Feb 07

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

Point 1: America needs to repair its image in the Islamic world.
   
It’s not exactly enlightening to say that many--but not all--people in the Islamic world really, really hate America. They seem to burn our flags at the slightest provocation. One protester in Pakistan died from inhaling burning American flag smoke during the protests; how many flags does that even take?

The problem is that many Americans don’t care. Some Americans hate Muslims as much as some Muslims hate Americans, regularly referring to them as primitives, barbarians or savages (post coming on that). They put infidel stickers on their F-150’s and think that rebuilding relationships with nations we’ve alienated constitutes “apologizing” for America. And too many moderate Americans, hit hard by the financial crisis, feel like our country has bigger issues to deal with before we get to the business of fixing how the rest of the world feels about us.

We can’t control how other nations feel about America. But we can care how they feel about us and try to repair the relationship. I'd suggest that if one small, inconsequential internet video can spark protests in dozens of countries, we have a serious image problem around the world.

Point 2: For example, foreigners hate American support for dictatorships.

In December, This American Life ran a show titled “This Week”, covering stories that happened just that week. One of those stories was how Egyptian President Morsi faced protests after firing all of the country’s judges. What caught me was that the reporter talked to an author who opposed religious rule. Who did he blame for the power grab?

“In my view, the biggest betrayal that has taken place against the Egyptian people is the absolute support that the American administration has given to the Muslim Brotherhood. America is ignoring the violence that is conducted against the Egyptian people. America is completely silent and has voiced that its relationship with Egypt is strategic.”

Then she spoke with a “a religious man, young, 28 years old”. A young man from the completely opposite side of the political spectrum. Who did he blame?

“This is what the US wants; this is what Israel wants-- a regime which appears to be democratic to the people, but actually it is this defense national council which will be doing all the work...For sure President Morsi wants the interests of Egypt. However, he sees the implementation of this interest, or finding the interest, from a very narrow perspective that the United States has set for him. We do not want him to see that perspective through the United States' perspective.”

In short, don’t dictatorships, because it alienates people of all political persuasions, not just the religious fanatics.

Point 3: But not everyone hates us.

Among all the bad news, the good news was that, after Benghazi, counter-protests formed to support peace and oppose violence. This is a good sign. As I wrote above, many, but not all, people hate us in the Middle East. We should focus on building support from the people who don’t hate us.

And you know what? Some liberal Muslims support free speech too.

Point 4:  What happened in Benghazi? We don’t know!    

When we wrote our review of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy, the comment thread had an interesting reaction, coming down to a debate over what Obama knew, and when, and how he reacted to the attack on the consulate. My reaction at the time was simple:

“In general, I like to wait a few months for the larger, longer reports to come out. With the Osama raid, for example, a lot of the early information was dead wrong. We’ve written about this before, somewhere. It’s why we avoid breaking news stories on the blog.”

How long do you wait to discuss sensitive issues and current events?

On Violence is firmly in the wait and see camp. Hell, we write “the most intriguing event of the year” to discuss big issues we didn’t discuss before. We prefer to wait for the longer responses like the long form documentaries on PBS’s Frontline or articles in the New Yorker. The Obama administration’s main problem, in the beginning, was sending people out to talk about it; when Susan Rice did, she lost the entire forward momentum of her political career, because she spoke too soon.

Dec 17

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Arguing for the invasion of Iraq, Dick Cheney argued, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

President Ronald Reagan would have disagreed. As he put it:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

We’re writing “Our Communist Military” to point out contradictions and logical incongruities that don’t make sense under close scrutiny. By uttering the above aphorism, Reagan (unintentionally) made the point that our military shouldn’t invade other countries. It also shouldn’t help people.

The military is, after all, one of the only departments of the government that actually shows up and says, “Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." As conservative milbloggers put it in their joint “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statement, “No other organization has...rescued more people from natural disasters”. I mean, how many other departments in the government can even rescue people from natural disasters? FEMA? (I originally wrote this pre-Hurricane Sandy. More on that disaster tomorrow.)

