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ROE- Reducto ad Absurdum

Whenever I hear a critic claim that Rules of Engagement (ROE) gets our Soldiers killed, I always want to scream, "Well, what's your [expletive] alternative? (If you want to know who the ROE critics are, check out my post “Why Leaders Make the ROE.”) Since ROE opponents rarely provide specific alternatives to the ROE, I am going to take their anti-ROE position to its (il)logical extreme.

Our current rules of engagement specify, in broad terms, that our Soldiers and Marines must positively identify targets as exhibiting hostile intent. That intent could be firing a weapon, or preparing to fire a weapon (including an IED), but hostile intent must be present; our Soldiers always have the right to self-defense.

So what is the direct opposite of our current ROE, the other end of the spectrum? It would be that any Soldier or Marine could target anyone they want, regardless of identification or hostility (short of intentionally shooting their own men). This ROE would not hold Soldiers as legally responsible for anyone they kill regardless of the circumstances.

Just pause and imagine this scenario.

Soldiers could drop as many 2,000 pound bombs on as many villages as they want. A Soldier could line up villagers and shoot them one by one to get answers. During a fire fight, any person moving, fleeing or running is a viable target, any person regardless of age, intent, or hostility. There would be no consequnces for our Soldiers actions.

Obviously, the “Free Fire ROE” is impossible. No one could support it. At a minimum, there have to be some rules to prevent needless civilian casualties, genocide and torture. ROE opponents must acknowledge at least some form of ROE. So while you can criticize the specifics of our current ROE, you can’t condemn the concept wholesale.

(The other obvious problem with the “Free Fire ROE” is that it removes all ability of commanders to control the fire of their men. Commanders need to control the the fight; ROE allows that.)

Is there a way to take a pro-ROE position to its extreme? There is. If Soldiers couldn't ever shoot anyone, that would hamstring an Army into paralysis. It would, but that is why you don't take things to extremes, and you have a reasonable ROE that keeps Soldiers and civilians alive.

The problem isn't ROE, it is bad ROE.

seven comments

People are still going to argue that the ROE we have is bad, and although many wouldn’t explicitly argue for the alternative you describe, they are de facto arguing for it.


Sensible commentary on ROE. I think those who advocate NO ROE might look back in history at the conditions that resulted in the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war. It’s also important to realize that ROE should not function in isolation from key social elements that should be part of soldiers’ lives (but aren’t always) like good leadership/top platoon commander etc who can distinguish mistakes from crimes and treat them accordingly etc.

Some of precursors and conditions leading to the Mylai massacre included:

l.the experience of multiple casualties shortly prior to when the platoon (it might have been more than one although publications have focused only on one) went amok.

2. Serious tension between a commander, respected by his men (Medina) and one who was hated by his men and with good reason. Indeed, the men talked of fragging William Calley even before the massacre took place.
3. Authorization – largely informal from above, emphasizing body count, for example, as the key to promotion. Also policies/language emphasizing “free fire zones,” “search and destroy” missions and so forth provided an atmosphere that normalizes the routine violation of ROE and killing of anyone who moves (and you can make women and children move if you scare them enough).
4. Routinization – Treating of civilian deaths in a routine ways via the same old daily paperwork in which such deaths are counted as Vietcong; the normalization of killing unarmed civilians and counting them as Vietcong to increase the body count.
5. Dehumanization – of the civilian population – I don’t know how to get around this one in war because soldiers must dehumanize to kill in order to neutralize guilt. So ROE helps direct the acts of the killers that the military must develop in war in the service of the mission rather than its destruction (i.e. alienating the civilian population if they should become the victims).
6. The issue of Vietcong blending with members of the civilian population who had no choice but to provide food when the Vietcong were passing through, whether or not they were neutral in the battle or supportive of either side. So from a soldier’s perspective, all are the enemy and how can you tell them apart when Vietcong dress as civilians some of the time any way.
7. The fact that Calley was allowed to lead the platoon despite his truly ugly history created a disaster waiting to happen particularly when Medina was not present to overrule his command in many field missions (Medina came in a little later in this one and killed someone he said he thought had a grenade. He did not participate in the massacre it appears).
8. It’s interesting that the soldiers involved kept telling the story over and over again so a lot of people heard about it and yet, when Helicopter Pilot Hugh Thompson attempted to write his report, the massacre was for a long time covered up… but that is getting beyond the issue of ROE.

At any rate, ROE is necessary not only to minimize collateral damage but also to save soldiers from themselves. Except for a few psychopaths, soldiers retrospectively tend not to be very happy when they realize that they’ve killed unarmed and “innocent” civilians. Indeed, the mental duress of cumulative such incidents is probably a contributing factor to depression, PTSD etc.

Check out Blackhearts- platoon’s descent into madness in the Triangle of Death in Iraq for additional conditions contributing criminal violations of ROE.

In Iraq there is the whole other issue that goes well beyond ROE. We feed with money one or other relatively powerful tribal leader, sheik or whatever, and that person, maybe in a different AO uses the COIN win hearts and minds money to support terrorists planting roadside bomb. Heartbreaking contradictions and convolutions of complicated war.

O.K. I got into a rant. I’ll shut up.


It always comes back to leadership. ROE is often portrayed as a limitation that makes it more diffcult to accomplish the mission. In COIN especially, however, good ROE and following that ROE supports mission accomplishment. I believe one of GEN McCrystal’s questions that leaders should ask themselves every day is whether they created more insurgents than they eliminated. When ROE is communicated to the troops as an obstacle to the mission, they will feel justified in looking for the legal loopholes. However, if communicated as an extension of commander’s intent, they will be more likely to use good judgement in application.


@ Jaylo – I just read the chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s outliers on plane crashes, and your list of reasons reads very similarly to the list of things that have to go wrong for massacres to occur.

@ Phil – That’s the way every commander should phrase ROE. I’m convinced that dring the invasions and the first few years of the War in iraq, they weren’t phrased this way.


On a side note, I heard Capt. Thompson speak once. He is a brave man to do what he did. Really inspiring.


I never had that opportunity. But his moral and physical courage and the risks he took were extraordinary.


Is that the current ROE, and what has people mad? I mean to have a debate on this you really have to know the nuts and bolts of the ROE, and of course there is always a grey area. Should a car speeding toward a checkpoint be shot at? What about a car that approaches or doesnt´t get out of the way of a convoy and gets inside its 100 meter bubble? What about a fat man in bulky clothes walking up to your squad with a cell phone in his hand? Determining hostile intent is indeed the trick, and thats a tricky thing to do. Ultimately regardless of the ROE, it will normally be split second gut decisions that determine people´s lives and deaths in a non-conventional war.