« Obama isn't a Feckles… | Home | Let's Kill Women and … »

What We Talk About When We Talk About Loosening ROE

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Obviously Republican candidates want to get the support of soldiers. They want to be loved by our heroes sooooo bad. One of the easiest ways to pander, er, support, this demographic is to lambast our military’s rules of engagement (ROE):

Marco Rubio: “I think the United States military is operating under rules of engagement that are too strict and that do not allow us to pursue victory. When I'm president, that will change.”

Jeb Bush: “Get the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all.”

Ted Cruz: "We need to define the enemy. And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we're not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs.”

As Slate summed it up, “'Rubio, Bush, and Cruz all said they’d loosen the rules of engagement that supposedly constrain U.S. forces...But they didn’t specify how they would do this...or what effect the loosening might have."

Well that “effect” is what we are talking about today. (And have touched on in the past.)

The rules of engagement are restrictions on when soldiers, sailors, and airmen can open fire. At its most basic, it means clearly identifying a target as your intended target before you fire your weapon, call for artillery, launch a torpedo, or drop a bomb.

ROE has two purposes. In high-intensity warfare, ROE is vital to ensure you don’t kill your fellow soldiers. That’s right: the biggest reason ROE exists is to protect your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from being killed. If you don’t clearly know your target, in maneuver warfare it is all too easy to kill a fellow soldier. (Which is probably not the effect politicians want when they say we need to loosen ROE.)

Second, rules of engagement coordinate the fire of your soldiers in accordance with the commander’s intent. In a simple example, think of soldiers lying in an ambush. In that situation, the ROE says, “Don’t shoot until the commander fires.” In a historical example, think of Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg. He had his soldiers both hold their fire--so that a single volley devastated the Confederates--and later had them fix bayonets--which made it impossible to fire their weapons. In both cases, they had to wait for his command to fire on the enemy, risking their own lives as they did.

Critics of ROE broadly would, in some sense, forbid officers from being able to make such orders. If the Civil War had today’s media and politicians, would they be criticizing Chamberlain’s decision to, literally, prevent his soldiers from shooting, sacrificing many lives in the short term, to win the war in the long term?

Our current wars aren’t high-intensity, but the need for ROE is just as important. In a counterinsurgency, the rules of engagement ensure that amped-up, trained-for-high-intensity-warfare soldiers and marines only kill military targets. In layman’s terms, non-military targets are “civilians”. That’s right, innocent people. Losing them loses the war. Having ROE isn’t just a legal requirement, it helps commanders on the ground win the war.

Republican candidates--led by some milblogs in the conservative web-o-sphere--disagree that stringent ROE wins the war. Their theory is more along the lines of “the more bad guys you kill, the better, even if you take some innocent people with them”. So the biggest effect of loosening ROE is that you kill more non-military targets (and remember, potentially fellow soldiers in coalition forces, like our Afghan and Iraqi partners).

Some Republicans think this keeps “the troops” safe because they can defend themselves easier. Like the Civil War example above, the troops are probably safer in the short term, though the civilians around them are dramatically less safe. Killing some innocent civilians turns a lot more against you. Once you lose the population, you lose the war. The longer the war goes on, the longer all soldiers are in more danger.   

A cynic would take it a step further. Far from just hoping that the number of military target exceed the civilians killed, one could argue that, in fact, Republicans don’t care if they kill innocent civilians. Yes, there are some Republican politicians who want dead women and children in foreign countries. And to get that honest assessment, you have to turn to Donald Trump:

“'We’re fighting a very politically correct war,' he said in response to a question about avoiding civilian casualties. “And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

And that is such a big nugget, such an immoral argument, we’ll have to debunk it in future posts.