This incongruity can be represented by the follow logic chain:

A. Conservatives hate the government.

B. The military is part of that government.

Ergo...

C. Conservatives hate the military?

Did Reagan hate the military? No, he campaigned for increased defense spending, and when he was elected, he did just that. Do conservatives hate our military? No, they don’t. I opened my post “The Best Trained, Most Professional Military...Just Lost Two Wars?” with three over-the-top pieces of praise for the US military; each quote praised the military as the greatest institution for good that has ever existed. Two of those quotes came from conservatives.

The problem is imprecise language. Reagan probably meant to say, “The fourteen most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from a non-military branch of the government, and I'm here to help," but that kind of ruins the punchline.

Milbloggers have the same problem. Not to poke the bear again, but the same day that the writers over at This Ain’t Hell (who are fine people despite our ideological differences) went nuts over our post, “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”, Jonn Lilyea posted an article titled, “I’m shocked to discover that the government is incompetent”. Did he mean to write, “I’m shocked to discover that the (non-military part of the) government is incompetent” or does he really think the military is incompetent?

Because you can’t talk about the federal government without talking about the military. The military represents 20% of the government’s budget, over 50% of its non-discretionary spending, and 36% of its workers. You can’t cut it out of the “government incompetence pie” without taking away a lot of pie.

I could spend all day writing about this inconsistency. Instead, Michael C brought up a point while I was editing this post that made me rethink the whole thing. “Maybe,” he told me, “Some conservatives would say, ‘Yeah, but we don’t want a military that’s effective at helping people. We want other countries to fear us and think we’re going to kill them.’”

Looking at Reagan’s quote this way, it’s much scarier. Even creepy. Reagan didn’t say anything about competence, just the ability to inspire fear. Our military terrifies the civilians of every other nation when they invade. They fear for their lives. And fear inevitably creates insurgencies. And insurgencies kill soldiers.

That means the government can be good at one thing: scaring people. So the government can do something right...but I feel like I am trapped on Mobius strip of logic...so let’s end this thing now and sum up with, according to Ronald Reagan’s logic, taken at face value, we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

Dec 11

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here. To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

Like TV shows, people in real life can jump the shark. General Petraeus jumped the shark when he took over command of Afghanistan. Brett Favre jumped the shark when he joined the Vikings. Today, we have to ask ourselves, are we jumping the shark? Because we’re about to argue that the universally beloved Toys for Tots charity is...

Communist.

Last year, we were knee deep debating what Michael C dubbed “gratitude theory”--the idea that if you just give people things they will start to love you--when we realized that one of the best examples of “gratitude theory” in action is the Marine Corps Reserve’s charity Toys for Tots. Luckily for us, by waiting a year, we can also connect it to “Our Communist Military”.

Unfortunately, this probably-not-actually-evil charity drastically conflicts with the conservative military ethos. If troops don’t believe giving gifts does any good in Afghanistan, why give kids presents in America? What good will it do? And is there anything more liberal than a government organization redistributing toys from the rich to the poor? We’ll answer those questions, then conclude with the real problem behind Toys for Tots.

Gratitude Theory

The basic irony of Toys for Tots is that it involves...giving something to someone. This isn’t altogether insightful, unless you’ve been following the debate over counter-insurgency. In short, opponents of population-centric COIN argue that simply giving people things--reconstructing infrastructure, giving medicine and aid, for example--won’t win the loyalty of foreign civilians. In a civil war, the thinking goes, only violence can make people fear you; they will never love you. (If you want specific examples, check out this series.)

Critics--like former Marine officer Bing West--have said it best, “counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its ‘core competency’ — violence.”

Unless we’re in America, in which case, the Marines Corps Reserves runs one of the largest, most visible charities in the country. Either giving people things is good or it isn’t, but you can’t hate on the Peace Corp in Afghanistan then give away toys for free when you return to America.

