as Mueller gathered the members of the jump team in a circle and told them that they’d done a good job and he was glad they were safe.

Earlier in the war, maybe, or under a different commander, the Marines might have returned heavy fire in the general direction of the sniper to make him stop.

This time, they hadn’t fired, not even once. No one could see exactly where the shots were coming from, and a stream of bullets into the town could have hit innocent civilians and seriously damaged Desgrosseilliers’ plan to calm the area.

Back in camp, he said he was proud of his men for being so disciplined.

“I think the insurgency is trying to get us off our message by getting us to return fire and maybe kill some innocent people,” Desgrosseilliers said. “But it’s just not going to work.”

The second example describes a soldier’s reaction to a non-lethal standoff weapon that causes the skin to feel as if it is at a very high temperature – the “ray gun.”

Airman Blaine Pernell, 22, said he could have used the system during his four tours in Iraq, where he manned watchtowers around a base near Kirkuk. He said Iraqis often pulled up and faked car problems so they could scout U.S. forces (italics mine).

“All we could do is watch them,” he said. But if they had the ray gun, troops “could have dispersed them.”

Before we query ourselves concerning these examples, there are a few interesting revelations that have developed over the last few weeks concerning ROE.  First, a Washington Times commentary appeared on January 26th, entitled Untie military hands, which I discussed in my last article on ROE and in which Admiral James A. Lyons outlined a set of conditions that must be met before the enemy could be engaged.  Since I have discussed this I will not rehearse the arguments here.  Subsequently to this (beginning on the next day and extending until just recently), there has been a flurry of activity on this web site from military network domains.  Some of this activity came from repeat visitors and came in from referrals or direct access, but of the ones that came in via “organic” means (e.g., Google), it is possible to see the word searches that brought the readers to my site, what articles they read and how long they stayed (among other things such as network location, information about their computer, etc.).

Since I believe that denoting the specific network domains, locations and keywords that were used could possibly be divulging information that should remain undisclosed, I will not publish that information.  However, I can say that rules of engagement has been a top interest of serious readers for a couple of weeks, and the readers didn’t quickly leave this site.  Some serious time was spent studying the issues of ROE.  The culmination seems to be seen in a recent press release by Major General William B. Caldwell.  In this press release, Caldwell takes direct aim at the Washington Times commentaries:

Two separate articles from Jan. 26 editions of The Washington Times offer contradictory assertions concerning rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Iraq. The first article asserts that the rules are too specific and demanding, placing troops at risk. The second article argues that the rules are vague and confusing, endangering troops who must make life and death decisions in an instant.

Both assertions are wrong.

Contrary to the claim in “Untie military hands,” the rules of engagement in Iraq do not require U.S. service members to satisfy seven steps prior to using force. Instead, the overriding rule for all service members is that nothing in our rules of engagement prevents our troops from using necessary and proportional force to defend themselves.

This foundational concept of U.S. rules of engagement (ROE) is provided to every service member on a pocket-size ROE card. More important, service members are trained to understand this rule and its application in life or death situations. While I cannot rule out the possibility that a leader at a lower level may have issued the restrictive guidance stated in the article, such guidance is in direct conflict with both current ROE and command policy.

The law of armed conflict requires that, to use force, “combatants” must distinguish individuals presenting a threat from innocent civilians. This basic principle is accepted by all disciplined militaries. In the counterinsurgency we are now fighting, disciplined application of force is even more critical because our enemies camouflage themselves in the civilian population. Our success in Iraq depends on our ability to treat the civilian population with humanity and dignity, even as we remain ready to immediately defend ourselves or Iraqi civilians when a threat is detected.

If someone levels an AK-47 at our troops, or if our forces receive hostile fire, the current ROE unambiguously allow our troops to fire immediately in self-defense. In either situation, our forces are trained to recognize the threat and respond with appropriate force to eliminate it. This does not mean “firing wildly”; instead, the individual perceiving the threat identifies the source of that threat, and engages with disciplined shots. “Positive identification” of a threat has nothing to do with membership in a particular ethnic or sectarian group, and has everything to do with recognizing hostile intent. U.S.Iraq have never had limitations beyond that.

“Vague rules,” on the other hand, asserts that vague rules of engagement endanger our troops. The article focuses on the words “use minimum force necessary to decisively eliminate the threat.” Although this phrase articulates the self-defense principles of necessity and proportionality — principles that are especially relevant in the current counterinsurgency fight — it neither appears nor is discussed on the ROE card issued to U.S. service members in Iraq.

