Jul 14

On Monday, I described an ethical dilemma that supposedly shows how America’s extra-restrictive rules of engagement endanger our troops. Today I am going to debunk that story. (Click here to re-read it.) This hypothetical doesn’t prove that rules of engagement (ROE)--even really restrictive rules of engagement--are immoral or ineffective.

Monday’s story obscures the most important part of the story: the facts. The narrator barely describes the woman in question. Was she hysterical or calm? Was she screaming or quiet? Did she try to communicate to anyone in the platoon? She might seem like a spotter, but if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that our troops lack cultural awareness. They are even worse at trying to divine the intentions of locals who don’t speak English.

Yet the story was told to me with a certainty that is impossible to find through the fog of war.

Other facts are questionable as well. Where is the sniper exactly? If his fire is so accurate, why aren’t there more Marines casualties? Did the Marines have a time crunch? Was this a single operation or a larger battalion-sized mission? The point is we don’t know. And if we don’t know all the facts, the we have to question our conclusions.

To really go meta with this analysis, though, I need to explain why the facts are obscured. To do so, I am going to borrow from Eric C’s tool kit, and use literary criticism. Basically, we have a unreliable narrator, with a clear agenda: proving that ROE gets Soldiers killed. The best way to do this is to limit the options of the Marines to either kill, or be killed.

Like the last ethical dilemma I criticized, the Marines have more than two options. In fact, they have dozens. A Marine platoon has several different weapon systems to employ against a sniper, from machine guns to rifles to A-10 warthogs. They also have access to higher headquarters, and the additional resources they bring to the fight. The Marines could have maneuvered around the building or held their position until nightfall. They could have tried the back door. They could have waited until someone could spot the sniper. They could have tried to detain the woman, or at the very least, they could have tried to communicate with the woman.

But the narrator who wants to prove how bad ROE is will never give you ten options, he will make it a dilemma. This or that. Violate ROE, or be killed.

And this is a false dichotomy.

Jul 12

During Lone Survivor Week, I argued that Marcus Luttrell’s memoir is really just a 300 page ethical dilemma. And that I hate dilemmas, especially those that try to prove a political point.

In Luttrell’s case, the political agenda is our rules of engagement, following a long line of conservative commentators who make up hypotheticals to show the “stupidity” of our rules of engagement. Way back during my infantry training at Fort Benning, we discussed rules of engagement, and I heard an ethical dilemma designed to prove why they are wrong. Today, I am going to simply tell the story as it was told to me. On Wednesday, I will show why it is total malarkey.

The scene: downtown Baghdad. The time: before 2006. A Marine platoon is pinned down by a sniper and they can’t locate his firing position. Fire rains down on their positions when suddenly, from the front of the building, a woman emerges.

She goes outside, looks at all the Marines on the street, and goes back inside. The sniper fire instantly gets more accurate.

The woman comes out again. And again. Each time she leaves the building, the sniper fire closes in on the Marine platoon.

The Marines are trapped in an ethical dilemma, the speaker told me. They could shoot the woman, but they would be violating the rules of engagement because she didn't have a weapon. Or they could try to assault the building, but then risk massive casualties. The dilemma: shoot the woman and violate ROE, or let your own men get killed. The key? The men on the ground knew, for sure, that she was spotting for the enemy sniper.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does it show how “stupid” restrictive rules of engagement are? Does this cause unnecessary risk to our Soldiers and Marines? I’ll provide my answer (No) on Wednesday.

Jul 06

Two weeks ago, I took apart Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor for claiming that insurgents don’t have rules of engagement (ROE). Insurgents have rules of engagement; they just don’t follow the Geneva Conventions. What Luttrell--and other critics of the ROE--really mean is that insurgents don’t have our rules of engagement, a statement that should shock no one.

Why don't insurgents have our ROE? A few reasons...

First, an insurgent leader can't control his fighters like an industrial military, and thus can't enforce their ROE with the discipline of the West. While a US Soldier could face court martial for disobeying ROE, an insurgent leader must use influence, intimidation and violence to control his men. Insurgent ROE reflects the reality of their situation, and is much more flexible.

Insurgent leaders don't write down their rules of engagement because they don't have the ability to distribute it. It's not like insurgents have the vast bureaucracies the Western armies maintain do. They have to use shuras or messengers, or even video tapes made in the hills of Pakistan. The point is they can't distribute an email or memo through a super-bureaucracy like the US. This is why their ROE will never be as strict or as documented as ours.

