Proceduralized Rules of Engagement Prevent Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
17 years, 4 months ago

I have covered issues pertaining to rules of engagement in the following articles:

In a Washington Times commentary, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James A. Lyons, Jr., weighs in on the overly restrictive rules of engagement that hamper U.S. military efforts in Iraq.  His sentiments are similar to the other reports on ROE, and work nicely to add to the things I have said in the articles listed above.  He gives steps that must be followed in order to engage the enemy in Baghdad.

In order to ensure that the additional combat troops being deployed to Iraq can achieve their objectives, we must change the current restrictive rules of engagement (ROEs) under which they are forced to operate. The current ROEs for Baghdad — including Sadr City, home of the Mahdi Army — have seven incremental steps that must be satisfied before our troops can take the gloves off and engage the enemy with appropriate violence of action.

  1. You must feel a direct threat to you or your team.
  2. You must clearly see a threat.
  3. That threat must be identified.
  4. The team leader must concur that there is an identified threat.
  5. The team leader must feel that the situation is one of life or death.
  6. There must be minimal or no collateral risk.
  7. Only then can the team leader clear the engagement.

These ROEs might sound fine to academics gathering at some esoteric seminar on how to avoid civilian casualties in a war zone. But they do absolutely nothing to protect our combat troops who have to respond in an instant to a life or death situation.

If our soldiers or Marines see someone about to level an AK-47 in their direction or start to are receive hostile fire from a rooftop or mosque, there is no time to go through a seven-point checklist before reacting. Indeed, the very fact that they see a weapon, or begin to receive hostile fire should be sufficient justification to respond with deadly force.

We do not need to identify the threat as Sunni, Shia, al Qaeda or Mahdi Army. The “who” is immaterial. The danger is not. The threat of imminent attack must be immediately suppressed. And while we must always respect the lives of the innocent, the requirement of minimal or no collateral damage cannot preempt an appropriate response.

The insurgents, be they Sunni or Shia, are well aware of our restrictive ROEs and they use them to their advantage. Indeed, as the thousands of insurgent-inflicted Iraqi civilian deaths illustrate, the death squads, assassination teams and al Qaeda killers in Iraq have no regard for human life. Victims are looked upon as expendable: cannon fodder in order to achieve their objectives. As we saw in Lebanon, Hezbollah held women and children hostage in the same buildings they used to conduct offensive operations. They wanted civilian deaths. This same tactic is being used in Iraq today.

We cannot, therefore, afford to keep our combat troops shackled by a naive, legalistic disadvantage that takes no note of the real world, or the real battlefield. Moreover, our combat forces are currently fighting a two-front war: a literal battlefield in Iraq, and a virtual front in Washington, where politicians snipe at our troops with words, threats of budget cuts, and unrealistic strictures on our warriors’ behavior. Both the Iraqi insurgents and the radical Islamist fundamentalists dedicated to the destruction of Western values and democracy understand quite well that today, wars are not only fought on the battlefield but are also won or lost in Washington. They are only too happy to watch as our politicians water down our military goals and objectives in the name of some misbegotten legalistic concept of fair play and gentle warfare.

Our combat forces have never lost an engagement in Iraq. Let’s make sure they don’t lose the war in Washington. Unshackle the military and let our soldiers and Marines do their job. This will quickly silence the critics, as well as the insurgents and radical Islamist fundamentalists.

Assessment and Commentary

Admiral Lyons gives us a remarkable list of steps, each of which is logically and chronologically connected to the preceeding step.  It reads like a written procedure, something that would be used as a list of activities for a worker while performing adjustments to setpoints of an electronic piece of equipment during the course of a work day, rather than doctrine to allow U.S. troops to make split-second decisions of life and death.  There is no discussion of “close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver” in these rules.  It demonstrates just how out-of-touch the lawyers who author the ROE are with the U.S. fighting man, counterinsurgency in particular, and warfare in general.

In requiring that the “situation is one of life and death,” the focus is placed squarely on a defensive posture rather than an offensive one, and in requiring that there be “minimal or no collateral risk,” the ROE have given the insurgent the perfect weapon (women, children, and concealment to prevent the successful quantification of risk by U.S. troops can be used to prevent engagement).

The list of places and activities in which the enemy can engage to avoid U.S. action is extensive.  In prior articles, minarets have been shown to be favorite hideouts for enemy snipers, and yet U.S. forces will not even allow police to be stationed at the entrances to Mosques for fear of being disliked by the population.  The Taliban have shown that they can gather in the hundreds for funerals, and still avoid being targeted by U.S. forces because religious gatherings are off limits.