We (the public) seem to be in the middle of a bare-knuckles brawl between the Washington Times commentaries and OIF command.  It would seem that at least some of the brawling is targeted towards gaining the understanding and sympathy of the civilian population (as is the case with some of the word searches I cited).  Let’s think a bit about the examples I give above and the Multi-National Force web site press release on ROE.

Regarding the charge of “firing wildly” at perceived threats, a better example of this than the U.S. forces might be the Iraqi troops.  The now deceased Marine Captain Robert Secher describes this for us in one exchange with an enemy sniper.

Anytime an American fires a weapon there has to be an investigation into why there was an escalation of force. That wouldn’t have stopped us from firing, but it prevents us from just firing indiscriminately. We have to have positively identified targets. That is why I am now a big fan of having the Iraqis with us. They can fire at whatever the hell they want, we call it the “Iraqi Death Blossom.” These guys receive one shot and the whole unit fires at everything in sight until the attached American unit gets them to control their fire. That’s fine with me.

Apparently, Captain Secher felt safer with the Iraqis and their ROE than he did with his own.  Note that in an instance such as this the U.S. ROE prevents even the firing in the direction of the sniper shots for fear of civilian casualties.    Note also that when it is understood that the ROE places U.S. troops in an environment that is less safe than otherwise would be the case if we adopted more Iraqi-like ROE, the discussion usually shifts from what is perceived as “right” to a more utilitarian approach.  When the discussion shifts to the utility of the ROE (e.g., heavy-handed tactics that creates more insurgents than you kill, failure to “win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis,” etc.), the conversation is advanced, because at least the pre-theoretical commitments are laid bare.  If the focus of the discussion becomes what works or doesn’t work versus what is right or wrong, at least there is clarity.

Leaving this instance for a moment and turning to an instance that may be clearer than this one, another observation about Caldwell’s press release is that it focuses on the neat, clean, decisive action of “distinguishing” the enemy.  For the mathematically inclined, it is the Heaviside step function in Caldwell’s equation.  It is a one or zero.  It is on or off.  Either the enemy has been clearly identified and is leveling an AK-47 at you, or they are non-combatants worthy of protection.  It is as simple as that.  Or is it?

In my opinion, the best, clearest, most informative and most compelling war reporting from Iraq is coming from Michael YonBill Ardolino, and David Danelo and Andrew Lubin of US Cavalry On Point.  Turning at the moment to David Danelo’s recent article A Day in Ramadi:

The patrol left Camp Hurricane Point an hour ago.  We have two missions; pass out candy in a friendly neighborhood and “strongpoint? OP Firecracker.  The distance between the two locales is literally three blocks.  Former Marine Commandant General Charles Krulak, who predicted in 1999 what came to be called “the three-block war? in which Marines would be involved in different missions simultaneously, has proven to be a sound prognosticator.

If western Ramadi—the area near Hurricane Point—was a “safe area,? OP Firecracker was right in the heart of Mujahideen cowboy country.  I realized what Lieutenant Bunch meant by “safe? when he referred to western Ramadi.  The area near Camp Hurricane Point is Iraqi-controlled, and thus is seen as more secure.  That did not mean that we were safe from suicide attacks or IEDs.  Those could occur anywhere in Ramadi.  But at OP Firecracker, an ambush by al-Qaeda militants was a near-guarantee.

Strongpointing, at least with this unit in Ramadi, means placing your Victor in a vulnerable position in a deliberate effort to draw enemy fire.  As the William Wallace character in Braveheart might have said, we are goin’ to pick a fight.  And we are goin’ on our own.  The Iraqi army lacks the equipment, manpower, or requisite level of insanity necessary to handle these kinds of missions.

The RPG may or may not have been fired at our vehicle.  I can’t tell.  I do know it didn’t hit us.  My only clear field of vision is from the passenger window, which faces the traffic circle and a brick wall.

The vehicle commander, Corporal Ronnie Davis, is in front of me holding a pair of binos.  Three other Marines peer down a street where Mujahideen have been firing at us from multi-story buildings scarred by gunfire and explosions.  While we exchange fire with the Muj, other observation assets available to 1 st Battalion, 6th Marines are mapping enemy positions for future operations.

“That’s the same two guys.  They’ve crossed back and forth four times,? Corporal Davis announces, referring to a pair of unarmed Iraqis who have run for cover.  Because these men are unarmed, the Americans under the Rules of Engagement are not allowed to shoot at them—even though gunfire is coming at us from that direction.

