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The Rules of Engagement are the problem

Posted by John Reed on

We won World War II in 45 months starting from an unprepared scratch. Yet we get bogged down in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq against far less worthy opponents. How come? Something must have changed. What?

For one thing, and maybe the main thing, the rules of engagement.

There is a so-so article on rules of engagement at Wikipedia.


Rules of engagement basically tell armed persons the circumstances under which they are allowed to use deadly force. For police, who typically encounter only individuals or small groups of lightly armed criminals, the rule typically is to use the minimum force necessary even to the point of letting the bad guys escape if necessary to avoid injury to innocent bystanders.

Typically, force may only be used against a person who points a gun at a policeman or civilian or who lunges at someone with a knife or other non-firearm-but-still-deadly weapon. The military rules of engagement traditionally have been shoot on sight not only clearly-identified, armed, enemy military personnel, but also suspected locations of such enemy personnel, militarily-useful buildings, or materiel within a publicly identified war zone.

World War II Rules of Engagement

During World War II, if we believed the enemy was in a particular place in the war zone—generally the front lines, the sea, and enemy land territory—we fired at that place using small arms, artillery, bombs, etc. until we were convinced there were no longer any live enemy there.

Wouldn’t that hurt civilians? Sure. That’s why they got the hell out of the way. Long lines of civilian refugees streaming down roads to get away from the front were an everyday occurrence in World War II. So was victory after victory. As to the civilians who died, C’est la guerre.


Now, we rarely have the civilians fleeing a battle zone. When we went into Fallujah in 2004, we saw civilians get the hell out of the way. And we won there. The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was reduced to whining at the Iraqi’s for not supporting them there—just before he fled for his life. (We later killed him with a bomb.)

In Fallujah, we killed a bunch of bad guys and captured or destroyed weapons caches. It was your basic World War II-style attack and World War II-style victory for the U.S. and it allies. Wikipedia article on the Second Battle for Fallujah.

True, the bad guys have reportedly now gotten back into Fallujah. Fine. Attack it again.

And if they come back a third time, attack it a third time.

There is a detailed discussion of the Iraq rules of engagement, the problems and deaths and injuries they caused, and the troops’ feelings about them in the book We Were One which I reviewed at

Destroy the village in order to save it?

Eventually, either we win or there won’t be any there there to come back to. Is that “destroying a village in order to save it?” No, it’s returning fire from enemy soldiers who chose to repeatedly use the buildings of that village for cover. If the village gets leveled, it’s on the bad guys who chose to use its buildings to make war. The Americans would have been perfectly willing to fight the battle out in the desert so as to avoid harming civilians or their property. We did just that in Desert Storm in 1991.

The village, in such a case, would not be destroyed because the Americans were eager to destroy villages. Rather, it was destroyed because the enemy didn’t care whether the village was destroyed. It was they, not the Americans, who destroyed it in order to “save” it—or more to the point, to save their own asses from American fire that would have been more effective away from the buildings of the village. When a village is destroyed in a battle, the destruction cannot be laid on one side or the other—unless you count blaming the side that started the war. C’est la guerre.

Blackhawk Down

In Somalia, bad guys who had the U.S. Army Rangers pinned down in the Blackhawk Down incident would hold a woman or child against their chest as they crossed the street to prevent the squeamish Americans from firing at them. The Somalis would blast away at the American with their guns as they thus crossed the street. Apparently, it worked. I would have told my men to shoot the SOBs through the civilians.

Would that cause the civilians to have a bad day? Sure. But it would be a great thing for the remaining civilians because the fighters would immediately stop using that tactic as soon as the Americans started killing the fighters by shooting them through the human shields.

Like ransom

It’s like ransom. Paying ransom is generally illegal because it encourages continuation of the kidnapping business. If the various governments would enforce their laws against paying ransom to the extent that ransoms stopped being paid at all, the kidnapping business would cease to exist for lack of incentive. Everyone who pays a ransom to get their loved one back is culpable for subsequent kidnappings of other people’s loved ones.

Paying ransom is a classic case of beggar thy neighbor—that is, a policy that benefits the person engaging in it, but which only can do so at the expense of other similarly-situated people. It is a classic example of taking care of number one and to hell with everyone else.

The U.S. and allied soldiers who refrain from shooting where civilian human shields are benefiting themselves by enabling themselves to claim they are great humanitarians who held their fire. But they do that at the expense of the rest of the American and allied military who will be in continued danger from the bad guys in question. Indeed, the bullet that kills the humanitarian soldier who held his fire, or his best friend, may be fired by the bad guy he let escape with his decision not to shoot where he knew or suspected bad guys were—because of the presence of civilians.

Similarly, refraining from shooting at an enemy soldier because he uses innocent (or maybe not) civilians as shields rewards and thereby encourages the use of human shields. It is immoral to encourage the use of innocent civilians as shields. Furthermore, refusing to refrain from shooting at those who use civilians as shields will immediately end the practice which will lead to fewer civilian and military casualties on all sides and an earlier victory in the war. Paradoxical thought it may seem, ignoring the possibility of civilian casualties by shooting at the enemy regardless of the presence of civilians will save civilian lives in the long run.