Just recently press coverage was given to a nonlethal weapon (ray gun that increases the temperature of the skin), and while the technology was interesting to most readers, there is a nugget of gold in the report that is far more important than the ray gun.  It was reported that 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.

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

Note again, and remember that the enemy is being allowed to gather intelligence that could redound to death and/or injury to U.S. troops: “All we could do is watch them.”

Troop levels can surge, new nonlethal weapons can be brought on line, and better body armor can be deployed in Iraq.  But until the ROE are revised top to bottom, the counterinsurgency in Iraq will fail because the enemy is being given too many weapons to use against the U.S. forces.  We have met the enemy, and it is the ROE.


  1. On January 29, 2007 at 5:42 am, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    My comment is a call for answers to some sincere and serious questions which owe nothing to irony or else.
    Do the different factions attacking U.S. troops have their own R.O.E., or written or unwritten but strict guidelines as Mao’s troops had in their time? To which extent do they care for civilian casualties, or Mosques, or anything else when they plan an attack, for example? Do their action is relayed by skilled propaganda?

    Unless I missed something I do not remember having seen any such rules, and this question was aroused by a video initially made by such attackers who, seemingly, expected to making an additional profit of their attack. A US Army unit evidently captured this in-production insurgent video near Dulab, Iraq, and supplied the soundtrack and a different ending from the one originally intended.

    This short video (which, I find, is not devoid of humor) suggests that insurgents are ill organized and not at all indoctrinated on; but, jokingly apart, is that an exception or does it reflect a generality? Does anyone can provide an answer to this question?

    Here is the link of this video:

  2. On January 29, 2007 at 4:19 pm, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    One shouldn’t write too early the morning before enjoying a good cup of coffee, as you could see while reading my previous questions, fellows. I am sincerely ashamed, and I grant you the right to laugh at me for these ones.

    So, I meant:

    Is their action relayed by skilled propaganda?


    Can someone provide an answer to this question?

  3. On January 31, 2007 at 6:37 pm, kat-missouri said:


    The answer is found in the manifestos of Al Qaeda, books written by Zawahiri and a number of Islamists who have operated in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, etc long before Al Qaeda or Bin Laden imagined going to Afghanistan to fight the Ruskies.

    The Islamists simultaneously claim to be the defenders of Islam while insisting that the demise of a Muslim, whether a warrior in battle or a Muslim innocent bystander, is worthy in the eyes of Allah because it is in the service of Allah’s commandments which are variously set forth in the Quran, but amount to spreading the Word, converting the unbelievers and pronouncing Allah as the one true God. If a Muslim dies under such circumstances, whether warrior or bystander, they are believed to pass into paradise, all being treated as martyrs.

    However, on the other hand, if the innocent Muslim is not of the same sect (I don’t just mean Sunni/Shia; I believe Shia have 12 schools of jurisprudence – belief/thought and the Sunni have 8), these militias/terror organizations can easily dismiss their deaths because they are apostates or heretics, therefore need to be cleansed by righteousness (ie, a bullet or some terrible torture – think inquisition).

    In short, these groups do not have written ROE’s that govern or try to direct them away from civilians. At most, there have been letters exchanged, such as those between Zawahiri and Zarqawi, where it was suggested that the indiscriminate killing of civilians was harming their cause. However, Zarqawi dismissed Zawahiri’s concerns by insisting emphatically that the Shia were traitors (he had said it in the beginning of the Iraq campaign in a letter to bin Laden where he references the alleged acts of traitors Shia, such as the Shia minister who let the Mongols into Baghdad or the Shia uprising -also in Baghdad I believe) that resulted in the withdrawal of Muslim forces from Vienna.

    It is hard to say whether the deaths of so many civilians have had any impact on the support for Al Qaeda and it’s fellow travelers or on it’s over all operations.

    The worst may be that Zarqawi was finally able to paint the fight as “Shia traitors against fellow Sunnis”, thus further dehumanizing the losses. Shia “death squads” certainly haven’t helped the matter and neither the presentation by the media of the fighting as “sectarian” as if it was brought on solely by a Shia/Sunni divide instead of relentless terrorist attacks.

  4. On February 1, 2007 at 1:18 am, Dave N. said:

    Lyons’ list is only partially complete.