Get the picture?  The insurgents know all about the ROE.  U.S. troops cannot return fire not only when the target could be in the proximity of non-combatants, but also when they are not actively sporting a weapon.  So how do they take advantage of this feature of the ROE?  Fire a pre-staged weapon, put it down, run across the street, fire another pre-staged weapon, run across the street … and so forth, until, in the worst case, a U.S. Marine has been shot by sniper fire and is bleeding from his neck, head or underarms, all places that are not protected by SAPI plates.  All the while, the ROE prevents the U.S. forces from returning fire.

This is not entirely dissimilar from the example of the guards in the watchtowers who could take no action against highly probable enemy scouts because they were not armed at the time.  In this instance, the enemy was allowed to gather intelligence on U.S. installations unimpeded, possibly redounding to the deaths of U.S. troops.

I subscribe neither to total war nor to just war.  My views of war generally are too complex to discuss within the context of this article.  I consider the state to be a minister of justice for and to the troops whom it deploys in its name.  Rules of engagement, in my view, should achieve this end and thus be issued for the protection of U.S. troops, as a ministry of mercy and justice, rather than become a set of shackles on the troops where they cannot conduct war in a manner conducive to victory.

This is a fairly comprehensive foundation upon which to build.  It allows for responsibility and accountability of the troops in that wanton violence towards innocents is morally costly to the troops themselves and is to be avoided.  In instances such as that described above (with insurgents mocking the U.S. troops by the use of pre-staged weapons and maneuvering without them), it would allow the U.S. troops to fire upon the insurgents.  It would allow the troops in the watchtower to detain and question or even to fire upon suspected enemy gathering intelligence on U.S. troops.  While this might seem draconian to some, it is doubtful to me that upon the shooting of any Iraqis who ignore the signs not to stop at the entrances to bases, there would be any further instances of automobiles “breaking down” just in front of U.S. military installations.  The first instance would probably be the last instance.  But in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “sometimes dogs do eat homework.”  If an automobile does happen to break down and the drivers and passengers quickly push the automobile off and flee the area, the ROE should not force U.S. troops to fire upon them.

In the end, it all focuses on force protection.  I have always believed that force protection on FOBs as opposed to active involvement with the population is a losing strategy.  On this, I agree with Petraeus.  Rather, I advocate force protection through the rules of engagement.  There is a not insignificant school of thought that holds that overbearing rules of engagement is counterproductive.  Col. Dan Smith strongly believes that ROE lost the war in Vietnam:

Ground fire by “Viet Cong” brought immediate and massive retaliation. And it was the perception that U.S. forces did not consider Vietnamese lives as of equal value to U.S. lives that lost Washington the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and cost Vietnam another generation of its youth.

But surely he exaggerates the case.  A more levelheaded analysis would point to the attempts to prop up an inept, corrupt and dictatorial South Vietnamese regime as the reason that the war was lost – or at least partly so.  Yet if there are lessons to be learned about massive retaliation when innocents are present, then so be it.  The ROE should warn and teach and train and caution about this, giving command and even the enlisted man the right and responsibility to adapt on the spot.

And the reason for this adaptability of the ROE?  Again, the protection of the U.S. troops and the creation of a situation on the ground conducive to victory.  Based on the pre-theoretical commitment I have made, it is immoral to deploy troops with ROE that is anything less than perfectly aimed towards force protection and victory.  I am not convinced that the two goals I have outlined here, force protection and victory, are mutually exclusive.  I see no need to revel or take pride in U.S. troops never getting off a shot at snipers.  This is an exigency on the ground, not a strategic or tactical goal.  I am convinced that a few well-aimed shots at the insurgents that David Danelo discussed above – regardless of whether they were carrying weapons – would bring security and thus a safer situation for both U.S. troops and the population of Ramadi.

Finally, I am convinced that our so-called nonkinetic operations to “win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis” are a forlorn hope without security.  For this belief I turn not to any report from Iraq, but to any typical mother in America.  Reliable around-the-clock power is fine, good vegetables at the market a nice thing, and candy for children a pleasure.  But if children are in danger of getting shot or kidnapped when they leave the home to go to school, the mother doesn’t care about electrical power.  Reconstruction can prevent an insurgency from developing or redeveloping, but it cannot kill the insurgency.  Security must do that.

