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We Can't Shoot Bomb Planters? Fine By Me

A few months back, the founders of a Facebook page called “RoE.USMilitary”--a page ostensibly dedicated to “exposing” the truth about rules of engagement (which has slowly descended into calls for the military to arrest President Obama on charges of treason. No seriously, they advocate that.)--sent us an email about ROE. Reading their Facebook page, I got dragged back down the ROE rabbit hole. I could write post after post explaining the logic and necessity of strict, well-followed rules of engagement, rebutting the weak arguments presented on that page.

To save myself the time, I want to limit my response to one question they asked me:

“Of course we shouldn't ‘torture’ prisoners but why are we taking so many prisoners? Are you aware that our troops can catch someone planting a BOMB and they cannot engage?”

This sentence is even more dramatic if you shout “bomb” (BOMB!), since it is in all caps. Oh, and it is completely, 100% wrong.

Like most anti-ROE rhetoric, the above flight-of-fancy completely ignores common military sense and exaggerates the harms of the rules of engagement. In only two sentences!

1. This isn’t a true statement. Let’s just get that out of the way. Rules of engagement are classified so that the enemy cannot plan attacks directly around them. The sources of Barbara’s information are probably misreading those same rules of engagement. I know this because drones, planes, snipers, and ground forces can all engage insurgents burying IEDs. However, even if this were the case...

2. Commanders on the ground control the fire of their men. Otherwise combat would be chaos. Are anti-ROE advocates arguing that squad leaders, platoon leaders and company commanders cannot issue shoot or don’t shoot orders? In a world without ROE, that is exactly what would happen.

The results would be disastrous. If soldiers could--and they would if they could--fire every time they felt threatened, the number of friendly fire incidents would increase dramatically. (I might have to write up a personal experience post where, during a training exercise, I watched this happen.) In short, leaders at every level--up to theater commanders--have the ability to control the fire of their men. This is basic military 101 and it applies to U.S. forces and insurgents.

3. In an intelligence war, capturing insurgents makes more sense than killing them. Pirates of the Caribbean is right, “Dead men tell no tales.” Captured insurgents provide a wealth of intelligence and opportunities. Instead of capturing an insurgent, the military should trail him back to his house, then track the insurgent who pays him. In maneuver warfare, firepower defeats the enemy. In an insurgency, intelligence does.

As our military learned over the last ten years, bomb planters are not the issue. With unemployment in the 30-40% range, finding someone in Iraq or Afghanistan to dig a hole for five dollars is a cinch. The key is finding the bomb makers, insurgent leaders and logistics hubs. Of course, if you kill every single bomb planter, you can’t interrogate them to find out who they work for. Which will help you lose the war.

4. Anyway, we can’t respond to every IED with overwhelming firepower. Using massive firepower to respond to every single IED incident caused the insurgency in Iraq. Far from “inspiring fear” or “enforcing our will on the enemy”, these heavy handed tactics inflamed the local population. (In general, people dislike firefights, especially firefights involving foreigners.) So we can’t engage every bomb planter with every weapon available...that’s a form of ROE.

5. More than anything, though, this story doesn’t even make sense logically. While it seems bad on the surface--”My oh my, we can’t engage people planting bombs.”--who really cares about a buried IED we already know about? The most dangerous--actually the only dangerous IEDs--are the ones the U.S. military doesn’t know about.

In the real world, the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan spotted plenty of people putting in IEDs. It either killed or captured them. Either way, an IED the coalition forces know about is much less dangerous than one we don’t. Dramatically so.

At their core, rules of engagement are orders that leaders give to their subordinates to control their actions in combat. Phrased like that, they don’t seem so bad, do they?

sixteen comments

This is why I can’t do social media anymore. As in, I can’t watch it. I have too many ‘friends’ who are convinced of the wildest conspiracies or government plots.

It seems to me the issue in the hysterical statement about IED planters is actually more about detainee management than rules of engagement. When you fight I figure you have the following options:

1. Kill everybody. Under no circumstances ever leave anyone who isn’t a confirmed ‘friendly’ in anything other than a state of parrot-like deadness.

2. Treat everyone you catch as a prisoner of war. Hold them for the duration of hostilities and treat them in accordance with the relevant international treaties and conventions.

