Will Trump Change Deadly 'Rules of Engagement'?

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) April 28, 2017

The 2016 film "Eye in the Sky" provides a thrilling portrayal of the underlying realities in using today's drone technology against a terrorist threat. The intensity of the movie mounts as ethical and time-sensitive battlefield decisions are needed by civilian and military leaders weighing collateral damage factors against the consequences of failing to engage a target. It superbly pits the eagerness of military decision-makers, determined to eliminate a threat ready to kill again, against the eagerness of civilian decision-makers, determined to avoid collateral damage, both human and political, the drone strike might cause.

The movie raises the realization that 21stcentury warfare decision-making by our warfighters is burdened by a layer of political decision-making inhibiting their performance. While civilian leaders focus more on civilian collateral damage, it seems less focus is put on collateral damage impact upon our own warfighters.

Sadly, at a time we should be putting every possible weapon into the warfighter's quiver, enabling him to close with and destroy the enemy, we are allowing our focus on political correctness to arm the enemy by impeding our warfighter's ability to perform his mission.

A new book, "Dog Company: A True Story of American Soldiers Abandoned By Their High Command," co-authored by former U.S. Army Capt. Roger Hill, documents just how the collateral damage caused by political correctness endangers our warriors today, either by inhibiting their war-fighting ability to act or second-guessing after-the-fact their on-scene decisions to hold them accountable.

The book effectively explains how the fog of battle is often a factor in the warfighter's making on-the-spot decisions based on unknowns at the time. But it also shows how the warfighter's judgment then is unfairly scrutinized by others who are armed with the benefit of knowing those unknowns.

In "Eye in the Sky," an entire team of decision-makers - military, civilian, operational, legal, etc. - were involved in deciding to engage the target. Yet, despite their best efforts, a little Muslim girl still died. But, for the warrior on the ground, such decision-making oftentimes falls to him alone.

As "Dog Company" so aptly shares, an immediate battlefield decision runs the risk of Monday-morning quarterbacking by one's chain of command. In doing so, commanders - for purely political reasons - seem to dismiss concerns that he who hesitates loses, knowing for a battlefield leader this means risking the lives of personnel entrusting their lives to him.

While those in uniform recognize civilian authority's role in setting the guidelines affecting their battlefield conduct, it is the lack of support from senior military commanders for conduct falling into gray areas that is most disturbing.

It was a particularly disturbing experience for the book's co-author. Commanding a heavy weapons company in Afghanistan in 2008, Hill's unit suffered numerous casualties. He soon learned why the enemy always seemed to be one step ahead of him.

Hill was informed by Army counter-intelligence their operating base had been penetrated by 12 Afghan spies. Among them was Hill's personal translator whom, along with the others, passed information on unit movements to the Taliban.

When Hill also learned an attack against his base was pending but nothing was being done to remove the suspected spies, he decided to take action on his own. Hill conducted an interrogation that involved firing his weapon into the ground, out of view of the detained suspects who were led to believe they were being executed.

While Hill's actions successfully generated the time-sensitive information he sought, his command concluded he violated the rules of engagement (ROEs) by intimidating enemy prisoners. Unbelievably, war crime charges were filed against him.

Although not found guilty of such crimes, Hill was forced to resign his commission. But the experience left him with firsthand knowledge our ROEs are politically driven to the point they are unnecessarily endangering our men and women in uniform.

Political correctness is, indeed, spilling over into our armed forces. Tragically, left to choose between abandoning their subordinates or fighting to change the ROEs, senior commanders - such as Hill's - are abandoning their subordinates. In Hill's case, not only did political correctness fail adequately to vet Afghans with whom he had to work, but it also ended a promising young officer's career whose only "crime" was seeking to save the lives of fellow soldiers. This is shocking, particularly since no detainee was actually endangered by his actions.

It is clear under the ROEs crafted by President Barack Obama political correctness infected battlefield decision-making to the detriment of the warfighter and the safety of our troops. With a new sheriff now in town, hopefully President Donald Trump - who has shown more support for our military during his short time in office than his predecessor did during the previous eight years - will rewrite the ROEs to benefit the men and women he sends into harm's way rather than those seeking to inflict harm upon them.

Doing so would provide a most fitting legacy for Capt. Hill and the men of Dog Company.

One of the final lines in "Eye in the Sky" was uttered by a senior military officer after being chastised by a civilian senior government official on the decision taking the life of the Muslim girl. Unperturbed, he immediately turns to the speaker and says, "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war."

Soldiers like Capt. Hill fully understand the cost of war. What they now need to know is that their senior commanders will not abandon them when that cost is incurred.

A version of this piece also appeared on http://www.wnd.com/    

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Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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