The Swing of the Pendulum

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 2 months ago

In 1942, Russia was fully engaged in a battle for its very survival along the Eastern front.  Stalin was demanding that the Allies open a second front in the West.  Britain had tried day bombing, but it had proven too difficult to protect its pilots in the daylight, and many pilots and aircraft were lost.  Neither Britain nor the United States was anywhere near ready to conduct a land invasion of Europe, but both nations might offer such aid as an air attack might bring.

At the end of 1942, the British Chiefs of Staff called for “the progessive destruction and dislocation of the enemy’s war industrial and economic system, and the undermining of his morale to a point where his capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”  No fleet of bombers could yet accurately deliver enough high explosives to raze a city.  But if the bombloads were incendiary, then massed aircraft might combine their destructiveness.

On July 24, 1943, the bombing of Hamburg began.  As noted by Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a flight lieutenant remarks of the scene (pg 473):

The burning of Hamburg that night was remarkable in that I saw not many fires but one.  Set in the darkness was a turbulent dome of bright red fire, lighted and ignited like the glowing heart of a vast brazier.  I saw no flames, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash.  Above the city was a misty red haze.  I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified.  I had never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.

Roads melted, and some people were seen stuck in the melted asphalt, having put their hands out to try to get out, only to get their hands stuck as well.  Many were seen on fire, eventually melting in their own fat.  Eight square miles of Hamburg were completely burned out that night, killing 45,000 Germans.

Here Richard Rhodes is setting up the discussion at the end of the book in which the reader engages in the ethical choice to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, or commit 200,000 men to a land invasion of Japan, possibly losing many or even a majority of them.  This book is a technical, sobering and difficult read, but highly recommended.  It is meant only for the serious thinker.

The pendulum has swung to its apex in the opposite direction.  A recent Washington Times commentary gives us food for thought concerning application of rules of engagement in combat action in Afghanistan.

Now that Marcus Luttrell’s book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10″ is a national bestseller, maybe Americans are ready to start discussing the core issue his story brings to light: the inverted morality, even insanity, of the American military’s rules of engagement (ROE).

On a stark mountaintop in Afghanistan in 2005, Leading Petty Officer Luttrell and three Navy SEAL teammates found themselves having just such a discussion. Dropped behind enemy lines to kill or capture a Taliban kingpin who commanded between 150-200 fighters, the SEAL team was unexpectedly discovered in the early stages of a mission whose success, of course, depended on secrecy. Three unarmed Afghan goatherds, one a teenager, had stumbled across the Americans’ position.

This presented the soldiers with an urgent dilemma: What should they do? If they let the Afghans go, they would probably alert the Taliban to the their whereabouts. This would mean a battle in which the Americans were outnumbered by at least 35 to 1. “Little Big Horn in turbans,” as Marcus Luttrell would describe it. If the Americans didn’t let the goatherds go — if they killed them, there being no way to hold them — the Americans would avoid detection and, most likely, leave the area safely. On a treeless mountainscape far from home, four of our bravest patriots came to the ghastly conclusion that the only way to save themselves was forbidden by the rules of engagement. Such an action would set off a media firestorm, and lead to murder charges for all.

It is agonizing to read their tense debate as Mr. Luttrell recounts it, the “lone survivor” of the disastrous mission. Each of the SEALs was aware of “the strictly correct military decision” — namely, that it would be suicide to let the goatherds live. But they were also aware that their own country, for which they were fighting, would ultimately turn on them if they made that decision. It was as if committing suicide had become the only politically correct option. For fighting men ordered behind enemy lines, such rules are not only insane. They’re immoral.

The SEALs sent the goatherds on their way. One hour later, a sizeable Taliban force attacked, beginning a horrendous battle that resulted not only in the deaths of Mr. Luttrell’s three SEAL teammates, but also the deaths of 16 would-be rescuers — eight additional SEALS and eight Army special operations soldiers whose helicopter was shot down by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade.

“Look at me right now in my story,” Mr. Luttrell writes. “Helpless, tortured, shot, blown up, my best buddies all dead, and all because we were afraid of the liberals back home, afraid to do what was necessary to save our own lives. Afraid of American civilian lawyers. I have only one piece of advice for what it’s worth: If you don’t want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, where innocent people sometimes have to die, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.”

It might have been that firing on the goatherds would have divulged their position to the enemy.  But assuming the accuracy of the scenario given to us above, i.e., it is possible for Luttrell and his team to have killed the goatherds and avoided the combat caused by divulging their position, then a different choice should have been made in this instance.

Another complicating factor is that the Luttrells’s team could only surmise that the goatherds would give away their position.  They could not know with absolute certainty.  In the end, they were right in their suspicion, but either way, the moral of the story is that in such situations certainty is not possible and thus should not be required.

No one wants to see civilians burning in streets of melted asphalt.  Similarly, no one wants to see teams of U.S. forces hamstrung by rules that are made out to be rigid and inflexible when taught to them, but which cannot possibly be applied that way in a broken and complex world.  Latitude and professional judgment should be the order of the day.  A pendulum that isn’t swinging is the best approach.

Postscript: This article has elicited a visceral reaction.  Just to cover a few basics, (1) yes, I know what the LOAC is, (2) no, I am not advocating changing it, or even the written ROE, necessarily, (3) my position is somewhat more nuanced than that, with greater emphasis on judgment during battle, and more discrete judicial and prosecutorial temperament, and finally (4) no, allowing the killing of U.S. troops didn’t “win hearts and minds” in Afghanistan.



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  • http://www.softgreenglow.com/wp David

    I’m reading Lone Survivor now, and although the ghost’s hand is annoyingly evident at times — “the cordite was heavy in the air” (p. 223; cordite ain’t used anymore except by Frederick Forsyth) — it’s quite the impressive book.

    With respect to your post, Luttrell makes it clear at several points that at least his weapon (and perhaps those of his team members as well) was suppressed. So: was it “possible for Luttrell and his team to have killed the goatherds and avoided the combat caused by divulging their position?” Yes.

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You are currently reading "The Swing of the Pendulum", entry #589 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Rules of Engagement and was published August 31st, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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