3. Forced disappearance. Employ clandestine prisons, render captives to foreign detention centres, and never acknowledge their existence.

4. Try in situ. Turn captives over to the local legal system.

5. Try at home. Bring captives back to domestic soil, try them in accordance with domestic laws, and detain them in domestic facilities for the duration of their sentence.

6. Let everyone go.

There may be variations on the options – Diplock courts, for example, are a wrinkle on option 5, but there aren’t really any other distinct options. Some of these options are flat out illegal under current western laws. Others are politically unpalatable. But in any event there needs to be clear direction on what to do with the first person who throws up their hands, and all subsequent people who surrender, be it voluntarily or not. Not everyone has to agree with that decision, but they all have to abide by it.

Intelligence collection and interrogation policies then flow from this decision.

As for ROE, I always explained them to my troops like this: they are your orders on how to react to different situations so you don’t have to waste time finding a local commander, explaining the situation, and waiting for him/her to decide on an appropriate response.

F- Really good summary, and great description at the end. I like the controlling fire angle because I also think that captures a lot of the nuance. For instance, what if Dick Winters was leading his men on an ambush. Isn’t he telling everyone not to fire? What if they see a bunch of Germans? Again, the larger plants dictate they hold their fire. A lot of situations require troops to hold their fire because it will make the larger operations and war successful.

F., all six options have merit, why commanders have used each of them. Hafez al-Assad used option 1 in the Hama massacre to maintain internal peace for twenty-nine years. His son is learning 1 to be temporary solution, however. It, like 2–6, has such drawbacks that commanders must combine all options. Commanders’ ability to unite their men behind an option-uniting doctrine defines success.

My favorite example is torture. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Guantánamo-Bay detention camp have proven torture ineffective—if in the wrong hands. The CIA’s torture is sloppy. Then again, the CIA has rarely modelled effectiveness and originality. Have you heard of the Phoenix Program? It was effective and original. According to a quotation in Ruth Blakeley’s State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South, methods included:

Rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electric shock (‘the Bell Telephone Hour’) rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; the ‘water treatment’; the ‘airplane’ in which the prisoner’s arms were tied behind the back, and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; the use of police dogs to maul prisoners.

Intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne described another example:

The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one of my detainee’s ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead. The starvation to death (in a cage), of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages … The use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to … both the women’s vaginas and men’s testicles [to] shock them into submission.

I hope that you have a strong stomach (Those descriptions upset me a bit.). Either way, the CIA’s methods worked during Phoenix. Said William Egan Colby, ‘In the years since 1975, I have heard several references to North-Vietnamese and South-Vietnamese communists who account, who state that in their mind the most, the toughest period that they faced in the whole period of the War from 1960 to 1975 was the period from 1968 to ’72 when the Phoenix Program was at work.’ Skip a decade to the CIA-trained contras, who slit prisoners’ throats and spooned their eyes not as strategy but for the hell of it: ineffective. The CIA’s current method is less brutal but no more effective.

Torture in the Algerian War differed from that of Phoenix in type, not in strategy or result. Forget La Question. Forget The Battle of Algiers. Torture worked in Algeria. Wrote anti-Algeria, anti-torture veteran turned historian Ted Morgan:

The conventional wisdom regarding torture today is that it is ineffective, since someone being tortured will tell you anything you want to hear to avoid the pain. In the Battle of Algiers, however, torture was effective. The paras built up their information incrementally, one fact at a time, sometimes a name or an address. They had interrogators who had been taught by the Vietminh in the prison camps of Indochina. The trick was to convince the suspect that the interrogator knew more than he did, and to ask questions that did not compromise the suspect. When the Arab telephone (word of mouth) spread the details of the torture centers, some captured rebels talked from fear of being tortured.

The French Armed Forces combined 3–6. It worked. Perhaps the Armed Forces could have done better adding 1 and 2. Eric and Michael, what do you think? I read your opinion here but would like to see it here. F., we agree that war requires clear doctrine. What do you think? You wrote, I always explained [rules of engagement] to my troops.’ Are you in the United-States Army?


