Another Perspective

Rules of Engagement Here and There

Taliban can feel safer than a toy gun user.

By 12.19.13


Historically, the rules by which our various armed forces play have differed depending on their location and the nature of their adversaries. Thus we find it appropriate to distinguish between the approach taken with foreign enemy combatants engaged by our troops on the battlefield, on the one hand, and the reaction of armed security personnel to possible civilian threats encountered in domestic settings, on the other.

Logically we want our warriors to kill the enemy on the battlefield. After all, we want them to win, and we want them to survive. At the same time, we find it sensible to expect restraint on the part of federal, state, and local security forces in their dealings with the civilian population on the home front.

People in free countries generally find these distinctions both desirable and self-evident. Today, however, they are increasingly topsy-turvy. For example, Taliban terrorists, who are war criminals by the standards long accepted among civilized countries, enjoy unprecedented protections from our soldiers. As a result, both our soldiers’ safety and their military mission to defeat the Taliban are jeopardized. Meanwhile, here at home, school children who wish to play soldier are often met with deadly force.

In his excellent book Honor and Betrayal, the subject of an earlier article of mine, author Patrick Robinson records the reactions of Navy SEALs to rules of engagement (ROE) that place American troops at unreasonable risk in the name of political correctness. Even during the Bush administration “U.S. armed forces were not permitted to open fire on known al-Qaeda killers until they themselves were fired upon.” Of course the enemy was very familiar with this restriction, leading SEALs to say, “You mean I’m not allowed to kill him until after he’s killed me?”

Unsurprisingly the rules constraining our troops have grown even more outrageous under President Obama. On December 5, the Washington Times quoted a retired American intelligence officer’s assessment that the rules of engagement put into effect in 2009 and 2010 “created hesitation and confusion for our war fighters.” Coincident with the implementation of these “radical” changes to the ROE, U.S. casualties “more than doubled.” The same officer opined that the “carnage will certainly continue as the already fragile and ineffective [rules] have been further weakened by the Obama administration as if they were playground rules.”

Under the current ROE, units engaged in firefights cannot call in air strikes to protect their positions unless they can “convince commanders — and lawyers — back at headquarters that no civilians would be harmed.” In the particularly fierce battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, former Army Captain William Swenson (who was awarded the Medal of Honor) was denied air support for hours as Taliban terrorists surrounded and attacked his troops’ position.

At Ganjgal, the Taliban forces were allowed to use one building as a “safe haven” from which they could fire on our troops — “safe,” because our command “would not target the building.” Captain Swenson said of this travesty, “we are using lawyers to make tactical decisions” that should be made by “commanders on the ground.” As one might expect, our warriors “say this chain-of-command bureaucracy has cost lives.”

And speaking of rules that cost lives, on the home front the ROE governing our increasingly militarized federal, state, and local security and law enforcement personnel are far less restrictive than those mentioned above. That’s right, believe it or not, the rules governing our military forces in deadly encounters with foreign enemy combatants are much more restrictive than those governing the SWAT team that responds when school children brandish toy guns on the playground.

In case you’re skeptical about that, let me help you out by offering some facts. In October, California police shot a 13-year old boy seven times in ten seconds, killing him, because they mistakenly believed the toy gun he was carrying was an “assault rifle.” Another 13-year-old boy shot and paralyzed by California police in December 2010 was carrying an “imitation gun” with an orange mark around the tip of the barrel, identifying it as a replica or toy. The officer who shot him said he did not see the orange marking.

In January 2012, an assistant school principal in Texas called police and reported that a student was “brandishing a black gun” in a hallway. The police warned the 15-year old to drop his gun and then shot him dead; he was carrying a BB gun that resembled a black Glock pistol. In 2007 an Arkansas policeman shot and killed a 12-year-old boy who made an “evasive” moved and appeared to be armed; the boy was carrying a toy gun. Also in 2007, a California police officer shot and killed a teenager who had an “imitation revolver” on the passenger side car seat.

Search for similar reports and you will find them and, of course, you’ll also find it is not only kids with toys who are among the unarmed citizens killed by our domestic protectors. 

Although I certainly believe that police should be able to use deadly force to protect themselves when threatened with death or serious injury, there seems to be a pattern of overreaction, of trigger-happy responses to ambiguous circumstances. And although I don’t propose that the police be subject to the irrational and irresponsible rules of engagement imposed on our combat troops in war zones, it is sobering to consider that, if they were, a number of innocent American teenagers would be alive today.

Domestic police and paramilitary personnel involved in incidents of this sort are authorized to use their sound judgment in difficult situations. This is appropriate. Moreover, after the fact inquiries can determine whether the apprehensions that led them to act were reasonable under all of the circumstances. This, too, is fair enough. But these domestic armed forces should also be well trained and disciplined, and incidents in which they kill kids with toy guns should be fewer and further between.

At the same time, it is outrageous that our combat troops are subject to rules that jeopardize their lives unnecessarily and unreasonably. Our troops should be free to use sound judgment in making decisions, on the ground in the thick of battle, about when air and artillery support are required, and when enemy strongholds should be fired upon or assaulted. Our fathers and grandfathers were trusted by their commanders and political leaders to make such decisions, and it is shameful to put our troops at risk by denying them the same latitude.

So, in the war zones, revise the rules and make them reasonable. Or alternatively, arm the lawyers who insist on making what Captain Swenson called tactical decisions, put them on the front lines under fire, and let them live and die by their own ridiculous rules.

At home, at least outside of domestic war zones where drug cartels and gangs roam and rule, rein in the Rambos. It is not unfair to expect police to display a fraction of the discipline and constraint shown by our military forces day in and day out. On the home front, we do not need — and should not want — militarized domestic security forces looming in every locale.

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About the Author

Ray V. Hartwell, III was a Washington lawyer and a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. He died on February 7, 2014, in Anniston, Alabama.