This contradiction exposes what marines and soldiers really dislike: irregular warfare. Soldiers and marines long for a simpler time when each side wore uniforms; when wars were won by maneuver. Those wars are long gone, but Cointras don’t realize that yet.

Our Communist Military

Of course, conservatives don’t hate charity. In fact, they give to charity more than liberals! (Actually, they don’t.)

But they do think that giving "stuff" away makes people lazy. Here’s the Republican standard bearer for 2012, Mitt Romney, describing his distaste for “takers”:

“Remind them of this: If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff. But don’t forget, nothing is really free.”   

Well, what the hell is giving away free toys?

There’s an inherent contradiction here that I don’t think the conservative movement--as opaque, unwieldy and uncontained by one word as it can be--has addressed: how does a belief that government handouts makes people lazy square with charitable giving?

You can’t say 47% of the country just wants free stuff, you can’t call half of the country moochers and takers, and then support a charity that just gives away “stuff” (in this case, toys). You can’t write one blog post bemoaning the state of unemployment insurance, and then in later blog post write about Toys for Tots without criticizing it.
   
Giving free toys to poor people is definitionally redistributionist. And if you’re counter-argument is, “Well, Toys for Tots is a charity, not some corrupt government program,” you’d be wrong. It’s a non-profit run by the United Marines Corps Reserves. Technically, it’s a part of the federal government redistributing toys to “moochers and takers”.

Tell those kids who are getting all those handouts, er, toys, to tell their mooching parents to go get a job.

Symptom, Not the Disease

We do have an original critique for Toys for Tots, and any charity giving out toys to needy children: it addresses a symptom, not the disease. It doesn’t solve the problem.

To (ab)use an over-wrought parable, it gives a fish (toy) instead of teaching one how to fish (addressing that child’s parent’s poverty). As a result, giving away toys makes people feel good about giving, but it doesn’t address the actual issue. I have always wondered about the reaction of the kids getting free toys. “Oh sweet, I live in a car with my parents in the Walmart parking lot, but I got a Rubik’s cube. Thank you, Marine Corps!”

We’re not against giving children toys per se. And since one of our family friends throws a party every year where we have to bring a toy, we’ll end up doing it again this year. It’s just not the most effective form of charity.

We think conservatives would agree.

Dec 03

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

In Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell (and technically Patrick Robinson) describe the Navy SEAL’s strategy for blending in with the locals in Afghanistan, “Each of us had grown a beard in order to look more like Afghan fighters."

Marcus Luttrell isn’t alone. Many special operators, intelligence spooks and soldiers (American, British and Canadian) deployed to Afghanistan think they can pull off this subtle camouflage technique. By simply growing a beard and wearing a scarf, a clean cut American instantly transforms into an Afghan, indistinguishable in a crowd.

Don’t believe me? To prove the point, we’ve created a game. In the following photos, see if you can pick out the special operators (both Special Forces and SEALs) hidden among the local Afghans:

a

 a

 a

Okay, you are probably tossing your hands up in the air right now, cursing my name, “Michael, how on earth am I supposed to pick out the special operators in those photos? They all look such like Afghans!”

I know, it’s tough. I mean, a six foot five white guy with gigantic arms and chest, desert patterned BDUs, an American M4 with a high tech scope, brand new American boots, Oakley glasses and body armor who grows a beard and wraps a scarf around his neck looks exactly like an Afghan. Invisible!

In defense of Marcus Luttrell, he didn’t invent this nonsensical form of “blending in”. Most of our special operators, the elite of the elite, believe that growing a beard helps you blend in with the population. It turns out that wearing the local clothes (not cool), learning the local language (really hard), using a foreign weapon (controversial, possibly illegal) or not weight lifting for a few months (heresy!) are the best ways to help an American blend in.

That and recruiting people of ethnic backgrounds. (Take a look at our special operations community to see how well that effort is going.)

