Recon by Fire

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 11 months ago

My coverage of rules of engagement has been sweeping and continues to get traffic, especially The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement, and Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments. I have argued for more robust rules of engagement, but I have nowhere argued that the lack of robust ROE is felt throughout Iraq in every unit and in every engagement. In the comments section to the later article, I responded to Charlie B. of OpFor 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?

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  1. On July 6, 2007 at 4:17 pm, bxp said:

    Reporter Brian Palmer here. I Reporter Brian Palmer here. I appreciate Herschel Smith’s comments here and Slab’s on Op For. My response follows.

    First off, my life was in the collective hands of 1/2 Bravo Co. on that day and many other days. I wanted all of them to come home safely.

    Regarding my use of the term “recon by fire” in the PBS “Now” piece I shot, wrote, and produced last year, I was quoting Marines. The action was pronounced “recon by fire” by men on the scene. All Marines, including the battalion XO, subsequently referred to it as such. Argue with them about the terminology.

    The better to send a bullet “blindly” remark is my own, but it is a paraphrase of a direct quote from a Bravo Co. platoon sergeant. Here it is, verbatim:

    “Basically there was a great tactic you can use — recon by fire. And it was better to send a bullet instead of a Marine goin’, especially when you know there’s enemy out there.”

    Their rounds could have gone anywhere “down range,

  2. On July 7, 2007 at 12:22 am, Herschel Smith said:


    Thanks for visiting my site, and for leaving the comment. You have every right to defend your work. I appreciate the comment, as well as the one left at OpFor. Second (regarding the comment at OpFor), yes, no one can take the three embeds you did away. I respect you for doing them. Actually, several months ago I had what I thought was a valid, reliable offer to embed from a respected outfit. This offer seems to have dried up, but in a heartbeat I would embed. But remember, embeds get to come home. The Marines have to stay and live with the results of their actions. There isn’t anything like having to live with the consequences of your actions to make you think about those actions. Let’s take off of this comment for a while.

    What fascinates me more than the words is (shhhh … don’t tell the guys at OpFor) how the words are applied and how the enemy has learned to take our application of the words and turn it against our own troops. I started my coverage in Politically Correct Rules of Engagement Endangers Troops. This was entirely derivative, using published reports from the MSM. From this piece came a flood of communications and e-mail on ROE, leading to The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement. This piece was original reporting, straight from three NCOs who were in Iraq and could weigh in on just what ROE was doing to the U.S. effort.

    Thematic to this article was the idea that the ROE were causing the endangerment of U.S. troops. I did not raise the issue of harm to the effort to win hearts and minds (hereafter called WHAM). This was raised in the comments section of the article. However, this issue was raised a little more in my article Rules of Engagement and Pre-Theoretical Commitments. I ended the article (and comments section) with a call to think more clearly about why you believe that ROE should exist. This reason for existence will determine the way that you believe the ROE should look.

    I have followed the discussion here and at other venues about whether robust ROE prevents or in any way harms WHAM. I’m not ignorant of the debate. To be clear, I do not believe that robust ROE harming WHAM is a salient or realized issue, because for the most part, I do not believe we have robust ROE. For instance, David Danelo details an instance where insurgents were pre-positioning weapons, firing them at U.S. troops, dropping them, running across a road to another location, picking up another pre-positioned firearm, firing it at U.S. troops, dropping it, and so on. Obviously, the insurgents had learned to use our written and applied ROE against us. In another I cite, we fail to return fire on a minaret because of prohibitions against firing on religious locations (still present in our ROE). I detail others that I won’t repeat here. In these (and many more) instances, it is simply the truth to assert that the written and applied ROE has endangered U.S. troops.

    Now, to the issue at hand. Let me begin my acknowledging that errors and collateral damage in our engagements can harm WHAM. This is only common sense. But I also would claim that we have gone to ridiculous measures to ensure that collateral damage doesn’t occur. In war, collateral damage does occur, and its occurrence doesn’t warrant revisions to the ROE that cause further endangerment to U.S. troops. This is a point of commitment for me. It is pre-theoretical, i.e., an axiomatic commitment. From a utilitarian perspective, of course it can be argued that I am trading off a safer situation for Marines NOW for potentially a less safe one in the FUTURE due to collateral damage. Hence, the questions at the end of my article. Thinking about these things was recommended to the reader. The decisions are hard.

    However, also from a utilitarian perspective, I am not convinced that in the end softer ROE helps to WHAM. In fact, I would claim that the fact that the ROE have prevented the proper engagement of many insurgents in homes, making homes a safe location for them. Had the U.S. not given quarter, the insurgents would not be making use of them today (see my piece on Air Power in Small Wars). Also note the awful, horrible situation in Basra today. The Brits have summarily made fun of and ridiculed our ROE. Ironically, Anbar is becoming pacified, while Basra has gotten progressively worse and is in the biggest mess today that it has ever seen. Those soft ROE have not worked out so well for the Brits.

    In conclusion, what I found “somewhat propagandistic” about your piece was not the coverage of the recon by fire. In fact, I agree with it as a TTP. I would have made the choice to do it. What I found “somewhat propagandistic” was the robust search for information on non-combatants killed, with the failure to mention that had this collateral damage not occurred due to softer ROE, you might just as well made requests to the Pentagon for information on Soldiers and Marines who were killed because they let insurgents go only to kill another day.

    Unbiased reporting tells the whole story, not just the part that appeals to us.

  3. On July 8, 2007 at 10:28 am, CitSAR said:

    Below is a historical comment received after forwarding the above article to a retired SWA Tracker from the late 70s and early 80s. Their job was to HALO in behind and push terrorists back toward the SWA border for final disposition…

    They were equiped with hat, t-shirt, shorts, russian soled sneakers, AK-47 model of that time and minimal kit for only a few days. The average Op was a 3 day maission concisting of a 48 klick jog in the bush, 3-4 hrs on / 3-4 hrs off, until finally making it home. His longest longest mission was 28 days (dropped in wrong location…). Normal cycle; they were on various missions for 21 days followed by 7 days off duty for sleep.


    Yep, the Drake Shoot was well known, and was adapted for use by SWASPES during 1978/79 in Angola. Only problem was that they used it on us as well!! As I’ve said before, they’re quick learners, terrorists……..

    It was especially useful when on the return run. Thick bush as you approached the SWA/Angolan border was always a cause for concern. Our job as Trackers was to flush terrs back towards the border. It was 90% certain that, as the terrs realised that they were approaching the border area, they would embed. It therefore became necessary a) to clear our path home, b) keep the terrs on the move towards the border and c) quell any thoughts that the terrs may have been having about taking us on!

    RBF was, however, a last resort. Stealth was preferred at all times, and Drake was only really used if there was an unceratin obstacle ahead, such as dongas (dry stream beds) where stealth could not be relied upon due to the possibility of surpise.

    Interesting that they still use this method over there, but strange that it is used as frequently as suggested.


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You are currently reading "Recon by Fire", entry #532 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Rules of Engagement and was published June 30th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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