I’m not American. Keep going north. As a tangential aside, while always working in coalition contexts ought to give small troop contributors a better perspective on the challenges of melding different national ROE and caveats (including those relating to detention), invariably our senior uniformed leadership have dropped that ball and those issues have been serious points of friction in the operations I’ve been a part of.

I’ll toss your Phoenix Program reference back at you. Did that program work (actually, I could leave the question at that, but let’s assume that it did work) because of, or in spite of the use of torture? For a more modern parallel, was JSOC’s campaign in Iraq successful because of, or in spite of interrogation techniques in Camp Nama (and Bagram and other such facilities)?

As for Algeria, were any supposed tactical benefits achieved through torture worth the strategic cost? France lost, and the whole experience seriously traumatised the French Army.

Here’s another question: did Indochina/Vietnam skew French and US approaches to interrogation? The VM/VC/NVA used some pretty raw techniques, but in many cases these weren’t intended to extract information. Instead, they were part of a broader re-education campaign. And they didn’t work. (Perhaps the techniques pioneered by the Chinese were effective when they included leverage using prisoners’ families, but that option didn’t exist when applied to French or US personnel). Strangely, the French based a lot of their techniques in Algeria on their experiences in Indochina, just as the US based a lot of their interrogation techniques in Iraq on SERE practices developed from POW experiences in Vietnam. Is this a case of misinterpretation of lessons from conflict?

Stuart Herrington was involved with Phoenix (well sort of, it didn’t work too well in his province because of poor quality people in the program) and his method of interrogation was the antithesis of torture. It still is.

What success Phoenix had was because it tried to fuse intel that existed amongst various groups, getting them to share; and because it had a specific target, the VCI. Torture just got in the way of that even if it was fun for torturers. Lurid stories always play well though.

Herrington has written pretty forcefully on how interrogation should work, both in Vietnam and in a scathing critique of US detention facilities (at least the ones he could get inside).

While tactical interrogation of a suspect immediately upon capture is a skill that should be retained across the field force, I often think that interrogation in detention facilities is a skill/capability that should be left in the hands of the police, given that it’s something they do frequently. Soldiers only get the chance to practice in times of war, and while some may become very good at it, that’s more a fluke of personality and aptitude rather than any systemic effort to train a good corps of interrogators. In modern war we don’t have the luxury of years to learn the nuances of questioning detained personnel through trial and error. That’s a proven way to piss off the locals and undercut domestic public support.


I don’t think police are any better or worse as a group than the right soldiers properly trained. Some police officers are good and some are lousy. It depends upon the individual. That works the same with soldiers I would guess. The type of training that is needed isn’t any mystery. The key is getting the right personality into the interviewer (I like interview rather than interrogation) slot. Right now it is a fluke. The key to making it not a fluke is to look for the correct personality type. That shouldn’t be too hard to do. They did it in WWII and they didn’t have that much time to come up with things. But they were able to get a fairly good corps of guys pretty quickly.

One of the things the Marines were willing to do was use whoever was available and qualified, including elderly missionaries. Both Moran and Scharff were civilians before the war and mostly winged it from what I’ve read. They succeeded because of who they were. I think we should mainly look for the right type of person.

If you haven’t read Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field by Moran, you should. It’s great and easy to find on the web. (Though I’ll bet you’ve already read it.)


I hadn’t read that – thanks for the recommendation. Change the time and location and it reads almost exactly like Ali Soufan’s take on questioning suspects (I need to think about the ‘interview’ concept more before deciding whether or not to adopt it).

I hesitate to draw parallels between the world wars and today’s conflicts. The mass mobilisation meant many interesting people got sucked into armed service, and the imperative to win the war overcame many bureaucratic personnel policies, allowing those interesting people to fill critical niche jobs – like questioning prisoners of war. When the war was over they went back to doing cool things like rafting across the Pacific or mapping the Himalayas or other such things. Today, many similar such people avoid military service, and if they do join they get stuck in a rigid system of career progression that forces them into a set series of assignments regardless of personal aptitudes. So I’m not as optimistic as you that we can always find the right people fast enough.

F, I love that last paragraph. Amazing analysis of the current flaws of the personnel system.