So what if special operators grew beards? Even if it didn’t help the war effort, it’s not like it hurt it either. Well, maybe not. I worked with a contractor in Iraq who knew his intelligence shit. He did real good intel. (A bunch of us were watchin The Wire at the time. So The Wire people called each other “real police” as a compliment. He was real intel.)

He spoke Arabic. He had previously been a human intelligence collector with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked him jokingly one day if he had grown out his beard to “blend in”. He laughed. He said that he’d asked his contacts (read: local Afghans) what they thought about beards. It turns out in Afghanistan, they don’t expect Americans to wear beards. They also don’t expect most white people to wear beards. In Afghanistan, they believed white people who grew beards were “Jewish”. So to “blend in”, American special operators made themselves look more Jewish to local Afghans.

I don’t know if this is 100% true, or even a widespread belief across Afghanistan, but it really makes you think about growing a beard in Afghanistan, doesn’t it? Do Muslims love Jewish people and Israel? Well, if the special operators of the world don’t know the answer to that...then we are in trouble.

If we lose in Afghanistan--and I now believe we will--the military should look at itself for the reasons why. That includes the “special” people too. Unfortunately, I don’t think the special operators will blame themselves. But I do. I mean, these guys ran around Islamic countries for years looking like this, and honestly believed a beard and a scarf helped them “blend in” when any American (and every Afghan) knew exactly who they were.

So why did they do it? The answer or non-answer to that question is why we lost in Afghanistan.

Oct 17

On Monday, I laid out my template for assigning blame in a historical context. Regarding America’s most recent foreign policy debacle, the Iraq war, I nominated the usual suspects: President Bush, VP Cheney, the entire Secretary of Defense’s office, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. This ThinkProgress article does a pretty good job of summarizing the popular narrative of who to blame for Iraq, politicians.
   
The military as a whole embraces this thinking too. (That is, if they aren’t defending Iraq as successful in the first place, which Eric C and I stipulated yesterday that it was not. Because it wasn’t.) Military supporters--including former generals, academics and milblogs--love to blame politicians for “Mess O’patamia”. And lots of politicians too. So if it isn’t Cheney and Rumsfeld, it is “the politicians back in Washington who...”

Tie our hands with restrictive ROE!” or...

Force our men and women to do costly state-building which isn’t our mission!” or...
   
“Don’t know how to do strategy. Strategy is dead!

Notice who escapes blame? The generals.

As Thomas Ricks (who is one of the few pundits and historians who has blamed the generals for iraq, particularly in Fiasco) wrote in his recent Harvard Business Review article, the U.S. used to hold officers, particularly generals, accountable, especially in World War II. Back then, General Eisenhower went from a “regimental executive officer to a five star general in about four years” and “of the 165 men who commanded combat divisions, 16 were relieved” of command. The utter definition of accountability.

That accountability has disappeared.

So when it comes to Iraq, few people blame the flag officers of the uniformed military, who could arguably shoulder the majority of the blame. As a body, they completely failed to understand the lessons of the Vietnam war. They failed to even fathom that urban combat would dominate the contemporary battlefield. They failed to prepare soldiers in language training.

They failed over time too. In the 1990s, they failed to develop and train the Army and Marine Corps to fight irregular wars. They failed to develop a coherent plan to invade Iraq. They failed to properly advise the president of the United States. They then failed to understand the counter-insurgency environment they found themselves in.

Instead, the generals prepared and tried to fight the war they wanted to win.

By blaming politicians for the strategy, generals and admirals have managed to avoid the fact that they failed to prepare the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps for the post-Cold War war. It’s like a coach who fails to recruit, practice well and motivate his team, then blames the losses on the athletic director for tough scheduling. The coach still deserves the blame.

Way back, I wrote that the Army needs a “post-9/11 AAR” (so did Andrew Bacevich). Do we really trust the generals with it? They failed to understand that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a detrimental policy, not a beneficial one. They failed to forecast that the Pentagon’s retirement system would bankrupt the services. They have failed on weapon system after weapon system. They failed on understanding the nature of war and warfare after the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11.