The reader can agree or disagree with my assessment, but which side s/he takes doesn’t really matter.  Following Aristotle, the western mind hates inconsistency.  My view of rules of engagement, whether the reader considers them “right” or “wrong,” are consistent with my pre-theoretical commitments.

It is too easy to talk about “leveling an AK-47″ at U.S. troops and behave as if things are exactly this clear and precise in Iraq.  It is gratuitous to discuss the easy stuff.  Anyone can do this.  General Caldwell’s press release adds nothing to the conversation, and the reader is left to develop his own view of rules of engagement.  In reality, the situation is a complex tapestry of concerns and issues.  For those who hold to the current or some modified ROE based on just war theory, it is, logically speaking, an intolerable sleight of hand later to change the strategy and appeal to the utilitarian view of what is ‘productive’ or ‘counterproductive’.  Starting from the base of just war, the proponent must develop an argument only from this base that it is appropriate to place troops on patrols to be shot at without ever returning fire, and proudly boasting of this fact to the press.  It is likely that the mothers of the dead marines will not be so proud, and more likely that support for the war will completely evaporate upon learning of this argument, should it hold the day.  The argument must persuade the reader that such a set of ROE is not an immoral thing to impose on our troops, and that there is actually a hope of victory using these tactics.  The argument must convince the reader that it is appropriate and moral to place troops on an FOB and then allow the enemy to gather intelligence unimpeded.

For those who hold to utilitarianism, among other things we have no time to outline, you must develop an argument that explains why wanton violence on the part of the insurgents has not caused an evaporation of support for the violence as it is alleged to do for the U.S. should we engage in more heavy-handed tactics.  Is there a set of ROE that causes the U.S. to fail but the insurgency to succeed?  If so, why?

I have not suggested in any of the above discussion that the U.S. engage in wanton violence, indiscriminately shoot unarmed non-combatants, or otherwise engage in any tactic that would redound to further difficulty down the road for the U.S.  Just the opposite: I have suggested an adaptability that accounts for the exigencies of the battlespace.  But I have advocated a more robust ROE, one that directly takes on an insurgency which has learned to use our own ROE against us.  The reader is allowed to disagree, but remember, disagreement alone is not enough.

Formulation of a comprehensive, logically coherent, and publicly compelling viewpoint is the next step.  A properly basic and foundational belief must be proposed, and, to use the words of Alvin Plantinga, a “noetic structure” of rules of engagement must then be constructed upon it.  Anything less than this is just carping.



  • Theo Farrell

    Hi Herschel,

    I posted this comment under your interesting entry on NCO’s debate ROEs. But it equally applies to your call for a “more roubst ROE.” Sorry to disagree with you, my perspective is informed by the British view that the US military is “too kinetic” in its style of operations. Really great blog BTW.


    Important and very useful to have discussion on ROEs – they are crucial to the conduct of COIN. I’m sure there is some truth to ROEs serving domestic political purposes – to protect the military back home against political fall-out from the conduct of the campaign. And, equally, because this is a war being waged by a professional army (albeit with a heavy burden falling on reservists and the national guard), the public are perhaps less atuned to the sacrifices being made by service personnel and their families (tho’ I think this problem is far more acute in Britain than in the United States). All that said, adherence to clear ROEs serves campaign objectives, and so is in the interest of forces in the field. This is the point that is stressed time and again to Brit forces operating in Iraq. Because this is a COIN campaign, and the objective is WHAM, the tactical advantage of using overwhelming force must be weighed against the operational advantage of demonstrating restraint. As I understand it (from a briefing by the head of British Army legal service) the Brit ROE for Iraq is benchmarked against the criminal law of England and Wales, which permits lethal use of force in self-defence. The general view of British commanders is that the campaign is first and foremost about winning over Iraqis – indeed, it cannot be won by killing insurgents. Thus military logic, and not legal requirement or ethical nicely, is driving a cautious attitude to the deployment of lethal force.

  • Herschel Smith

    Hi Theo.

    It is absolutely not a problem to disagree. If it was, I wouldn’t have you blogrolled. I am fully aware of the British position, having followed your blog. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. However, I must confess that I think it proves my point. Beyond who is “right” and who is “wrong,” it goes to pre-theoretical commitments. I cannot claim to know the roots of the British ROE, but your defense of it is utilitarian (i.e., campaign objectives and winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis). In fact, while I argue for a more robust ROE, the Brits argue for a softer set. One might call it nonkinetic with a vengeance, or nonkinetic in the superlative degree.

