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 Yon, Bill 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