If you look up “bogged down” in the dictionary, there must be a picture of Israel next to the definition. They have been bogged down in a war with the Arabs since the sixties—forty years!

Israel sometimes announces in advance when it is planning to attack a building known to harbor bad guys. When they did that in late 2006, Palestinian civilians surrounded the house in question to protect the bad guy leader in question. Amazingly to me, the Israelis then held their fire to avoid hitting the civilians.

You gotta be kidding me! They announced in advance that they were going to attack the house for the sole purpose of enabling the civilians to get out of the way. In doing so, they violated one of the principles of war: surprise. Depending upon the nature of the attack, they may have endangered Israeli military personnel in the process. They certainly gave the bad guy a chance to escape with the civilians.

When the civilians surrounded the bad guy, the Israelis should have done exactly what they promised: blow the house away. That would give them a bonus in that the bad guy leader who assumed that the Israelis would not fire when his house was surrounded by civilians would be wiped off the face of the earth.

Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. It would also rid the world of his civilian accomplices. Might it kill innocent children? Sure, if the civilian human-shield volunteers brought their children to the scene. But the deaths of the civilians, including any children they chose to expose to the danger, would be on the civilian adults, not the Israelis who gave advance warning. The parents decided to take an irresponsible gamble and endanger the children.

Furthermore, the Israelis should stop giving advance warnings and simply issue a blanket statement that hanging around with bad guys is liable to get you and your children killed or injured. After that, any such civilians would be as guilty of suicidal behavior as a ship that enters a publicly-identified, submarine-military-aircraft-and-warship-infested war zone heading to one of the combatant countries.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The U.S. is still criticized for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They should be more criticized for the fire bombings of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo if there is any validity to the criticism regarding the atomic bombs. Those fire bombings killed more civilians.

But the fact is that the atomic bombs saved orders of magnitude more lives than they cost. There is absolutely no reasonable estimate of the number of military and civilian casualties (millions) that would have occurred had the U.S. and its allies invaded Japan’s home islands rather than drop the atomic bombs that is anywhere near as low as the number of casualties from those two bombs (214,000).

Wikipedia says Japanese people think the atomic bombs were unnecessary because their leaders were covertly seeking to negotiate a peace at the time. “Covertly!!” The way to stop the bombs was to wave a white flag, which, by definition, is not done covertly. The Japanese military was still not over using war to prove their manhood and samurai spirit and all that when the atomic bombs were dropped and that is why the 214,000 people died or were injured. C’est la guerre.

The Japanese started World War II in the Pacific by bombing, raping, bayonetting, and so forth as many non-Japanese as they could. Bomb not lest ye be bombed.

Similarly, if Arabs want to financially support al Qaeda, cheer in the streets when our buildings and citizens are destroyed by suicide bombers, and send aid and fighters to insurgent groups fighting against us in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not in a position to complain when we shoot back. Innocence is not a black and white issue. There are degrees of guilt with regard to adults who support our enemies by actions that go beyond free speech.

Declare war

The U.S. should declare war if Congress is willing, then fight the war to a victorious conclusion as fast as possible. Part of the strategy should be World War II Rules of Engagement. That is, declare a particular geographic area to be the war zone and declare that the U.S. and its allies will be firing on any known or suspected enemy personnel or military assets within that war zone. The civilians who live there need to take notice and leave the vicinity of any such targets.

The U.S. should not use more force than necessary to terminate a particular threat, but the rule should be to use the necessary force to end it right now, not to pussy foot around trying to avoid injuring any civilians, including those who deliberately allow themselves to be used as human shields.

For example, if Marines take fire from a house, they should immediately return fire and call for mortar, artillery, and air support blasting away until they are convinced that the threat inside the house is over. They should not call in a B-52 carpet bombing mission that drops 2,000-pound bombs all over the neighborhood because that would clearly be unnecessary overkill and punishment of neighbors whose culpability is less clear.

Should they worry about whether civilians are in or near the house? No. The civilians should have known better than to hang around such people and when the bad guys prepared to open fire on the Marines, they civilians should have gotten on out of there immediately. If the bad guys won’t let them—which is predictable—then blame the bad guys for their deaths or injuries. The Nazis and World War II Japanese, as profoundly evil as they were, generally did not use civilians as human shields—mainly because it would not have worked for a minute back then.

Right now, American soldiers and Marines are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan in spite of the fact that we have the most powerful military in the world and the enemy is a joke militarily. Why? Because we are afraid to use our military assets for fear of bad public relations from media and foreigners who hold us to ridiculously high standards while holding the enemy to no standards at all. The enemy deliberately targets innocent civilians who have no military value. We would not do that. But neither should we let Americans and our allies continue to die in order to avoid being bad-mouthed by hidden-agenda-driven, hair-trigger critics who apply a double standard.

