Morale: How Lawyers Get You Killed


January 25, 2010:  The Taliban and drug gangs have hit a snag with their media campaign against the American and NATO use of smart bombs. For the last few years, the Taliban have been using human shields to protect themselves from the smart bombs. The civilian deaths that followed caused the foreign troops to change their ROE (Rules of Engagement), to limit the use of the bombs when human shields were in play. Civilian casualties, from smart bombs declined, and Afghans began to notice that even more civilians were being killed by Taliban bombs and attacks.

So the Taliban came up with a new idea; getting a ban on foreign troops raiding Afghan homes at night. The Taliban and drug gangs had no trouble persuading local journalists to run with this (bribes or death threats were applied), and now the Afghan media is full of heart wrenching tales of women and children terrified when American or NATO troops charge in after midnight. There were no stories published about how those night visits often catch bad guys asleep, and enables troops to make arrests without any gun battles. NATO has responded by issuing new rules restricting the use of night raids.

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest gripes combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have is the Escalation of Force (EOF) and Rules of Engagement (ROE) procedures they must follow when faced with enemy action, or the threat of enemy action. These rules have gotten more complex year by year, although there have been some attempts to simplify the complications (if that makes any sense.) Put simply, the ROE/EOF stuff is there to limit civilian casualties, while fighting a foe that wants dead civilians (for their propaganda impact). Al Qaeda even has an official name for this; "involuntary martyrs." The U.S. buzzword is "collateral damage."

 Naturally, there's a big difference between the ROE/EOF stuff that is regularly delivered to the troops (who are supposed to demonstrate that they have memorized them), and what actually happens in combat. For all the ROE/EOF exhortations directed at the troops, there is also an escape clause. That is, you are always allowed to use any force necessary to protect yourselves. This does not negate ROE/EOF, and if you kill a bunch of civilians, there will be an investigation. If you cannot make some kind of case that you fired in (what appeared to you at the time to be) self-defense, you will get punished. The troops know this, the brass know this. No one is sure if the lawyers, who are sometimes brought in to help out with the periodic ROE/EOF training sessions, know this. Lawyers are generally considered the enemy, since they tend to spend most of their time telling you what you cannot do in combat (whether you're fighting for your life or not.)

Troops who have spent more than a year in Iraq or Afghanistan have come to believe that the biggest problem with ROE/EOF is that the people who create this stuff have done a very bad job of explaining the cause and effect of it all. While the troops can understand that, "killing civilians" is usually counterproductive, the brass rarely go to any great lengths to explain the thinking behind the long list of ROE/EOF things you can, or cannot, do. There is a belief that the ROE/EOF is not well thought out, and the lawyers are sent in to lecture the troops in an attempt to hide that fact. Definitely a credibility gap here.





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