When it comes to assigning accountability and blame for the post-9/11 wars, we must remember the leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. They deserve some of the blame. (I would argue a lion’s share of it.) Will they ever get it?

I doubt it.

(Final point: Some people have criticized the general's conduct of the war, including Thomas Ricks, as we wrote above, and most notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in an Armed Forces Journal article, "A Failure of Generalship". However, Yingling is notable for being one of the few voices assigning blame to this large group of people.)

Oct 10

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)

As I wrote on Monday, we have terrible brand management in Afghanistan.

Don’t believe me? Read “A Gathering Menace” in The American Scholar. Neil Shea describes the military platoon equivalent of “Popcopy” employees. While most platoons are probably better than this one, plenty are probably worse.

We cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan because, in marketing terms, killing civilians harms our brand. Killing isn’t the only way to lose the war though. Countless smaller actions--from throwing a pee bottle to burning a Koran--might seem minor, but taken together they tell Afghans, “Don’t trust Americans.”

Now, I’m no marketing expert (I just started business school), but I do have suggestions for improving the US Army’s brand in Afghanistan:

Do:

1. Learn the local language.

1a. If you can’t do that, at least hire competent interpreters.

2. Embed troops for longer amounts of time, returning them to the same area of operations.

2a. Actually support the Afghan Hands program. (Which doesn’t currently qualify officers for key developmental time. Allegedly the most important program in Afghanistan actually harmed officers’ careers. Think about that.)

3. If you destroy it, rebuild it. (See point 3a’s corollary.)

3a. Avoid destroying buildings. Strong governments don’t destroy their own buildings.

4. Live off the local population whenever possible.

5. Hire locals, not “third party nationals.”

6. Think, “If this would piss off Americans, could it piss off an Afghan too?”

6a. Or, “If a Chinese Colonel did this to my family, would I be happy about it?” 

Don’t:

1. Don’t burn copies of the Koran.

1a. Actually, don’t do anything with Korans without consulting an Islamic scholar.

1b. And whatever you do, don’t use them in interrogations.

2. Don’t torture. At all costs, even if “U.S. soldiers” aren’t doing the torturing.

3. Stop doing night raids on the wrong houses.

3a. Quit doing them period, if possible.

4. Stop supporting corrupt psuedo-dictators.

4a. Or his corrupt brothers.

5. Don’t kill children.

5a. Women too.

5b. Old men who cannot fight would help as well.

5c. Or mentally disabled kids.

5d. People gathering oil from a broken down truck.

5e. Massacres are out too.

6. Don’t throw pee bottles out of your MRAPs.

6a. Don’t litter either.

7. Don’t drive around cities so fast  that you run over little kids.

8. Don’t fire artillery shells into small towns.

9. Don’t pay warlords protection money through incompetent contracting.

9a. This means putting your best officers into difficult contracting jobs, not your worst.

10. And don’t curse out the locals. They’ll know you are cursing at them. And it won’t work.

Oct 08

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)
 
When I first saw the pile, it jarred me. Pile is the wrong word. Not just a pile, nor a mound, but a mountain of water and Gatorade bottles lying in the bottom of a draw just beneath the Korengal Outpost.

As a still jittery, newly deployed lieutenant, I spent my first few weeks in the ‘Stan furiously staring at the sides of roads. Hidden from view leaving the base, I didn’t notice the pile until we headed back to the KOP after several hours sitting in an over-watch position. When we turned a corner to wind our way up hill, I noticed the pile.

I pointed it out to my driver, “What’s that?” (Gratuitous curse words have been excised for readability.)

“Oh, those are trash bottles.” He pointed at the guard tower a couple hundred feet up the mountain. Bottles covered the hillside, detritus from hundreds of hours of guard duty. They rolled down the hill and collected in the draw.