I second Michael C’s comment. Very insightful and something that I had never thought of. I am tempted to say that amongst all those young fellows there should be any number of guys who by nature have the correct attributes, all that has to happen is for the big military machine to change personnel polices enough to use them; but then the big machine isn’t going to change short of the IJN or the Wehrmacht forcing them to. It all comes down to the people.

Hey, a thought just occurred to me. Given what you and Michael C said, can the professional military really be good at the full aspect of war fighting without being forced to by something external?


That’s a pretty big question. Here’s my long answer:

Keep in mind that armed forces throw around the term ‘full spectrum’ with ease, but without really considering the implications of doing everything from domestic support to full out CBRN work. Most forces have some elements specialising in some of the more esoteric threat responses, so at least they won’t be caught flat-footed. That doesn’t mean they’ll be good, but in war you don’t always have to be good – you just have to be better than the other guy. But my point (for this paragraph) is that even in the best circumstances it is nearly impossible to be really good across the full spectrum of conflict.

Also keep in mind that militaries don’t prepare for the last war (which is what they’re often accused of), but rather for the greatest anticipated threat. Usually the real threat turns out to be something different, which in turn demands some kind of adaptation. So I suppose the answer to your question is that it takes something external to drive a culture of excellence, if only in response to said stimulus.

Tackling the question from a different angle, I’ll hang this out: militaries (and their political masters) have to prioritise. So the question is this: which is the higher priority – defeating the threat of the moment, or preserving the institution in its contemporary form (structure, regulations and policies)? Once again, it takes an external stimulus to at least raise the question. And sometimes the rational response may be to preserve the institution at the risk of performing poorly against a specific threat. For example, maybe someone said something along the lines of “I will not change my force structures and policies to defeat [guerrillas/terrorists/ . . .] because I want to maintain a force that can defeat [the USSR/ China/North Korea . . .]. So from that perspective, the answer to your question is that it still takes an external stimulus to be really good in a particular nature of conflict, but with the twist (and a return to my first point) that it may not be possible to be good at managing the full spectrum of conflict.

Now here’s my short answer: You should probably ask someone with a PhD in military history who teaches in a war college.

Sorry you feel our page isn’t to your liking. Contrary to your claims, our page doesn’t call for Obama’s arrest for treason first and foremost. However, many of our supporters do agree that his actions have gone beyond what is right for America and agree that he is not the president to lead us in this kind of “war.” It is an absolute fact that we have lost more troops under Obama than Bush and this is not solely due to any “surge” Our page puts the emphasis on our troops safety first, not last, which is contrary to politically correct doctrine and armchair generals who are sitting in comfy offices while putting rules in place that endanger our troops. Let’s be honest. This isn’t a true “war” in the sense that we’re fighting to secure our own rights or even safety. We are losing fine and brave young troops by the 1,000’s for this “sham” of a “war”, they are being imprisoned for not “following rules” that embolden the enemy, they are losing multiple limbs. We are asking: Why? What for? Is it worth it? Al Quaeda, under President Obama, has become more powerful. These are the facts. If you can’t deal with them, I guess that’s up to you. We have over 11,000 supporters who agree with us, the majority of who have loved ones serving. I guess that says it all.

The above comment seems to be more of a partisan political statement than one on rules of engagement. Unfortunately, it’s full of errors and logical fallacies which cloud a nugget of good questions.

“However, many of our supporters do agree that his actions have gone beyond what is right for America and agree that he is not the president to lead us in this kind of “war.” There’s the partisan point.

“It is an absolute fact that we have lost more troops under Obama than Bush and this is not solely due to any “surge”” Wrong. Bush was President from ’01 to Jan ’09, during which time (according to iCasualties.org) coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered 5588 fatalities. Obama has been President since Jan ’09, during which time (again, according to iCasualties.org) coalition fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan have been 2497. But it’s also beside the point because the situations were so different in those time spans.