Second, insurgents also have a fundamentally different viewpoint of counter-insurgency/insurgency warfare than the Western armies. An insurgent is never on safe ground. He lives off the people, so for him the population is an active participant in the war. They also have drastically better intelligence, so they know who is really fighting in the insurgency and who isn't. Oh, and we wear uniforms.

But one reason above all explains why insurgent ROE doesn't look like American or Western ROE: an insurgent army doesn’t have the capabilities or firepower of a Western military.

Take this exchange from Ben M’Hidi in Battle for Algiers. When asked, “Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?” Ben M’hidi responds, “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more? Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

I’m not advocating for insurgents. Just War Theory, on which rules of engagement are based, is the reason I joined the military. It explains why good Armies need to exist. I hate the insurgent's rules of engagement because it doesn't limit civilian casualties.

But none of this shocks me. Their tactics and weapons don’t look familiar either, so why would their ROE?

Jun 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

“Our enemy was brutal, implacable, with no discernible concern about time or life.”

Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor

Critics of the rules of engagement (ROE) love to point out that our enemy doesn't have rules of engagement. Whenever I debate this point, or read an Op-Ed on the subject, this inevitably comes up. Marcus Luttrell, our country's loudest and most vitriolic critic of the rules of engagement, describes the sentiment perfectly. (Yep, we are continuing to pile on to Luttrell. Unfortunately for him, his book contains almost every misnomer about ROE that exists, we almost have to use him as an example. It is also still inspiring debate over ROE.)

Take the above quote. Luttrell describes an enemy with no regard for life, rampaging through villages killing everything in their path.

Except in real life that never happens, because insurgents have rules of engagement too.

They don't follow the Geneva Conventions, insurgent ROE isn't written down, and insurgent leaders in Afghanistan do not have the same control over their fighters that American Generals have over their Soldiers. But they still have rules of engagement. At it's best, Marcus Luttrell's statement--like those of other ROE critics--confuses the rules of engagement with the Geneva Conventions; at its worst, it shows the type of thinking that hamstrings our military when it tries to conduct counter-insurgency.

Luttrell doesn’t understand the concept of rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are simply guidelines that authorize force--for armies, police forces, militias, criminal groups, gangs, or insurgents. Rules of engagement have existed since the dawn of time, even when they were incredibly lax, and even when they weren't written down.

Imagine Genghis Khan charging across Asia. A village wants to avoid the impending rape and pillage, so it bribes Khan to ignore their village by swearing loyalty, sending him a 100 soldiers, and as much gold as they can muster. Now if one of Genghis Khan’s lieutenants ransacked the town, he would have hell to pay. Genghis Khan’s unspoken rules of engagement were essentially: don’t mess with anyone I say not to.

Insurgents operate the same way. In Afghanistan many of the tribal leaders are all but immune to the Taliban. If insurgent groups didn’t win the support of local elders, (i.e. if they killed every Afghan civilian they came across), then their ability to operate in rural areas would evaporate.

Lone Survivor actually describes this scenario. Even though Marcus Luttrell claims that Ahmad Wali’s army of 200 Taliban fighters had surrounded the village sheltering him, the Taliban couldn't grab him. The insurgent leader knew that violating the Pashtun-Wali code would disrespect the village elders, and dry up his support in the Korengal.

In effect, the insurgents in Lone Survivor follow strict rules of engagement. Now their code of ROE isn't based on the Geneva Conventions, the Laws of Armed Conflict, or any other Western ethical system. Some of their tactics are governed by extremist Islamic theology (Salafist Jihadism in most cases), but in most cases insurgents follow rules of engagement that offer the best chance at self-preservation. No matter what basis, they always have rules of engagement.

The key word in Luttrell's condemnation is the word "discernible." They have rules of engagement, he just doesn't understand them.

May 31

Reader Joel forwarded me this article by C.J. Chivers in the NY Times. In short, a pit viper bit an Afghan boy on the face in Helmand province. The boy’s father brought him to the nearest Marine COP hoping the US could save his life. After fighting with higher headquarters, a helicopter picked up the boy and moved him to Kandahar, where it looks like he will survive.

Joel then asked this question: “To what extent does this actually, ‘win hearts and minds?’ Can anyone confirm whether or not the village this boy is from has become more accepting of US forces?”

Counter-insurgency is a war of inches and degrees. This individual incident won't win the war, the survival of this one boy will only change how his father feels about the US. Then again, maybe it won’t. It probably won't even affect his entire village. The bigger question is whether the policy of evacuating seriously wounded Afghans will eventually win over the population.