    8. After making a correct decision to engage the enemy, you must fill out hours of paperwork, as negative reinforcement to train you not to do so again.

    9. After making a correct decision to engage the enemy, you must be grilled for hours by your superior officer, as negative enforcement to train you not to do so again.

    10. After making a correct decision to engage the enemy, you must be grilled by your superior officer’s superior officer, as negative enforcement to train you not to do it again.

    Etc., etc., etc.

    I ask again (rhetorically), was all this complicated junk included in the ROE and after-action sequelae in the previous wars America actually won? Or are we piling ROE and after-action abuse on troops similar to or of greater complication than the wars which ended in either stalemate or outright defeat?

    (I say that with complete respect for the Korean and Vietnam veterans who, for political reasons, were not permitted to win outright.)

    Combat veterans of WWII who I have talked with have never, ever mentioned, let alone criticized, ROE or after-action paperwork or officers questioning of what happened. If an officer is so far removed from the action that he needs to have forms filled out or needs to interview troops to find out what happened, then that officer probably isn’t needed anyway, and is probably so clueless as to be a hazard to himself and others.

    This whole ROE business is a recently created problem. It’s been created by high officers who have been infected with, to put it bluntly, some kind of legalistic brain disorder. Who knows? Maybe it’s caused by some kind of actual virus or brain fungus. That would be the perfect bio-weapon: not something that kills people on the battlefield, but something carefully designed and targeted, to cause the top generals and their staffs to insanely produce ROE which lead to defeat.

    Okay, that’s sci-fi, but you get the point. The ROE and the way the troops have to dink around with paperwork and after-action inquisitions are still highly counterproductive to effective military operations. And everybody knows it: our troops, the American people, the Iraqi people, the Iraqi troops, the terrorist/insurgent/enemy, foreign governments and their militaries, terrorists around the world, all know it.

    Eventually America will figure out how to win again. Let’s all hope and pray it’ll happen in time to save Iraq.

  5. On February 1, 2007 at 1:34 am, Dave N. said:

    Not to put too fine a point on that “brain disease” analogy, but consider this:

    How would one tell the difference between ROE that were created by:

    1. a general who was a good general but listened to too many lawyers
    2. a general who was a screw-up moron
    3. a general who was a paid agent of the enemy
    4. a general who was suffering from a brain disease caused by a bio-engineered organism created by the enemy

    I respectfully suggest that there is likely no possible test or procedure that could be used to differentiate between these four sets of ROE.

    We would, however, be able to tell them from good ROE, ROE that were created by a sane, healthy, honest, intelligent, and above all, non-lawyered-up general. If we had that kind of ROE, good ROE, we would not even be having this kind of discussion on blogs, let alone splattered across the pages of The Washington Times.

  6. On February 1, 2007 at 6:20 am, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    Thanks you very much. Your detailed answer tells me about its value and the time you have obviously spent on the subject. This, once added to what teaches us the video I provided the link of, clearly demonstrates that it would be perhaps misleading to blindly and fully rely on usual counterinsurgency methods mostly based upon previous experiences in other countries during which an organized enemy whose somewhat disciplined forces were federated under a common banner (i.e.: revolutionary Chinese under Mao, FLN in Algeria, etc).

    As an aside; in Beirut, during the early 80’s, there were no less than about 120 different political and religious parties, factions and gangs (plus the Syrians forces and the regular Lebanese Army) and each of them exerted control upon a defined area. At that time, I noticed two interesting things which were: violent fights between these factions could erupt sporadically (and nightly, in an overwhelming number of the cases); and, the probability to occur and frequency of those fights was unmistakably linked to the weather (biggest and deadliest fights happened mostly during summers). Now, I have no idea about whether someone ever attempted a behavioral study linking an historical analysis of conflicts, revolution and guerilla warfare, and weather?

    Don’t ask me where my point is. I don’t know myself! I’m just randomly mulling over facts and I’m trying to figure out as acurately as possible how incidents happen in Iraq, this in an endeavor to stumble across something I missed to see.


  7. On February 9, 2007 at 5:39 pm, walrus said:

    The ROE are in place to stop screw ups by trigger happy idiots, like the dingbat who shot an Italian security guard.

    Perhaps with better training the ROE could be relaxed.

  8. On February 9, 2007 at 9:54 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    I have not seen any instatiation of what you are calling “trigger happy idiots,” and you might want to go to the Haditha coverage in my archives to see my take; Haditha is NOT an instance of NOT following the ROE. They were involved in room clearing operations.