“Our page puts the emphasis on our troops safety first, not last, which is contrary to politically correct doctrine and armchair generals who are sitting in comfy offices while putting rules in place that endanger our troops.” Argumentum ad ignorantiam. True troop safety involves never deploying them. Rules of engagement may be drafted by senior officer, non-commissioned officers and bureaucrats, but all come from long experience with conflict, and the ROE are continually informed by front line experience. Moreover, once deployed, troop safety is a function of tactical execution of a plan. Want to minimize the IED threat? Practice honesty traces to avoid using the same routes all the time. If there are unavoidable choke points, put them under surveillance. If you want to defeat the IED network, catch (don’t kill) the planters, question them (lawfully), and follow the leads to dismantle the network (JSOC practiced this mercilessly in Iraq under the direction of Gen McChrystal – the same man who tightened the ROE in Afghanistan). The tactical executers are the sergeants and captains who control the small unit planning and execution of daily operations.

“Let’s be honest. This isn’t a true “war” in the sense that we’re fighting to secure our own rights or even safety.” I have no idea what Iraq was all about, but the invasion of Afghanistan was about dismantling Al Qaeda and denying them sanctuary in Afghanistan. There may be strategic questions about whether nation building was necessary, particularly in light of Al Qaeda’s capacity to move across borders, but the original intent was as much about public safety as it was about retribution.

“We are losing fine and brave young troops by the 1,000’s for this “sham” of a “war”, they are being imprisoned for not “following rules” that embolden the enemy, they are losing multiple limbs.” I can’t find any details on the number of Americans imprisoned for not following the rules of engagement, but the issue of exercising a form of restraint that may ‘embolden’ the enemy or put coalition troops at greater risk is always an emotional issue. The counter is the unknown number of enemy created by not exercising restraint in the application of force. While that can never be quantified, I can offer one anecdote. In Afghanistan in 2006, coalition (Canadian, US, UK, Dutch, Danish . . .) troops mounted Op MEDUSA against a large number of Taliban in a region called Panjwaii. While considered a tactical victory, there were a number of long term consequences. Immediately prior to the operation an Achekzai warlord had rampaged through Panjwaii, killing rivals from the Noorzai tribe before returning to his home on the border. Many of these Noorzai took up arms and were subsequently lumped in with Taliban forces and attacked by the coalition. As a result, many Noorzai joined the Taliban. I spent a while fighting them, and they fight coalition forces in that region to this day. In a way that’s an exaggerated example of the problem caused by creating ‘accidental guerrillas’ through profligate use of speculative fire, but it demonstrates the risks.

“We are asking: Why? What for? Is it worth it?” Those are good questions, and I’ll come back to them.

“Al Quaeda, under President Obama, has become more powerful. These are the facts. If you can’t deal with them, I guess that’s up to you.” This is a combination of a deductive fallacy and a problem of confusing correlation and causation. As written, it also states that President Obama runs Al Qaeda, which I think we can agree is not what you intended. Since 2002, Al Qaeda has become a more diverse organization with varied franchises. That has nothing to do with US policies, but is a function of AQ being a transnational organization with an appeal to a broad number of people. I wouldn’t say that AQ has become more powerful, but rather has become different. That in turn requires adaptation on the west’s part.

“We have over 11,000 supporters who agree with us, the majority of who have loved ones serving. I guess that says it all.” That’s an irrelevant conclusion (argumentum ad populum).

Alright – enough deconstruction. It’s unfortunate that this post contained so many problems stemming from being so partisan. At its heart it actually raises good questions about the nature of war, the nature of force employment, and the balance of risk versus reward. We face an enemy that can hurt us, that can embarrass us, and that can drive us to distraction. But it cannot threaten our existence. In such circumstances, we must give careful thought to how we deal with this threat. It could simply be ignored. It can be hunted through investigative and legal means. It can be hunted militarily (and if so, it can be hunted with conventional forces or specialists or some combination). It can be displaced by presenting more attractive alternatives to its pool of recruits, financiers and sympathizers. It can be hunted in limited areas, or everywhere regardless of whether the region in question is stable or unstable, nuclear armed or not, or at risk of collapse with further negative consequences should an elephant sit on it. These are issues which deserve serious debate, and about which we should be holding our elected officials and their political and military appointees accountable. But they won’t be debated effectively so long as the issues are wrapped in partisan colours, be they Dem/Rep; Labour/Conservative; Liberal/Conservative; Socialist/UPF; Social Democratic/Christian Democratic or any other such colours.

@ Barb – I really feel like Michael issued some very legitimate critiques of your website, but you didn’t address any of the issues that he brought up in the post. I have to ask why?