Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 1 month 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

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15 Comments on "Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments"

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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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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)… Read more »
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.

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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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.


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.


Herschel, I look forward to hearing your perspective.

Herschel Smith
Charlie, 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… Read more »
The Captain’s Journal » Changes to the Rules of Engagement for Afghanistan

[…] learn to game the system, as this event shows in Ramadi, Iraq, as reported by David Danelo. The vehicle commander, Corporal Ronnie Davis, is in front of me holding a pair of binos.  Three […]


You are currently reading "Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments", entry #462 on The Captain's Journal.

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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