    There are many U.S. professional military who would agree with your position (commissioned officers, although not many in the non-commissioned ranks, as best as I can tell). It is what they are being taught in the war colleges and officer training. The roots of the ROE might be LOAC, Geneva Convention, and so forth, but the approach in the colleges is utilitarian. It all has to do with campaign objectives, and they are taught that it works. One might counter with the observation that the erstwhile failure of counterinsurgency in Iraq should cause a reconsideration of the utility of our nonkinetic operations thus far and force you to reconsider your position.  While you may point to this failure as being from the lack of nonkinetic operations, pointing again to pre-commitments, I might point elsewhere, such as a lack of security.  BTW, regarding your post on the difference between the approaches of the 82nd and 101st, I think this much-heralded victory in Mosul might prove the opposite of what you want.  Mosul was left behind with a government that didn’t work and an ill-trained and undisciplined Iraqi army still shot through with sectarianism, once again demonstrating that no matter how many billions of dollars are spent and how much reconstruction is done, when families have no security, COIN has failed.

    From a utilitarian perspective, I am either dead wrong, or five or ten years ahead of my time. We will either:

    [a] sit back and marvel at how our candy for the children, electric power for the adults, pedialyte for the infants, etc., helped to defeat the foreigners who kidnapped children from schools, the torture rooms where men used bars to break the knee caps of those who cooperated with the U.S., etc.


    [b] there will be many dissertations written on how security had to come first, with nonkinetic operations filling in immediately behind to keep the insurgency substantially defeated. These dissertations will ask why we didn’t recognize more quickly the differences between Vietnam and Iraq, and will lament the unnecessary opportunities we afforded the enemy to (1) know our positions, (2) use our ROE against us, (3) take shots at our Marines and Soldiers who were like sitting ducks in the streets.

    Leaving behind the utility of a softer set of ROE, I still own my precommitment to ROE as a ministry to and protection of the Marine or Soldier we place in the way of harm.

  • Dave N.

    Herschel –

    Thanks for another great post.

    First, I wish people such as Major General Caldwell would address the ROE issue with the level of depth and insight that you do, rather than talking about “firing wildly” and other nonsense. That’s not the issue and Maj. Gen. Caldwell must be intelligent enough to know that. So why is he talking to the American people as if we’re a bunch of morons?

    It’s also revealing that Maj. Gen. Caldwell refers to the pocket card version of ROE, and never mentions the full version. Are the “Haditha Marines” and others on trial being judged against a pocket card, or against the full ROE? Perhaps the General would care to clarify this to the American people, and tell us what percentage of the troops have ever been allowed to read the full version of the ROE for themselves before going into combat, as opposed to after being arrested for a court martial.

    Back to the philosophical angle, this is clearly key, but it may be something that doesn’t register with the people who are writing and defending the ROE, the question doesn’t resonate with them because their education and training (mainly legally oriented) has not equipped them to consider the perspectives you bring up.

    For example, lawyers tend to use the binary logic that a proposition is either true or not true. That may work in a courtroom, sometimes. However, factors including the imprecision of human language and understanding, the uncertainty and inaccuracy of individual human perceptions, the complexity of the physical world, and the time limits of situations and human comprehension, often make it impossible to assign such true/not true values to propositions in a timely manner.

    (As a very simple example of the error of this binary way of thinking, consider the legal mania of labeling vast numbers of consumer goods “toxic” or “non-toxic,” to fit the legalistic binary world view. From the perspective of the science of toxicology, this is in most cases utter nonsense, since a great many materials have toxicity in proportion to how much is ingested, and most things can be ingested in tiny quantities without harm, while nearly anything can be fatal if ingested in excess, including of all things water, as a recent tragic fatality reminded us. But to understand and express this reality of toxicology requires quantification, and a rejection of essentialism, both of which are alien to the binary true/false legalistic method of thinking which these people are trained in. However, since the “operating system” of our country is owned by lawyers, not toxicologists, this toxic/nontoxic nonsense is perpetrated throughout our society. If lawyers were generally capable of understanding, through proper education, how silly their binary “toxic or nontoxic” type of thinking was, we would know it by the absense of such labeling on all sorts of products, in favor of a more toxicologically realistic form of labeling. The present regime of product labeling tells us that lawyers are not only in control of our society, but are generally not able to comprehend systems of knowledge outside their own strange worldview. And that’s just one tiny example.)