If President Bush wants to fight a war on terror as Commander in Chief, he needs to get Congress to declare such a war against appropriate countries. Then Bush needs to dust off the World War II Rules of Engagement and fight the war to a swift conclusion. All enemy persons who wish to commit suicide by revealing themselves as fighters, and/or by acting as human shields for fighters who refuse to reveal themselves, should be accommodated as quickly as possible.

C’est la guerre.

On the other hand, if Congress is not willing to declare war and wage it in the only way that makes sense, then they should stop sacrificing American lives over nothing more than slogans like “cut and run,” “hearts and minds,” “redeployment,” and “stay the course.”

There is no substitute for victory.
General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur

60 Minutes Haditha broadcast

On 3/18/07, 60 Minutes broadcast a story about a Marine sergeant who, with others, is on trial for the murder of 18 civilians in Haditha, Iraq. The sergeant was in charge of the squad of Marines in question.

First, I am very, very glad that I was never put in the position that sergeant was put it. He was in his first ever combat situation. One of his men had just been fatally blown to pieces by an IED.

Secondly, most people do not understand, including me, what it is like to spend an extended period among hostile civilians while your unit is repeatedly taking casualties. The civilians all claim to be innocent, but you know that many, if not most, are lying. In fact, they are cheering for the guys who are killing your comrades and very likely actively helping them kill them.

To put it in civilian criminal law terms, the civilians who claim to be innocent probably are the murderers, accomplices, co-conspirators, accessories before the fact, accessories during the fact, accessories after the fact, and material witnesses. In addition, many others probably saw or otherwise knew that the IED was being planned and planted. They may not have criminal culpability under U.S. criminal law, but they have a moral duty to report what they saw immediately to avoid the murder of the Marine from taking place.

The small children are innocent. Many of the other civilians may be innocent as well. But clearly in Haditha, a very anti-American city, the general populace welcomes the killing of U.S. Marines and many, if not most, are complicit in the murders of Marines.

But the Rules of Engagement in Haditha, according to the Marine sergeant, prohibited shooting unless the target exhibited hostile intent at the time he or she was being shot. It is quite easy for the most hostile civilians in a war zone to avoid exhibited hostile intent in between murdering Americans.

The ROE in Haditha were night and day different from the ROE that were in force in Fallujah (see my review of the book We Were One about the Fallujah battle in 2004). In Fallujah, the civilians were told to get out of town before the battle, which almost all of them did. With the town empty of civilians, the Marines were free to assume that every person remaining there and not in the U.S. Marine Corps or in the Iraqi Army was an enemy.

In Fallujah, they “cleared houses” by tossing or shooting explosives into them.

The Haditha Marines cleared two nearby houses the same way, but those houses contained numerous civilians, 18 of whom were killed during the clearing. Two of the victims were a 2-year-old girl and 3-year-old girl.

I hope the Marines have better evidence than the sergeant offered in the 60 Minutes interview. They may well have been correct about the guilt of many of the dead, but the situation appeared not to involve any weapons in the possession of the dead civilians or any other indication of hostile intent at the moment of the house clearing.

Iran capture of British soldiers

On Fox TV, a former U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel said the British Navy did not open fire on the Iranians who kidnapped their soldiers because the Rules of Engagement prohibited tem from opening fire without calling London first. By the time London answered, and I don’t even know if they gave permission, it was too late.

The British bureaucrat who created that policy should be horsewhipped, as should the British Navy admirals who said, “Aye, aye, sir,” when they heard it. They, instead, should have raised hell privately all the way up their chain of command and resigned their commissions then protested publicly if sanity was not restored by the chain of command. This is the same “protect my promotions and pension first attitude” that too many U.S. military officers have exhibited since Vietnam when confronted with rules that prevent them from either accomplishing their mission or protecting the welfare of their troops.

When the Rules of Engagement get too extreme, as in this case, the mission is no longer a military one. Prohibiting the military from using their guns is ridiculous. If the military cannot use their guns to accomplish their mission or protect their troops, they should not be there at all.

Can’t stand the sight of blood

Our leaders and people can’t stand the sight of blood, but they love the word “war” and the idea of war. They only want to fight squeamish wars. There is no such thing.

Should we not have gone to war in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan? Probably. But these military Web pages of mine are not about that. Rather, they are about not going to war unless the American people and civilian leaders are willing to execute the war the way a war needs to be executed. In war, people die: Americans, al Qaeda, Sunnis, Shiites, civilians. Should we be extremely reluctant to go to war? Absolutely. Should we only do it when the vast majority of the American people support it? Yes. Have we gone to war too often? Yes.

But once we declare war, complaints about those details of the ensuing war that were predictable—like the dying and the bleeding—are nothing but childish waffling and aiding and abetting the enemy. You wanted war. You got war. Shut up and fight it with everything you’ve got. You want the killing to stop? Win. That’s when the killing stops.

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