Because in the short term the effects of one single mission are hard to identify. I wrote about this when I described two Medical Civil Action Patrols (MEDCAP) my company conducted in Konar province. One succeeded wildly; the other failed miserably. Trying to figure out why was a next to impossible task. Again, victories in counter-insurgency show up over time, not single moments. It's like some sort of militaristic Chinese proverb: to fell the counter-insurgency tree, one must use many swings. By swings we mean MEDCAPs.

This isn't to say we have no way of knowing if we are winning. Our Human Intelligence Collection Teams can determine the “atmospherics” of local populations through polling. Most maneuver commanders tend not to employ them in this capacity, instead they try to target the bad guys. Modern polling can accomplish wonders. Determining if villages love us or hate us isn't as hard as we make it out to be.

Even though the Army screws up metrics all the time, there are ways of measuring progress. Having the level of violence plummet in Iraq showed progress. Having elections in Iraq showed progress. Training more Afghan police will show progress. Measuring success is possible--even seeing how many hearts and minds we have won--if we use the right metrics.

The core of Joel's question is whether we can win Afghan's hearts. Frankly, I don't see how this action couldn't help but convince one father, and possible mother, to support the US. Do drowning victims hate life guards? Do students hate organizations that gave them scholarships? Do cancer survivors hate their doctors?

The answer is no. Saving a boy's life will buy the US at least some goodwill. No one hates the person who saved their life, whereas denying the ability to save a life will almost certainly engender hatred. They see our money, wealth and health care, the natural reaction is to be upset if we don't share it. This goes for curing someone's club foot, or saving a little girl's eye sight. In the long term, building a sustainable Afghan medical capacity will bring us generations of good will; in the mean time, we should do what we can.

One MEDEDVAC won't win the war in Afghanistan, but thousands might. Some Afghans might still hate Americans despite billions in aid, but in the long term I believe they will come around.

May 18

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Dilemma, Greek for "double proposition." In English, being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Reading Lone Survivor felt like slogging through the world's longest ethical dilemma. 

As Luttrell tells it:

SEAL Team 10 inserted into the Sawtalo Spur in Konar Province on a reconnaissance mission to find a high value target. Due to lack of cover, three Afghan goat herders--two men and a fourteen year old boy--stumble upon their hide-sight. In other words, they were "soft compromised" (discovered by unarmed civilians).

Luttrell then lays out his SEAL team's three options, "1. Kill the goatherds quietly with knives, and throw them off the cliff. 2. Kill them right where they were, and cover up the bodies. 3. Turn them loose, and 'get the hell out of here.'" Really, there are only two options (hiding or not hiding bodies is really the same choice). SEAL Team 10 voted, and chose option three, "don't kill the Afghans." Almost the entirety of Luttrell's story sets up this ethical dilemma, a dilemma designed to show that Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan gets Soldiers killed.

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

If only this were the case, Luttrell presents us with a false dichotomy. Practically no military situation only has two solutions; most have multiple--if not dozens--of solutions. Critics of our ROE, like Luttrell in Lone Survivor, only present two options of which one option is always, "Follow ROE, and die" and the other is, "Disobey ROE, and live/win the war."

SEAL Team 10 didn't have only two options on that hill in Konar. Kill the goat herders, or let them live are only the first two. They could have tied the goat herders up. (In the book, Marcus Luttrell says that their team did not have anything to bind up the locals. But they had belts, shoe laces, the Afghan's own clothing, and rifle slings. It still stuns me that a SEAL team went out without even a tiny bit of 550 cord or zip ties.) They could have taken the goat herders prisoner, and released them at Asadabad. They could have made the goat herders walk with them, then released them when a helicopter was inbound. They could have released the kid, but kept the others until they were safely away.

In his eyes, Luttrell believed he only had two options. Since he voted for "be killed," he blames the rules of engagement for the deaths of his friends. In the memoir, he says: "Was I afraid of these guys? No. Was I afraid of their possible buddies in the Taliban? No. Was I afraid of the liberal media back in the U.S.A.? Yes," and then continues ranting about liberals and the rules of engagement.

There is no simple, cut-and-dried reason why three SEALs died in Konar Province that day. Leadership of his team, leadership of the SEALs, US policy in Afghanistan, technological failures, communication lapses, a failed Afghan government, lack of Apache gunship support, and countless other reasons--including enemy action--are why nineteen SEALs died heroically on that day. Rules of Engagement, or its misunderstanding may have contributed, but it wasn't the sole cause.