Infantry Officer Basic Course doesn’t teach you about pee bottles. Neither does ROTC, nor Ranger School. When soldiers go on patrols that last days or sit in a guard shack for hours, they have to take a piss. On a patrol, you just pee on the side of the road. In Ranger school, I took a knee and pissed more times than I can count. In a guard shack, you peed in a used water bottle. At the KOP, you tossed that water bottle down the hill.

As a mounted platoon, our gunners couldn’t just take a knee, so they pissed in water bottles too. No one wants to sit in a turret with one or more bottles filled with urine; most gunners in Afghanistan just threw them on the side of the road.

As did my men. Since we had a killer cook/First Sergeant combo, we used to drink ice cold Gatorades. That’s what my men used to throw out of their vehicles, which is too bad for the local civilians: a Gatorade bottle filled with urine looks awfully like a yellow Gatorade.

I didn’t catch onto this for months. When I finally saw the gunner of our lead truck do this, I freaked out. I made a rule: we don’t throw bottles out of our trucks. This was one of those things you learn as you go as a new platoon leader.

At the time, I felt that covering Afghanistan with our piss-filled bottles wouldn’t endear us to the locals. It wouldn’t lose us the war on its own, but it definitely didn’t help us win it either. Last spring and winter, I wrote several thousand words on emotion, rationality, business school, cultural empathy and “gratitude theory”. I have so far ignored a very relevant question to our counter-insurgency operations since 9/11:

Do we have a very good brand in Afghanistan?

 

Did we have a good brand in Iraq?

Do we enable, enrich or empower the population? How does the U.S. Army (a lexical stand in for all our troops in Afghanistan) compare to our market competitors--the Taliban, Hezb il-Gulbuddin and the Haqqani Network? What about our sub-companies like the Afghan government? The Afghan National Army? Or any other parts of the Afghan National Security Forces?

I don’t think the Taliban (our market competitors) fills bottles with urine and throws them around the countryside. In fact, the Taliban probably avoids tons of insults the U.S. Army doesn’t. They don’t burn Korans. They speak the same language. In other words, the Taliban has a better brand reputation than the U.S. Army, even though we have more money and will send Afghan women to school. NATO and US forces make simple, easily avoidable mistakes that hurt our brand’s reputation.

Wednesday, I’ll share my ideas to improve the U.S. Army’s brand in Afghanistan.

Sep 06

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

In the Band of Brothers episode “Replacements”, Easy Company cautiously approaches the town of Nuenen, having already lost a lieutenant to sniper fire. An old man leans out a window and shouts at them, “Get away, get away,” in French, giving away Easy Company’s position. Why didn’t the U.S. soldiers shoot him?

The Rules of Engagement.

At the end of the episode, the Allies bomb Einhoven. Why could they?

The Rules of Engagement.

Most importantly, for today’s post, starting at minute 31:00, the central character of “Replacements”, Big Sarge Denver “Bull” Randleman motions to Sergeant Martin to tell a British tank to fire a few shells at a civilian house. This could collapse the house on a hidden German Tiger tank waiting in ambush.

The British soldier demurs, “I can’t. My orders are no unnecessary destruction of property...if I can’t see the bugger I can’t very well shoot him, can I?”

Why didn’t the British tank fire?

The Rules of Engagement.

While Easy Company watched the bombing of Einhoven from a distance and the old man didn’t alert the Germans to the company’s position, the last incident hurt. The German soldiers, and especially their tanks, wreaked utter havoc on the British-American force. They destroyed two British tanks, killed multiple Americans, and eventually forced the company into full retreat. Easy Company lost the skirmish.

In other words, what a fantastic argument for the inanity of ROE. Isn’t this a perfect example of ROE in action, getting our soldiers killed unnecessarily and preventing us from winning wars? Some uptight sergeant can’t see a lurking Tiger tank in his looking glasses so he dooms the entire operation?

Hardly. Easy Company failed to take the town of Nuenen because they didn’t have enough men or tanks. The Germans held reinforced positions in a strong defense with armor for reinforcements. But forget all that: they had more men and the element of surprise.