    In the military situations, this binary logic is manifested in concepts such as “the fellow over there either is or is not a threat.” Which can only make sense at the pocket-card level of description of reality, but makes no sense in a fluid combat situation. Often the best one can hope for is to assign a relatively high or low threat level to that fellow, in the situations described above, such as “unarmed” people running from one firing position to another, or people habitually faking car breakdowns in front of US forces. The world is just not a set of obvious binary true/false conditions, no matter how much the lawyers might wish it were or insist it is, rather it’s full of complex and non-obvious conditions that we can at best assign probabilities to in the limited time we have to assess situations and make decisions.

    A trooper may have three seconds (or less) to decide if a muj is a high enough threat level to justify shooting. The lawyers can then take a leisurely three man-years (or longer) to use binary logic to come up an argument for a court martial that “proves” he shouldn’t have fired. This is asymmetric warfare against our troops by their officers.

    As to the question of how things will turn out in the long run in Iraq, one problem that the WHAM-centric side has not adequately faced, is that we have political time limits on wars nowadays, due to a combination of greater news and communications, and the election calendar. The COIN theorists will often say that to properly put down an insurgency takes 11 years, or 14 years, or whatever it is. Okay, that’s all well and good. But we’re in a world where a President probably has only 6 years, max, to win any war. So once a war is started, we have to have a strategy that wins in that limited period of time. If WHAM takes 12 years, and political support for a war only lasts for six, then WHAM loses, and we get another Vietnam/Cambodia style bloodbath after withdrawl. If the point is to minimize innocent casualties, the WHAM strategy with a politically realistic time limit does not achieve such a minimization. So pick another strategy based on the realistic time limit. What gift is it to the innocent Iraqis, to struggle to minimize innocent casualties for 6 years, and then have a sudden pullout such as Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton promise to do, followed by a million innocent casualties? The point is to pick a strategy that minimizes the casualties over the entire conflict, not just delay them all until the few months after an American pullout. If we are training officers on war planning without sufficient attention on the realities of the political calendar, then we are setting ourselves up for certain failure.

    One last thing. Major General Caldwell states: “While I cannot rule out the possibility that a leader at a lower level may have issued the restrictive guidance stated in the article, such guidance is in direct conflict with both current ROE and command policy.”

    I suspect that Major General Caldwell may not be telling the whole truth here. How aggressive is the military command structure enforcing this supposed “policy” (which the General does not cite, so that we may check his words)? Can the General name any officers who have been investigated and disciplined for having violated this “policy?” What is the procedure for, say, an NCO to report an officer who has deliberately endangered his troops by violating this supposed “policy?” Why do we not hear of arrests and courts martial of officers who have violated this “policy” the General refers to?

    I would like Major General Caldwell, if he wishes to maintain the support of the 30% or so of Americans who still do support the President, the military, and the war, to please release a copy of this “command policy” to which he refers, and to please reveal some of the efforts which are made to enforce this policy, and to show what fate befalls any officer who violates this policy.

    It may be true, in a very limited and strict, legalistic sense, that there is some such policy in some dusty drawer in the Pentagon. But if that policy is never referred to, never taught, never emphasized, never enforced, if no officer is ever stripped of command for violating it or otherwise punished, in what sense can such a policy really be said to be in effect?

    So please, Major General Caldwell, please tell us more details about this “command policy.” We need a little assurance that our troops are being supported properly at all levels of command, that we don’t have a big disconnect between political lip service to a “policy” at the top, and the actual situation as it happens on the ground.

  • Theo Farrell

    Herschel – I agree: who can say for sure whether more restrictive or more robust ROEs are the way to go. And Dave makes a fair point about procedures giving only binary options not being appropriate for the complexity and fluidity of combat. But this is why, ultimately, the British Army relies on their soldiers own common-sense. Soldiers are trained in judgmental shooting. Given campaign ROEs. And told to trust their instinct. I guess, given the Brit Army’s minimum force tradition, commands can feel confident that their soldiers will employ appropriate levels of restraint/force. And so, the real difference betw the Brit Army and USA/USMC may be down to differing org cultures rather than different ROEs.

  • Herschel Smith


    You are the man! Great comments, but should we expect General Caldwell to answer our questions? We may as well go ahead and try to put the moon in a different orbit.


    Your comments are wise, on-point and insightful. Regarding some of what you say, I will contact you off line. Some of what I know and want to say I simply cannot publish, but it might be interesting to add your and my points.

  • Charlie B.

