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Kill or be killed: Operation Red Wings and the ROE

The men of Operation Red Wings
The men of Operation Red Wings
Photo by: Unknown/USNavy

On June 28th, 2005, four US Navy SEALs were on a mission to put eyes on known terrorist Ahmad Shah in the shale-strewn mountains of the Hindu Kush. During the op, which had immediately presented a number of issues, including lack of concealment and little-to-no radio transmission, three Afghan men and at least one hundred bell-wearing goats compromised their position. One of the three Afghans was a boy of perhaps 14 years of age, whom Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell attempted to befriend by offering him an energy bar. All three Afghans displayed open hatred.

In the events that followed, three of the four SEALs would be killed, leaving Luttrell as the last man standing. What took place on that mountainside 9 years ago was a stellar example of the ludicrous manner in which our service member’s hands are bound by the rules of engagement. Today, we mourn their deaths, and we take a moment to look at the reasons why they felt they had no choice but to let those three Afghans go. These laws are why Operation Red Wings became a national tragedy.

The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)

LOAC is, quite simply, an international humanitarian law having to do with who can be targeted by defining “combatant” and “non-combatant” statuses. The LOAC is actually a part of the United Nations Charter, which means every nation under the UN’s umbrella is supposed to respect it. The UN’s idea was that, by forming an international law such as this, civilians, wounded, and prisoners of war would be summarily protected. As of June 2005, DoDD 5100.77 (Department of Defense Directive) mandated every branch of the US military form and implement a training program to fulfill the directives found under the UN’s LOAC. One part of LOAC involves distinction. Distinction means our service members must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, with the purpose of only engaging what the LOAC considers a valid military target. Of course, when the UN came up with the LOAC behind their desks, from the comfort of their padded chairs, they were, as always, fixated on putting the safety of the enemy above that of our own military.

According to LOAC, our service members are only allowed to use force during international conflict under two circumstances. First is when a “designated authority” has declared an enemy force hostile. Second, they may engage in the case of direct armed assault or if “hostile intent” is exhibited, which is an incredibly fine line to walk. It becomes an even finer line when you may have less than a single breath’s time to deduce hostile intent or lack thereof. Or, in the case of Operation Red Wings, when you are fully aware the three Afghans before you are going to run and tell the Taliban where you are, but you’re going to have a hard time proving it until later, when you’re being shot at and your teammates are dying all around you. This, however, is international law, and we have our own specific rules, too.

The Rules of Engagement (ROE)

The ROE are our national laws, specific to the US military, and are constantly changing. There are two basic ROE: the standing ROE (SROE), which apply separate from war, and wartime ROE (WROE). The focus here is WROE. And as combat veterans are wont to remind, not only do the ROE change, but they evolve in conflicts at what can be a rather alarming rate. Even so, there will always be a set of national laws giving broad strokes to the ways our men are expected to act in combat. Under President George W. Bush, the ROE were less constricting than they are today, and he also fought on numerous occasions to give troops the ability to act in self-defense in far more situations. Of course, he was refused his requests, but more on that later.

According to the ROE, there is a very specific set of rules for when a potential combatant can be engaged. The US Navy admits it is impossible to catalog every example of what constitutes hostile intent, but they do actually have a list, along with a proviso saying they understand other circumstances apply as well. First, the ROE really prefer it if the potential enemy is holding a firearm openly. Better yet if they’re firing said firearm, because then there’s no doubt as to their intent, right? Holding a trigger for an IED also constitutes hostile intent, but according to an infantryman who currently has his boots on the ground, IED’s have evolved significantly, making the old terrorist-behind-a-rock-with-a-trigger increasingly less common. Air strikes also cannot be carried out if there is even the slightest chance a civilian – or someone pretending to be a civilian - is in the area. Rationally, the words “hostile intent” imply a multitude of things, from holding weapons to body language to, yes, a combat veteran’s instinct and gut-deep belief in someone’s threat level. But the ROE today want it to be so blatant, so outrageous, the bullet is basically in your head before you act in self-defense.

During World War II, our military had a shoot-on-sight tactic not only for enemies but also for locations the enemies were known to be – or suspected to be. Civilians knew to get the heck out of the way. In current-day battle, ROE have changed, and our enemies use it to their fullest advantage. They hide their weapons behind nearby rocks when they know our men are coming, stand by civilians, and stash radios and firepower short distances from their huts and villages for easy access. They even have a guide instructing them how to bend and use our ROE against us: The Al-Qaeda Manual (also known as The Manchester Manual). Terrorists worldwide know precisely how to kill our men in combat. They are using the stringent ROE to kill our men, and our government just goes along with it.

