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The Rules of Engagement are Democratic, And Thank God For That

“Most troops are not willing to die to help their boss avoid some unfavorable press.” 
    - Colonel Richard Kemp, The Journal of International Security Affairs

“But these [the ROEs, liberals] are the problems of the modern US combat soldier, the constant worry about overstepping the mark and an American media that delights in trying to knock us down. Which we have done nothing to deserve. Except, perhaps, loving our country and everything it stands for...This entire business of modern war crimes, as identified by the liberal wings of politics and the media...well ...the public does not have that right to know.”
   - Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor

It’s a common complaint about the Rules of Engagement: they only exist because “military leaders are afraid of bad public relations.”

They are absolutely right. Military leaders do fear bad publicity. I think that’s a good thing.

Military leaders should care about the opinions of our citizens. And not just Americans, but the opinions of the civilians in countries we occupy, and the citizens of the world. In our democracy, our military serves at the behest of the governed, and thank God they do. Some Warfighters--like Luttrell--want the rest of the country to turn away and let “them do their jobs” when they deploy. In a democracy, that is impossible.

But it isn’t just the opinions of Americans that matter. When our troops deploy to a foreign nation, public opinion matters more than almost anything else. In state-on-state war, the enemy is easy to find, and the populations of the nations involved are on one side or the other. But we haven’t fought a war like that in decades. In modern, messy counter-insurgencies, winning over the civilian population is the goal, not the destruction of the enemy’s forces.

So we care about bad PR in insurgencies. Not doing so is quitting before we get started.

We also care about preventing insurgencies and state-on-state wars in the first place, so we have to care about the thoughts of the citizens of the world. Our military is probably America’s most prominent ambassador around the world. It certainly gets the most press coverage. Our success in Afghanistan and Iraq will strengthen our position internationally. If we win, but alienate other people, I mean, that’s the definition of pyrrhic victory.

Finally, Americans care about how we win wars--not just if we win. Frankly, the only alternative is that our military would not care what Americans think, believe or feel. That just seems like a dangerous road to travel down. So if our citizens--in whose name the military fights--don’t want to see dead children, torture or murder on its behalf, then so be it.

Military leaders constantly praise duty. Following the Rules of Engagement and the will of the American people is a part of that duty. (Think MacArthur at West Point, or the Army Values)

The military cares about bad public relations. And we should thank God they do, because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be in a democracy.

nine comments

I love this post. It gets at something that annoys me, that people think war falls outside the realm of common morality. Well, this just isn’t true.

War may be ugly, but if you fight it immorally, you’re still being immoral.

This goes deeply into Just War theory again, I like it. This post kind of makes the assumption the American public has an accurate enough perception (or enough interest) of what goes on well enough to pass judgement on what is going on.

You may have different impressions and have first hand experience with military-press relations considering the 173rd´s deployment was better covered than most units. I would definitely like to hear your opinion of any interactions your platoon had with the press (if any did occur).

The US military has always been wary of to much press access in their operating areas since Vietnam where the very accurate coverage of the Vietnam war has repeatedly been blamed as a factor for the US losing in Vietnam.

I don´t know if current military operations would necessarily benefit from more reasonable transparency either. Support for the mission in Afghanistan among the general American populace is not polling extraordinarily high right now (I´m not even sure if there are recent polls for Iraq), and while more transparency could create more trust for the military as an institution, when people learn about whats going on from a direct source (instead of having it filtered through the military which is fudging the number of civilian casualties a little bit apparently) it is not painting a pretty picture.

War is like an ugly troll by its very nature. Keeping it locked in a closet out of sight from the general populace will always create more consent among the electorate than learning and reading about the ugliness and having to confront it.

Having a more reasonable ROE will cut down on the casualties on both sides over the long term, it is a better strategy to fight a counterinsurgency, and it helps reduce (it will never eliminate) the amount of bad press on a war, but it will never really completely get rid of the ugliness of war. To a degree its just putting the ugly troll on a weight loss program, dressing it in a mini-skirt, and putting make-up on it (forgive me for the ridiculous analogy).

One positive aspect to an electorate being exposed to the ugliness of war is that it reduces a nation´s appetite for war, I see evidence of that fairly regularly here in Germany. It limits a nations desire to go to war to wars of absolute necessity. I don´t mean the overused and vague “national security” reasons used as an excuse for everything in the US nowadays, I mean wars that are absolutely and unquestionably necessary to the survival of a nation and the wellbeing of its populace.

Sorry for the long posts, I just have a lot of thoughts on the subject and I enjoy reading your thoughts. I know it can be a pain to keep posting while you´re deployed, but keep up the good work.

@ Chris C – Post as long as you like, you had a lot of good points.

“This post kind of makes the assumption the American public has an accurate enough perception (or enough interest) of what goes on well enough to pass judgement on what is going on.” This is actually a really good point I hadn’t thought of.

But it goes to the point. Some argue there should be less media access. I’ll never believe that.

War is ugly, no matter how nice it is waged, but that doesn’t mean yo can hide it.

Chris I think that even if the military tries to hide the violent nature of war, it will never fully succeed. Journalists can access any warzone we occupy for extended time. Embedding makes it certainly easier, but you can’t hide that many dead bodies.

As for Just War theory, it is what keeps me going. I just wonder every day how far away I am or how close I am to the ideals it espouses.

@ Eric, It is hard to argue against the US military releasing more information not of immediate operational value. I think people should have a right to know how their taxpayer money is being spent and how the foreign policy of elected officials is being executed.

@ Michael, I think you´re definitely being proven right currently. US media has been unprecedentedly critical of Afghanistan in the past couple of months, partially because they´re getting their information from more than just the DoD´s public affairs offices lately as well as taking more stories from freelance and unembedded journalists.

Embed slots can definitely be controversial, if a journalist creates a piece that annoys the DoD you can kiss your embed slot goodbye. I´m wondering if the military is going to start adapting to the fact that it doesn´t necessarily have a monopoly on information and making serious adjustments within their public affairs units and liaisons, or whether public affairs will still be run like psyops.

I found you while looking up Rules of Engagement for an essay I am currenty writing. I hadn’t previously thought of its relation to theory on just war. That’s something I’ll have to add to my research. Thank you for the well written article.

Brianna B- I am glad we could help. If you need any other help, email us at info (at) onviolence (dot) com.

Chris, the Army/Military/Pentagon will NEVER adapt to the fact that they can’t control all information. They can completely control the lives of their troops (kind of) but they will never admit they can control all information, or stop trying to.

@ Michael C, RE: “They can completely control the lives of their troops (kind of) but they will never admit they can control all information, or stop trying to.

One of my MS professors, an MI MAJ, has joked that basically for every piece of intel gleaned – every rumor, every SIGACTS report, every snippet of info read on a handout picked up from a gutter alongside Disney Drive – the SOP isn’t to determine among all of them which pieces of information should be classified, but rather which ones shouldn’t be; basically, when in doubt, classify it.

With the WikiLeaks fiasco, some of the documents (albeit, I’ve only read a fraction) were sensitive in nature, but for the most part the most “sensitive” information that was revealed were national security-threatening revelations such as “insurgents found with North Korean RPGs.” I hardly think releasing such “classified” information would be harmful to the war effort; In reality, I think it would benefit the war effort. At the very least, it would show that the military is actually trying to be open.