    Herschel, I guess this will remain a bone of contention between us. Commanders are not adequately educating their troops on the ROE, or are placing additional restrictions on them, which leads to the idea that the ROE are too restrictive. You apparently feel that the Marines in Habbaniyah did not return fire because of restrictive ROEs. What I got from the story is that the Marines did not return fire because they had no target. Firing at random windows is indiscriminate, wasteful, and counterproductive. It is not an effective counter-sniper TTP in a COIN environment. I have never felt safer around Iraqi jundi because of the “Death Blossom” effect; just the opposite, as a matter of fact.

    Dave N, the first thing that popped into my mind when I read your point about binary logic is that you have obviously not been in a “fluid combat situation”. This is not a slight against you, but when things start to get loud and the lead-air density ratio begins to climb dramatically, ROE decisions must be made employing binary logic – i.e. shoot or don’t shoot. Fleeting targets don’t allow for more in-depth analysis. That is why we try to boil the ROE down to a binary level for the troops.

    The Rules of Engagement are becoming a scapegoat for bad decisions made at all levels, all the way from junior enlisted soldiers and Marines to field grade officers. I am telling you, as someone who has had to make ROE decisions in a complex environment, that the Theater Rules of Engagement themselves are not the limiting factor.

  • Theo Farrell

    Really interesting perspective from Charlie. Lead-air density ratio: pretty crucial metric in the circumstances. But thinking about it, I wonder if the binary metaphor really works here. No matter how simple or specific they are, surely ROEs do not operate like a light-switch. In the end, do combatants not have to assess the situation, assess the options available in light of the ROE, and decide the course of action. This decision cycle is not binary in input (the situation facing combatants) nor output (the courses of action available – even fire/not fire then raises further questions: where, with what, rate?). And yes this complex decision cycle must be undertaken in a moment. And humans take such complex (tho prob not as stressful) decisions all the time. Hence the importance of training troops to make reasonable judgements rather than getting hung up on rules.

  • Dave N.

    Charlie – You’re right, I have never been in combat, nor ever in uniform. No offense taken. I do understand, as you say, that the decision to fire is binary. And in many cases, such as the ones you describe, the “evidence” to justify such a decision will be 100% or close enough to make the decision easily defensible in the aftermath (reports, investigations). I am talking about the situations in which the “evidence,” the sensory input of the trooper, is more ambiguous. Was the flash of light in that window really the source of the sniper shot, or was it just a random glint of sunlight from an innocent drinking a glass of water, and the sniper is in another building entirely? The fact that the decision the trooper must make is binary, does not mean that the evidence available will always make the decision clear cut or 100% obvious, unless the rules are so restrictive that the trooper must wait until the enemy is already shooting directly at him before he can even contemplate firing. If our troops are required to hold their fire until “things start to get loud and the lead-air density ratio begins to climb dramatically,” I doubt such a set of rules can permit success, because it would allow engagement only in defense. I want our troops to be able, when the situation and their good judgement demands it, to be able to fire before “things start to get loud and the lead-air density ratio begins to climb dramatically.” I believe that is the whole point of this debate.

    Herschel – Thanks, and thanks for providing this forum. Don’t discount its impact. While Maj. Gen. Caldwell certainly isn’t reading and replying to blogs, there may be unseen connections between many levels of expression, from little blogs to writers and editors of newspapers to lower level staff who see items in newspapers, and so on. The whole “six degrees of separation” concept. Even the biggest trees nourish themselves through their tiniest roots.

    Lastly, there are other reasons, beyond the present ROE in Iraq, for the citizens to check up on and sometimes try to point out “areas possibly needing improvement” even in military affairs. Two examples: When the USS Cole was attacked in port, it was revealed that the sailors guarding it had not been issued ammunition for their rifles, because of fears of an “accidental incident.” On 9/11, at least one of the four fighters that were initially scrambled was likewise not even carrying any missiles or ammuniition. In neither case did these facts make a difference. But they revealed a level of cautiousness that may have become excessive, disproportionate cautiousness relative to the threats faced. We can support reasonable, proportionate cautiousness in all areas. But seeing examples of cautiousness which border on ineptitude, or which reveal a pervasive mistrust of the judgement and abilities of our front-line fighters by the people commanding them, is disturbing. That is what drives my concern about the ROE.

  • Dave N.

    Theo – I agree, you posted while I was typing, so I didn’t refer to your post, but that’s my point, binary output (fire or not) does not imply inputs (perception of situation) are binary.

