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World War II's Rules of Engagement: Band of Brothers "Replacements"

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

In the Band of Brothers episode “Replacements”, Easy Company cautiously approaches the town of Nuenen, having already lost a lieutenant to sniper fire. An old man leans out a window and shouts at them, “Get away, get away,” in French, giving away Easy Company’s position. Why didn’t the U.S. soldiers shoot him?

The Rules of Engagement.

At the end of the episode, the Allies bomb Einhoven. Why could they?

The Rules of Engagement.

Most importantly, for today’s post, starting at minute 31:00, the central character of “Replacements”, Big Sarge Denver “Bull” Randleman motions to Sergeant Martin to tell a British tank to fire a few shells at a civilian house. This could collapse the house on a hidden German Tiger tank waiting in ambush.

The British soldier demurs, “I can’t. My orders are no unnecessary destruction of property...if I can’t see the bugger I can’t very well shoot him, can I?”

Why didn’t the British tank fire?

The Rules of Engagement.

While Easy Company watched the bombing of Einhoven from a distance and the old man didn’t alert the Germans to the company’s position, the last incident hurt. The German soldiers, and especially their tanks, wreaked utter havoc on the British-American force. They destroyed two British tanks, killed multiple Americans, and eventually forced the company into full retreat. Easy Company lost the skirmish.

In other words, what a fantastic argument for the inanity of ROE. Isn’t this a perfect example of ROE in action, getting our soldiers killed unnecessarily and preventing us from winning wars? Some uptight sergeant can’t see a lurking Tiger tank in his looking glasses so he dooms the entire operation?

Hardly. Easy Company failed to take the town of Nuenen because they didn’t have enough men or tanks. The Germans held reinforced positions in a strong defense with armor for reinforcements. But forget all that: they had more men and the element of surprise.

I just re-watched this particular scene to make sure I understood it right. And based solely on this episode--not the actual history of this company-sized action--no one should draw the conclusion that ROE cost any soldiers their lives. Even if the British had started firing at the vague position of the Tiger tank, they probably still would have missed. (The British sergeant is right in one regard: it is exceptionally hard to shoot what you cannot see.) Even if the British tank had hit the building next to the Tiger tank, this wouldn’t have trapped or destroyed the Tiger tank, it simply would have bought the British a few extra second to try to shoot the Tiger first, which likely still would have survived the encounter. (And the editing is unclear, so I cannot tell if the Germans had additional tanks in reserve, at which point the entire situation is moot.)

Why debate the tactics of one specific battle in one episode of World War II? Because opponents of restrictive ROE use tactical situations like the one above to argue that ROE, not bad leadership, planning or even enemy action, gets our soldiers killed. Luttrell argued this in Lone Survivor. A dad in this Los Angeles Times article claims ROE killed his son. A congressmen says ROE kills our troops in Afghanistan. This Facebook page has article after article allegedly showing ROE killing our troops.

And just last week two parents at a rally at the Republican National Convention blamed President Obama’s ROE for their Navy SEAL son’s death.

Opponents of strict ROE look at this scene in Band of Brothers and say, “Look, it got our soldiers killed!” They hear a rumor from a friend whose son knew a guy who heard that soldiers in Afghanistan can’t shoot terrorists because of ROE. Frequently, the contemporary opponents of any and all rules of engagements--who treat it like a monolithic object it is not--claim that in, “Dubya Dubya two, we didn’t tie our soldiers hands behind their backs!

By watching this episode carefully, though, we see the fallacy of all those arguments. First, our soldiers in World War II fought under rules of engagement. And yes, it was less stringent than our current wars, but those wars were much more violent. ROE wasn’t the most dangerous thing in combat, moving was. Artillery was. Sniper fire was.

But go back to that German civilian who tried to wave the Americans away. Opponents of ROE would let American soldiers shoot the old man for trying to talk to them if they felt threatened. Not only would that have done nothing, it would have eroded the popular support for the Americans and the British. Losing popular support could have ruined the peace that has since lasted seventy years. Rules of engagement might not have helped win the war, but it helped create a lasting peace.

Finally, the sergeant in the British tank misinterpreted the rules of engagement. Destroying the house isn’t “unnecessary” if American scouts have spotted a German target. That’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation of his orders. So under the rules of engagement, the British tank should have fired. If we have to condemn all sound plans because someone misunderstands them, well, we have to get rid of all plans.

I blame Hollywood, partly, for ROE’s bad reputation. Just today, Eric C and I watched The Expendables II. (Which, in all other respects, may be the greatest film in film history.) In a throwaway monologue, Liam Hemsworth’s character retells a (completely unrealistic) story where all his buddies die in Afghanistan because they can’t get air support. Tight rules of engagement make the perfect villain: a bureaucratic rule that gets soldiers killed. Since it is such an easy villain, it pops up all the time.

As I have written before, tight rules of engagement help win wars, and Hollywood’s simplistic portrayal in movies doesn’t help that argument.

(Over the years, I've (Michael C) written about the rules of engagement plenty of times, including some of our first posts. I wanted to collect them all in one place. To read other posts about ROE, please look below:

Arcs of Fire

Dropped Weapons, Dropped Opportunities

Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires

Operation Judgement Day

Why Leaders Make the ROE

ROE - Reducto Ad Absurdum

A 300 Page Ethical Dilemma

BTW, Insurgents Have Rules of Engagement As Well

If They Don't Fight Like Us, Why Do They Use Our Rules of Engagement?

Another ROE False Dilemma

Terrorist Rules of Engagement Pt. 2

 My Answer to Monday's Hypothetical

The Rules of Engagement Are Democratic, and Thank God for That

ROE Link Drop

Getting Around the Rules of Engagement: Observer Training

Guest Post: Rules of En"game"ment

five comments

Seriously, that monologue from The Expendables II was so ridiculous Michael C started laughing out loud in the theater. Wasn’t the only time in that movie where that happened though.

Of all the characters in BoB, Sgt Randleman most reminds me of my men. Particularly, an amalgamation of two of my sergeants.

And yes, I did laugh out loud at The Expendables.

I wasn’t able to go through all your back posts so forgive me if I missed it, but did you guys read Ed Darack’s Marine Corps Gazette article about Luttrell? According to the article, both Luttrell and the Navy lied about the incident.

Sorry about that gentlemen. I apologize for being lazy and not hitting enter often enough and seeing that you guys are all over Luttrell and the actual facts of the matter.

I read the “Dubya Dubya two, we didn’t tie our soldiers hands behind their backs” link above. It’s both fascinating and discouraging how people think. In particular, a section about U.S. troops in Afghanistan being awarded metals for “courageous restraint.” This meaning for holding fire to save civilian lives or as the author of the page describes it: “crawl[ing] into the fetal position and walk[ing] away from a battle with an unfired weapon.”

There’s a sharp contrast between what is and what is perceived. A difference between showing restraint to guard innocent human life and cowering from an enemy. I realize the that the post is meant to outrage me, but the author missed his mark. I’m upset that he thinks guaranteeing the safety of civilians is akin to retreat or cowardice. That, in my opinion is a core misunderstanding of the very purpose of our military: that they don’t exist to go get the bad guys, but to protect the innocent.