    Now. I am indeed fully aware of why ROE exists. It is a complex fabric of reasons, including just war theory. But my argument has never been specifically that revised ROE would help us win the counterinsurgency. If you’ll go back through the links I have provided above, you will see that my first article included only instances from MSM reports. The instances are something that I happened upon, and began to string together a coherent view (at least in my opinion), and after publishing this first piece, I received letters from NCOs that laid the groundwork for the second article.

    This second article is where the real meat of my prose is found, and relies on the reports by the NCOs rather than in anything I say or don’t say. This is the mistake most people are making when they respond to the posts, or send me notes about ROE (I have received many notes on this issue). People are responding as if I have made up these instances, or as if I have created these personalities in order to tell a story.

    These instances came from real people, who in fact had much more to report to me on ROE than I was able to publish. It is not within my rights to publish on information that is classified or would compromise operations security. But suffice it to say that the reports were even more comprehensive and stunning when included in the whole context of the reports that I received.

    Also notice when you go back and read the ROE posts that I have made, that the argument, once again, is not and never has been that it will help the US offensively to revise the ROE. My argument is and has always been that the current ROE place US troops in undue danger. This is not about winning the counterinsurgency. It is about the US troops.

    When I receive notes from officers who have never seen combat but who are also training to be JAGs saying that the ROE are just fine, and then notes from highly respected, experienced and decorated NCOs saying that we have lost US lives due to the ROE, it isn’t difficult for me to determine which view is the most valuable.

    Not a single note nor any comment that I have allowed to be posted over my site has even come anywhere close to convincing that there is any compelling reason to revise what I have said or what I think about ROE. Just the opposite. In the many comments and notes I have received, given that not a single one of them provides me with a compelling reason to demur to another view only encourages me and strengthens my commitment to my view.

  9. On February 11, 2007 at 12:37 pm, mike said:


    R U L E S of E N T R A P M E N T!!!

  10. On February 11, 2007 at 6:25 pm, Charlie B. said:

    Herschel, what about a combat experienced Marine officer with absolutely no training as a JAG telling you that the rules of engagement, as they are written, are fine? The problem is not the written ROE, it is the application of those rules by overly-cautious commanders. Rewriting the theater ROE will not solve the problem. Rather, solving it will require changing the command climate at multiple units across Iraq.

    As a JTAC, I control the biggest bang available to our forces in Iraq. As such, I have to be thoroughly versed in things like ROE, approval authority, and collateral damage estimation for all of the variety of ordnance that I have available to employ. I never felt like the written ROE placed any unnecessary restrictions on my ability to employ that ordnance. Some of my colleagues worked for commanders that severely limited their ability to do their job, while the commander that I worked for placed a great deal of trust in us to make correct and well-informed decisions and was never a hindrance to us. Commanders that fall in the former category need to be removed and replaced, and commanders in the latter category need to be actively sought out and encouraged.

  11. On February 12, 2007 at 3:08 am, Tomas said:


  12. On February 12, 2007 at 7:28 pm, Charlie B. said:

    What is your point? The four examples you cite have absolutely no relevance to our current situation. But since you seem to be such an ardent supporter of outdated tactics that created hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, I’m willing to let you go over there and be the first one to clear an aircraft hot on a building containing innocent civilians. I think you’ll find it to be entirely counterproductive, however.

  13. On February 15, 2007 at 10:03 pm, mike said:

    There has to be a “Happy Median” when it comes to ROE! Obviously I have NO expertice in the matter, But it sure appears to me that are Troops are being handcuffed!

    As far as that example of an airplane zeroed in building containing Innocent Victims, How innocent are they?

    I am NOT advocating wide open “Kill All” as I’m sure the Wackos on here will attempt to portray, BUTT, the Iraqis must also take responsibility for Their Country and for their Freedom! They are allowing the Terrorists to use them as Shields! It works both ways!

    If our military has to think about it before they respond, well, nuff said!

    We are being to PC and it’s getting our military KILLED!

  14. On February 15, 2007 at 10:05 pm, mike said:

    Pardon my misspelling and poor grammer, wish there was a way to edit our posts!!

    Oh well, I think you can get the Gist of what I’m attempting to say!!?

  15. On February 16, 2007 at 12:04 am, Herschel Smith said:

    No problem Mike. We get the idea.

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You are currently reading "Proceduralized Rules of Engagement Prevent Engagement", entry #455 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Iraq,Rules of Engagement and was published January 29th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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