  • Paul Edwards

    I think the restrictive ROE are a good thing. The US should keep its hands as clean as possible. It is only there to help the Iraqi government enforce Iraqi law. If the Iraqis have lax ROE, that’s fine. That’s down to the Iraqi government and thus the Iraqi people. The US is not there to kill Iraqis. The US is there to help pro-freedom Iraqis kill anti-freedom Iraqis. If you want to kill a wider variety of people, then include some Iraqi embeds. Let the Iraqi embeds spread the word that the US cares more about innocent Iraqis being killed than the Iraqi government itself does. It’s a good reputation to have. It will come in useful in the future.

    Part of winning the War on Terror is convincing the Arabs that you don’t hate them and want to kill them all. I can’t think of a better way to convince them of that than demonstrate that the US is more careful than the Iraqi government at protecting Iraqis from accidental death. The comparison with the terrorists is even more stark. Getting people to be rational and see this for themselves is another challenge though.

  • Charlie B.

    Dave, in most cases the troops have to wait until they are being shot at, not because of ROE restrictions, but because of the nature of fighting an insurgency. We rarely have an opportunity to identify the enemy before they ambush us. It is a frustrating way to fight, and I think that the majority of the complaints about ROE come from troops looking for some target for their frustration. However, I know for a fact that if troops are able to identify a target that they are confident intends to harm Coalition forces, then they are permitted to engage. Read the following story about 3/5’s sniper platoon from June of last year:

    Marine Sniper Takes Out Insurgent Sniper

  • Herschel Smith


    The comparison with snipers is, in my opinion, not meaningful to the discussion at hand. However, having said that, I have a very, very long-winded reply to your two comments here. Unfortunately, just back in town, tired, drop by tomorrow. This seed comment will have been expanded to something more thought-provoking.

  • Charlie B.

    Herschel, I look forward to hearing your perspective.

  • Herschel Smith


    Danelo clearly says that “because these men are unarmed” as being the reason that they were not engaged (not the fact that they didn’t have a good shot), leading directly to my recommendation (along with the instance of the guards who could not engage the enemy scouting their position) that this aspect be changed.

    Let’s engage (pardon the pun) this conversation on a little different level. Let me try to say the things I am saying above in a little different way for you. I am clearly failing in my attempts so far.

    When I got back into town Saturday night later, I read your comment. Pondering it, I then immediately checked my e-mail, and found a note from a Marine officer, recently back from Iraq, who stated his agreement with my article, as well as his agreement with my recommended changes. Please trust me on this, since I cannot divulge his name. His last name is fairly well-known, and would likely cause problems were I to publish the e-mail.

    The second NCO I cited in one of my previous articles (the one in Anbar) — and again, you will have to trust me on this — comes from an individual who was very well placed, and not only had access to high level decision making, but even participated in it. I wish I could have given my readers the entire context of his instances, but the primary reason that the information on context, location, unit and date are redacted from the article is that he was concerned that official U.S. accounts to families would be upended by my article. But if you can trust me, his account(s) went further than the ROE were not communicated well, or that the officers were risk averse (both of which might have been true). His instances and objections pertained to the actual written ROE and the decisions they forced at the time.

    Charlie, how could these things be? I respect you, a battle-experienced Marine officer, and I respect the Marine officer who wrote me to concur with my view of the needed changes. And, I most certainly concur with well-placed and medal winning NCO from Anbar. How could well respected, experienced, highly placed persons so disagree on these things?

    The conclusion(s) that I have come to is twofold, although I only address one in the article. First, I think that those individuals who have had good experiences with the ROE will tend to side with you, while those individuals who have been in specific circumstances where the ROE have let them down will tend to agree with my article (some to greater and some to lesser degrees).

    Second, I still believe that our pre-theoretical commitments determine the outcome of our thought. For instance, suppose that we began the discussion by asking the question, “why does such a thing as ROE need to exist?” The answer to that will differ per person, one saying something like “in order to comport with the LOAC,” another (like Victor David Hanson) saying something like “so that we do not lose momentum in our combat such as happened with the withdrawal from Fallujah the first time and as occurred with the failure to shoot looters.” When the Iraqis saw that we would not / could not protect their assets, they had to consider militias. Yet another person may respond on utilitarian grounds (the potential consequences of overreaction are more important than anything else). There are other potential answers.

    Charlie, the discussion MUST begin on pre-theoretical grounds. One must know why an individual believes that ROE should exist before he can know how that person wants the ROE to look. The two are that connected. They are inseparable.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Policy,Religion,Rules of Engagement,War & Warfare and was published February 13th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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