(Luttrell's story was used by Capt. Rick Rubel (Ret. USN) of the Military Officer's Association of America as a classic ethical dilemma. His write up basically summarizes Luttrell's story, but his thoughts show that morally releasing the Afghans was the ethical thing to do. I am huge fan of case studies, like the business ones from Harvard Business Review, but they are almost always left open ended, searching for creative solutions, not an either or proposition.)

Apr 28

Whenever I hear a critic claim that Rules of Engagement (ROE) gets our Soldiers killed, I always want to scream, "Well, what's your [expletive] alternative? (If you want to know who the ROE critics are, check out my post “Why Leaders Make the ROE.”) Since ROE opponents rarely provide specific alternatives to the ROE, I am going to take their anti-ROE position to its (il)logical extreme.

Our current rules of engagement specify, in broad terms, that our Soldiers and Marines must positively identify targets as exhibiting hostile intent. That intent could be firing a weapon, or preparing to fire a weapon (including an IED), but hostile intent must be present; our Soldiers always have the right to self-defense.

So what is the direct opposite of our current ROE, the other end of the spectrum? It would be that any Soldier or Marine could target anyone they want, regardless of identification or hostility (short of intentionally shooting their own men). This ROE would not hold Soldiers as legally responsible for anyone they kill regardless of the circumstances.

Just pause and imagine this scenario.

Soldiers could drop as many 2,000 pound bombs on as many villages as they want. A Soldier could line up villagers and shoot them one by one to get answers. During a fire fight, any person moving, fleeing or running is a viable target, any person regardless of age, intent, or hostility. There would be no consequnces for our Soldiers actions.

Obviously, the “Free Fire ROE” is impossible. No one could support it. At a minimum, there have to be some rules to prevent needless civilian casualties, genocide and torture. ROE opponents must acknowledge at least some form of ROE. So while you can criticize the specifics of our current ROE, you can’t condemn the concept wholesale.

(The other obvious problem with the “Free Fire ROE” is that it removes all ability of commanders to control the fire of their men. Commanders need to control the the fight; ROE allows that.)

Is there a way to take a pro-ROE position to its extreme? There is. If Soldiers couldn't ever shoot anyone, that would hamstring an Army into paralysis. It would, but that is why you don't take things to extremes, and you have a reasonable ROE that keeps Soldiers and civilians alive.

The problem isn't ROE, it is bad ROE.

Apr 14

The Army loves football. Two sides face off, taking ground and battling to a violent finish, what's not to like?

I also love football. And today I want to connect it to counter-insurgency.

Most people watch football by "following the ball," meaning they focus on the player holding the football. They ignore, for the most part, the other players on the field. The quarterback takes the ball from the center, then throws it to a receiver down field, and the viewer watches those players the whole time. The camera follows the ball; so does the average viewer.

Why is this? Because the action is the exciting part of the play; its the sexy part. I mean, the player with the ball is the only one who can score. He's also the one who is going to get hit.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Regular viewers hardly ever watch the offensive linemen during a play. Even hardcore fans would struggle to name an offensive linemen. No one chooses linemen for their fantasy leagues. They're the unsung heroes of the gridiron, primarily because fans are too busy watching the ball. Every great run, and every great pass, has an offensive linemen creating the play. Watching the ball means you are missing the offensive lineman, the defense and the creation of the play.

Ok Michael, how does this relate to counter-insurgency?

The Army only watches the ball during counter-insurgencies. The ball in this case is the death of American Soldiers. The event that leads to that death, for example an IED, is only the end result of a long process. An IED ambush requires reconnaissance, logistics, intelligence, bomb-making, local support, information operations and finally, direct action. But both maneuver commanders and intelligence specialists primarily care about the final explosion, not the whole process. The IED explosion is like the touchdown, everything before that is the action away from the ball.

We spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, on countering IEDs at the point of impact. We notice explosions. We care about the so-called “kinetic” events. But those are like following the ball, not following the creation of the play.

Strategically, as a nation, we follow the ball--meaning the death of American Soldiers. That is really the only metric that the American public cares about. It is like tracking touchdowns, but no other statistic on the battlefield.

As a military, we get distracted by the sexy part of the insurgency--the IEDs--and we ignore the complex part of the insurgency--everything else. We have improved (read the Flynn report and the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual) but we have a long way to go.