Preemptive Self-Defense

Surprisingly, it is not widely realized that then-President George W. Bush argued for the use of preemptive self-defense for our military. His belief was that our men should have the right to defend themselves no matter what. Waiting until it was often too late was unacceptable to Bush, and he became more heated in his arguments as the Iraq invasion drew closer. He made his case behind closed doors, during his State of the Union addresses, and, once, while giving a commencement address to the US Military Academy in 2002. Bush made it official on September 6, 2002, with the National Security Strategy of the United States, stating:

“The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

Bush argued extensively, and his preemptive self-defense approach was quickly labeled The Bush Doctrine. Naysayers called it “rushing to break the law” and claimed he had no respect for the way war was waged in modern times. As a result, although some aspects of the Iraq invasion held earmarks of Bush’s desire for preemptive self-defense, the ROE stood, and it wasn’t long before the toll began to show in the form of service member’s bodies.

Operation Red Wings

There they were, faced with three Afghan men they knew were probably a threat. Odds were the trio had not accidentally stumbled upon them; it is quite possible they had gone to check a reported sighting, using the goats as cover. And if it was an accident, it was extremely likely the would-be goatherders would report the SEALs presence to the Taliban without delay. A radio, although not seen, could have been hidden nearby, and even if it was not, it was a simple matter for the youngest of the group to run to Taliban members with a speed and agility gear-laden SEALs could not manage on the unfamiliar terrain. The question became whether or not to kill them.

An argument followed, later described by Marcus Luttrell. Matthew Axelson’s vote was to kill them; he accurately stated the SEALs were on active duty and behind enemy lines, and had a right to self-defense. Danny Dietz said he would abide by the decision made by the others. Michael Murphy spoke to the risks of killing the three Afghans. He brought up the ROE and the frenzy that would undoubtedly take place, first on Al Jazeera, then nationwide as the American media did what they did best: devoured their own for ratings. Luttrell said he knew Murphy was right about the implications of three dead goatherders. All four SEALs not only could but probably would be branded murderers by their own government and brought up on charges. After all, these were three apparently unarmed men herding goats through the mountains. And they were unable to contact HQ because there was no reception whatsoever. Even though the combat-experienced SEALs knew letting the Afghans go was a serious risk, they felt they had no choice – because of the ROE.

Luttrell estimates it was ninety minutes after they let the trio go that the Taliban attacked. The SEALs had, of course, immediately moved out, but there is no competing with the speed of the locals. In the ensuing firefight, all four men were forced to throw themselves off and down the steep mountainside, fighting as they went.


Danny Dietz was the first to be killed. His right thumb was blown off, he was shot through the low back, and he kept firing; he was shot through the neck, and he kept firing. Death did not come for Danny Dietz after another dive down the mountains, or when he took a round at the base of his neck. Seeing his teammate grievously wounded, Marcus Luttrell tried to drag him to a safer spot, and Danny maintained cover fire as they went, despite his horrific wounds. It was later, as Marcus tried again to pull his brother to safety, that the valiant Danny Dietz took a final, fatal round to the head. Danny Dietz died in Marcus’ arms, as bullets flew, and the battle raged on.


Michael Murphy – Mikey to his teammates – proved his mettle as a man who would do whatever it took to save his brothers. He was shot in the stomach at some point during the first tumble down the mountainside, and Marcus remembers vast quantities of blood loss. And on he fought, directing his men, staying steady and strong. After Danny died, and they had been forced even farther down the mountain, Mikey was shot through the chest. Shot twice, he calmly asked Marcus for a fresh mag, as blood pumped from his chest and stomach. And then, knowing he had no choice but to use their last-resort phone, and knowing there was no chance of a signal without reaching open, elevated ground, Mikey willingly made himself a target for the encroaching Taliban. Walking into the best possible spot for a successful call, with the susurrus and impact of gunfire on all sides, Mikey made the call: “My men are taking heavy fire…we’re getting picked apart. My guys are dying out here…we need help.” It was then a bullet cut through Mikey’s back. Luttrell remembers the blood spurting from the exit wound in Mikey’s chest, and watching Mikey drop the phone and his rifle. But the man who would be known as The Mighty Murph was not done.

Bracing himself, Mikey picked up the phone and rifle, sat back up, and continued his conversation. “Roger that, sir. Thank you.” Mikey had reached out for help, and gotten it, an action which unarguably was the saving grace for Marcus Luttrell in the coming days. He had sacrificed himself trying to save his brothers. And Mikey opened fire again, trying to take higher ground, fighting to save his brothers. It was then, as he moved out of Marcus’ sight, it was then the screams began to ring out.

“Help me, Marcus! Please help me!” Mikey’s cries went on, described by Marcus as “the most bone-chilling, primeval” screams he has ever heard. Marcus tried to find a way to reach Mikey, to find some way to help the man he called his best friend in the world, as the Taliban, who had surrounded them, continued to fire. Seconds became hours; minutes became days. And, suddenly, the screams ceased, and Marcus knew Mikey, the protector, was gone. To this day, Marcus hears Mikey’s screams of agony in his nightmares, waking and asleep.


