Leadership: December 6, 2000


Rules of Engagement; Peacetime soldiering is much less tolerant of mistakes than in wartime. This fear of error has produced the justly maligned, feared and ever expanding "Rules of Engagement." Or ROE for short. Now ROEs are not unknown in wartime, but there they are meant as general guidelines that the troops can modify as the situation dictates. It's quite different in peacetime. Strict adherence to peacetime ROEs have also been quite fatal for the troops involved. 

The main purpose of peacetime ROEs is to avoid any diplomatically embarrassing incidents. Since most peacetime soldiering involves some sort of peacekeeping, the ROEs are set up to prevent the troops from harming local civilians, even if it's a matter of self defense. This became an issue when a Marine barracks was blown up in Beirut in 1983 and nearly 250 marines were killed. This was the result of ROEs that violated seven standard security procedures all units in a combat zone are supposed to use. Had the Marines followed their own security rules the tragedy would almost certainly have been avoided. Consider what was ignored. First, the troops were all living in one location. Standard procedure is to disperse people as much as possible when in a combat zone. There was also no inner security in the form of a truck proof barrier. Nor were the inner zone guards allowed to load their weapons. In addition, there was no outer zone security, the outer zone posts were manned by Lebanonese troops, with no Marines present even as "observers." Moreover, there was no long range monitoring of the outer zone by troops with binoculars. And intelligence processing was deficient, for information on the planned truck bombing was available but had not been passed on to the Marines. Finally, the commander of the Marines was at the end of a long and complex a chain of command. It was not entirely clear who was in charge. Actually, the State Department was calling the shots. Which was ironic, as before World War II, the marines were sent into so many nations for diplomatic reasons that they were called "State Department troops." But those were different times. Mass media now magnifies, and often distorts, any violent incidents that involve U.S. troops overseas. Arm chair generals and eager pundits looking for a newsworthy angle are quick to jump on "trigger happy" American soldiers. Beirut in the 1980s was a wild place, with numerous heavily armed militias shooting at each other, and anyone else that got in their way. Left to their own devices, the marines would have had little trouble defending themselves. But with most of their self defense tactics forbidden by the ROE, the terrorists got in.

Despite all the money being thrown at the military in the 1980s, nothing was learned from the Beirut tragedy. This became obvious, to the military if not to the media, when American troops poured into Saudi Arabia in 1990. Many non-combat units had overlooked weapons training, even those these outfits could expect to run into armed Iraqis during a fluid desert battle. So as units were ordered to the Middle East, remedial weapons training was ordered, lest there be the risk of embarrassing news stories about untrained U.S. troops. However, once the troops got to Saudi Arabia, they found that, while they had weapons, the ammunition was locked up and tightly guarded, often in out of the way storage areas. In fact, many of the first U.S. troops on the scene did not have any ammunition for their rifles. When they finally did, they were told not to break the seals on the ammo boxes unless orders came from on high. All this obsession with keeping the troops away from live ammunition had two effects. First, it hurt morale. The troops considered themselves well trained professionals, yet here they were being treated as a bunch of irresponsible louts. Second, there were several alerts that Iraqi commandoes were operating in the area. Good thing the Iraqis never tried anything so bold, for they would have found most U.S. troops (except for a few armed guards, who could not actually load their weapons without orders) armed but without ready access to ammunition.

Even during combat, troops were often ordered to unload all weapons, with officers going around to verify that the unit was "clean." An accident could prevent someone from getting promoted to general. So precautions had to be taken. Only when in close proximity with the enemy were the troops allowed to proceed with loaded weapons. Of course, the enemy doesn't always cooperate and sometimes shows up when you don't expect him. We were lucky this didn't happen in the Gulf War. 

In the Balkans, U.S. troops are confined to their bases when not on duty. No alcohol or off duty contact with locals is allowed. American soldiers are ridiculed by other peacekeeping troops because of these "safety measures" and the lager proportion of time U.S. troops spent on self-defense. Not only were these ROEs making American peacekeepers less effective, but depressing their morale and familiarity with the locals as well. 
The ROEs showed up again when the U.S. destroyer Cole steamed into the Yemen harbor of Aden to refuel. Armed guards were posted around the ship in case any terrorists showed up. But their rifles were unloaded, and the guards were ordered not to load and fire unless fired on first. Very sporting, unless you happen to be the sailor trying to load your weapon while being fired on.

ROEs are alive and well, but while these procedures keep the politicians happy and the media quiet, it gets the people in uniform killed. If you can't trust your troops with live ammunition, then don't send them into harm's way.


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