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The changing combat rules of engagement: What is one American life worth?

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By Maj. Gen. Jerry R. Curry, US Army, Ret.

To the American people an American military life is worth far more than the life of an Afghan soldier or civilian. For the current occupants of the White House and the Administration’s staff it seems to be just the opposite. It appears that to them Afghan civilian’s lives are more highly valued than American soldier’s lives, though this could never be publicly voiced in the politically correct game of semantics that combat commanders are forced to play these days. Still, to a military commander in the thick of battle the unintended killing of enemy civilians is collateral damage, one of the unintended consequences of war.

An Afghanistan soldier walks into an American headquarters. One of the American officers doesn’t like the Afghan’s looks and starts to draw his weapon. The senior American officer present says, “You know the new rules of engagement; put your gun away. We are to trust members of the Afghani military unless they draw a weapon or show other signs of overt hostility.” The American officer returns his weapon to its holster. The Afghani soldier smiles, draws his pistol and shoots both Americans dead.

Since the French and Indian War rules for combat have been consistent. The first and foremost rule is that soldiers have the right to defend themselves. Second, a commander’s actions in battle should be directed toward saving the lives of his troops. He should try to avoid causing civilian casualties, but if saving civilian lives is not possible without endangering American military lives; his first consideration should be directed toward saving the lives of his troops. Death is a normal consequence of war. That is why decisions on the battlefield should be made by combat tested warriors, not by rear guard head quarter’s types.

If in battle you as the commander make a mistake, you should always try to make it in favor of your soldiers, not enemy civilians. No soldier in combat, with the lives of his men threatened, should have to play a computer war game over and over in his mind as to who is a civilian and cannot be killed and who is military and, thus, can be killed. Saving his own life and the life of his men is more important than saving the life of a civilian who may later turn out to be an enemy; such is the carnage of war. To the best of my knowledge the military’s newly weakened, politically correct rules of engagement were introduced during the Iraq War. Since then U. S. casualties have more than doubled. Is this what the adoption of these new rules of engagement was supposed to do; I don’t think so.

Starting with the war in Vietnam, America’s rules of engagement have been slowly changing from doing whatever it takes to win; toward soft rules of engagement such as trying to be politically correct at all times, even if it unnecessarily costs American lives. These soft new rules   inevitably get our soldiers killed. If the situation is such that a U.S. Commander is forced to disobey these new rules of engagement and replace them with common sense rules, he will be court martialed, imprisoned, drummed out of the service, or all of the above.

Under the new rules, airstrikes cannot be launched against enemy positions unless the person calling for the airstrikes is willing to declare, on the record, that no civilians will be killed by the strike; that there will be no collateral damage. Similarly Taliban terrorists cannot be engaged unless the one directing the fire at them is willing to certify that no civilians will be harmed.

The seeds of this over control of combat actions were planted many years before. I recall once when I was controlling an airstrike in Vietnam – my radio call sign was CatKiller Six — that I couldn’t get the fighter-bombers to attack the target I marked with my rockets no matter how hard I tried. Finally, in disgust, I called off the airstrike and told them to go home saying, “It shouldn’t be that hard to level a few mud huts in a village.”

“You want us to bomb the village,” the strike leader asked?

“Yes,” I said, “Since late last night all friendly civilians have been evacuated out of the village.  Only Viet Cong enemy forces are left. Since you can’t hit the houses they are hiding it, the South Vietnamese will have to clear out the village by fighting house to house, and they will take a lot of casualties.”

“Village, CatKiller Six?  Why didn’t you say so … Flight, this is flight leader … follow me. We’re going to attack the village.”  Which is exactly what they proceeded to do, but only after insisting that I give my name, in the clear, as the person authorizing the strike.

In Afghanistan under the new rules of engagement airstrikes cannot be launched against enemy forces unless the person authorizing the strike is willing to declare for the record that no civilians will be killed. Similarly no Taliban terrorist can be fired upon unless the one directing the fire is also willing to certify that no civilian will be harmed during the action.  This is nonsense. The result is that it is not unusual for units in contact with the enemy to have to wait for hours for an airstrike to clear bureaucratic authorization hurdles and be launched.

The White House and the Pentagon need to declare to the American people for the record, for the sake of military lawyers, judges and prosecutors that the lives of our military, those who defend the policies and principles of this great nation in battle, are more important than the lives of the Afghan military and civilians fighting against them. Then, the Pentagon should tailor its war policies, rules and regulations toward supporting that statement of truth.

Jerry Curry is a retired Army Major General, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration; Acting Press Secretary to the Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration; and Administrator of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration in the Bush Sr. administration.

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