Matthew Axelson – Axe - maintained cover fire for his teammates through it all. Marcus recalls his courage and composure as that of an elite warrior, fighting with the kind of steady bravado for which others can only hope. Minutes prior to Danny’s death, Axe was shot in the chest with an impact solid enough to knock his rifle from his hands and force him to slide all the way down the rock he’d been leaning against, to the ground. For a moment, he appeared dead, but then, he grasped his rifle, pulled himself upright, and returned fire once again.

At the moment Mikey was shot for the second time and reacted by asking Marcus for a fresh mag, Axe stumbled towards Marcus from the position where he’d been fighting. “They shot me, bro. The bastards shot me,” he told Marcus, and there it was, a devastating head wound that would have immediately taken down a lesser man. Blood bubbled and ran down his face, and he continued the fight.

It was when Marcus saw Axe barely able to walk and not staying behind cover he knew Axe was dying. And when he called out, hoping to bring Axe to proper cover, he could see the entire right side of Axe’s head had been blown away. It was a miracle Axe was breathing, let alone standing, let alone aiming and firing his pistol; down to his sidearm at that point, Axe refused to quit.

When Marcus finally reached Axe in a hollow, Axe’s blue eyes had gone black with the blood pooling in his skull. Struggling to form words, Axe forced himself to focus on Marcus, and uttered his last words: “You stay alive, Marcus. And tell Cindy I love her.” Marcus refused to leave his side, even when Axe was unconscious and taking only the shallowest of final breaths. And then, the Taliban found them again, and fired yet another Russian grenade directly into the hollow, blasting Marcus away from Axe.


Marcus Luttrell, back broken, contused, lacerated, hit by numerous grenades, and repeatedly shot, was the only man to survive the events of that day nine years ago. And in addition to the already tragic loss of life on that mountain, sixteen more men – SEALs and Night Stalkers – were killed during an initial rescue attempt. His own ordeal did not end until days later, on July 2, 2005, when he was finally rescued from a village where the Pashtunwali law of lokhay warkawal had kept him safe from the Taliban who so desperately wanted him dead. Today, Marcus lives in Texas with his wife, Melanie, whom he married on November 27, 2010, and their children: firstborn boy, Axe, born May 8, 2011, daughter, Addie, born August 26, 2012, and a sixteen-year-old son from Melanie’s first marriage.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. In the heat of the moment, the SEALs followed the LOAC and ROE, painfully aware of the persecution and jail time they could face back home if they killed the supposed goatherders. Marcus calls it “the stupidest, most southern-fried, lame-brained thing” he has ever done. But the heroes of Operation Red Wings are not the only men who have given their lives in order to maintain the hearts-and-minds bull of our ROE. Countless service members have died, and others have been court-martialed – and convicted – making it either death by following the ROE or charges from trying to protect their brother soldiers in battle. If Marcus Luttrell could go back to that mountainside, there is absolutely no doubt he would kill them all without blinking. And if you, the reader, claim your actions would be any different, you are both a coward and a fool.

The ROE must change. In 1863, Francis Lieber penned the Lieber Code for Abraham Lincoln, intending to provide framework for troops going into battle. It is highly unlikely Lieber or Lincoln realized the work would became the basis for the Geneva Convention and then the United Nation’s Laws of War. After all, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Self-defense is a basic liberty, and by stripping the right to self-defense from our troops, we are throwing away their liberty, and their right to life, with both hands.

Under Barack Obama, who cast aside Bush’s desire for preemptive self-defense, the US military’s ROE have become an ever-tightening noose. Since 2009, loss of life to ludicrous scenarios has sky-rocketed, and yet, despite the furor from every branch of the military, the deaths appear to go unnoticed. It is past time for the ROE to change, time for our men to stop dying because they’re not allowed to act on instinct and obvious signs because their gut-feeling and those particular signs don’t fit the current ROE. Danny Dietz, Michael Murphy, and Matthew Axelson would be alive today if not for the ROE, and the lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell, would not be haunted at night by the blood and screams of his brothers. Remember the men of Operation Red Wings, and take your part to ignite the fight against our ROE. Our men deserve better; our men deserve to live.

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Remembering Operation Red Wings:


LT Michael Murphy
SO2 Matthew Axelson
SO2 Danny Dietz
SOC Jacques Fontan
SOCS Daniel R. Healy
LCDR Erik Kristensen
SO1 Jeffrey Lucas
LT Michael McGreevy, Jr.
SO2 James Suh
SO1 Jeffrey Taylor
SO2 Shane Patton

Night Stalkers (160th Special Operatons Aviation Regiment):

SSG Shamus Goare
CW03 Corey Goodnature
SGT Kip Jacoby
SFC Marcus Muralles
MSG James Ponder III
MAJ Stephen Reich
SFC Michael Russell
CW04 Chris Scherkenbach

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