I just re-watched this particular scene to make sure I understood it right. And based solely on this episode--not the actual history of this company-sized action--no one should draw the conclusion that ROE cost any soldiers their lives. Even if the British had started firing at the vague position of the Tiger tank, they probably still would have missed. (The British sergeant is right in one regard: it is exceptionally hard to shoot what you cannot see.) Even if the British tank had hit the building next to the Tiger tank, this wouldn’t have trapped or destroyed the Tiger tank, it simply would have bought the British a few extra second to try to shoot the Tiger first, which likely still would have survived the encounter. (And the editing is unclear, so I cannot tell if the Germans had additional tanks in reserve, at which point the entire situation is moot.)

Why debate the tactics of one specific battle in one episode of World War II? Because opponents of restrictive ROE use tactical situations like the one above to argue that ROE, not bad leadership, planning or even enemy action, gets our soldiers killed. Luttrell argued this in Lone Survivor. A dad in this Los Angeles Times article claims ROE killed his son. A congressmen says ROE kills our troops in Afghanistan. This Facebook page has article after article allegedly showing ROE killing our troops.

And just last week two parents at a rally at the Republican National Convention blamed President Obama’s ROE for their Navy SEAL son’s death.

Opponents of strict ROE look at this scene in Band of Brothers and say, “Look, it got our soldiers killed!” They hear a rumor from a friend whose son knew a guy who heard that soldiers in Afghanistan can’t shoot terrorists because of ROE. Frequently, the contemporary opponents of any and all rules of engagements--who treat it like a monolithic object it is not--claim that in, “Dubya Dubya two, we didn’t tie our soldiers hands behind their backs!

By watching this episode carefully, though, we see the fallacy of all those arguments. First, our soldiers in World War II fought under rules of engagement. And yes, it was less stringent than our current wars, but those wars were much more violent. ROE wasn’t the most dangerous thing in combat, moving was. Artillery was. Sniper fire was.

But go back to that German civilian who tried to wave the Americans away. Opponents of ROE would let American soldiers shoot the old man for trying to talk to them if they felt threatened. Not only would that have done nothing, it would have eroded the popular support for the Americans and the British. Losing popular support could have ruined the peace that has since lasted seventy years. Rules of engagement might not have helped win the war, but it helped create a lasting peace.

Finally, the sergeant in the British tank misinterpreted the rules of engagement. Destroying the house isn’t “unnecessary” if American scouts have spotted a German target. That’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation of his orders. So under the rules of engagement, the British tank should have fired. If we have to condemn all sound plans because someone misunderstands them, well, we have to get rid of all plans.

I blame Hollywood, partly, for ROE’s bad reputation. Just today, Eric C and I watched The Expendables II. (Which, in all other respects, may be the greatest film in film history.) In a throwaway monologue, Liam Hemsworth’s character retells a (completely unrealistic) story where all his buddies die in Afghanistan because they can’t get air support. Tight rules of engagement make the perfect villain: a bureaucratic rule that gets soldiers killed. Since it is such an easy villain, it pops up all the time.

As I have written before, tight rules of engagement help win wars, and Hollywood’s simplistic portrayal in movies doesn’t help that argument.

(Over the years, I've (Michael C) written about the rules of engagement plenty of times, including some of our first posts. I wanted to collect them all in one place. To read other posts about ROE, please look below:

Arcs of Fire

Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities

Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires

Operation Judgement Day

Why Leaders Make the ROE

ROE - Reducto Ad Absurdum

A 300 Page Ethical Dilemma

BTW, Insurgents Have Rules of Engagement As Well

If They Don't Fight Like Us, Why Do They Use Our Rules of Engagement?

Another ROE False Dilemma

Terrorist Rules of Engagement Pt. 2

 My Answer to Monday's Hypothetical

The Rules of Engagement Are Democratic, and Thank God for That

ROE Link Drop

Getting Around the Rules of Engagement: Observer Training

Guest Post: Rules of En"game"ment