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Another ROE False Dilemma

During Lone Survivor Week, I argued that Marcus Luttrell’s memoir is really just a 300 page ethical dilemma. And that I hate dilemmas, especially those that try to prove a political point.

In Luttrell’s case, the political agenda is our rules of engagement, following a long line of conservative commentators who make up hypotheticals to show the “stupidity” of our rules of engagement. Way back during my infantry training at Fort Benning, we discussed rules of engagement, and I heard an ethical dilemma designed to prove why they are wrong. Today, I am going to simply tell the story as it was told to me. On Wednesday, I will show why it is total malarkey.

The scene: downtown Baghdad. The time: before 2006. A Marine platoon is pinned down by a sniper and they can’t locate his firing position. Fire rains down on their positions when suddenly, from the front of the building, a woman emerges.

She goes outside, looks at all the Marines on the street, and goes back inside. The sniper fire instantly gets more accurate.

The woman comes out again. And again. Each time she leaves the building, the sniper fire closes in on the Marine platoon.

The Marines are trapped in an ethical dilemma, the speaker told me. They could shoot the woman, but they would be violating the rules of engagement because she didn't have a weapon. Or they could try to assault the building, but then risk massive casualties. The dilemma: shoot the woman and violate ROE, or let your own men get killed. The key? The men on the ground knew, for sure, that she was spotting for the enemy sniper.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does it show how “stupid” restrictive rules of engagement are? Does this cause unnecessary risk to our Soldiers and Marines? I’ll provide my answer (No) on Wednesday.

five comments

I’ve read/seen this type of anecdote in multiple memoirs, and movies—it was in the Hurt Locker—the unwinnable situation. We easily could have plucked a passage from a memoir, but a I like the idea that this is the story Soldiers tell each other.


Excellent ethical dilemma. I enjoy the hypothetical. But as I read this, my mind didn’t jump to how ineffective the ROE are, but wondered why the trapped Marines lacked none lethal weaponry to disable the spotter.

I wasn’t aware that spotters aren’t to be engaged if they are unarmed. Aren’t our spotters armed only with binoculars when they are actively spotting?


The problem with this post is that it will jump from one end to the other.

Matt, you bring up an excellent point, but one that may cause most everyone who reads it to lose their minds. Soldiers HATE non-lethal weapons. Their job is to kill, don’t tell them to do otherwise.

I agree with you, and I’m a little upset you beat me to the punch. Neverthless, i expect this thread to explode now.


I thought spotters and forward observers were legitimate targets in the ROE, atleast in Iraq in 2006 (although the ROE was constantly changing sometimes causing uncertainty to what was and wasn´t allowed in the ROE at the time). Yes they have several options, they could have just popped smoke and got out of there if they didn´t need to stay there, but I don´t think that that situation was a ROE dilemma even if it is an ethical dilemma.


@ Chris – They certainly were legitimate targets during the invasion.