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Killed in inaction: how today's ROE are endangering troops

Part of the remains of the Extortion 17 CH-47D Chinook crash site where 30 American military members and one American MWD were killed.
Part of the remains of the Extortion 17 CH-47D Chinook crash site where 30 American military members and one American MWD were killed.Photo by: Anonymous media handout

It’s two in the morning and you’re woken by the crash of falling glass. Without hesitation, you grab your firearm and move to investigate. On the stairs, you see a man and recognize him: he is wanted for the slaughter of countless Americans. Also in your quick analysis, you notice one important detail: he does not appear to be armed. Logically, you know there are weapons nearby. You know his SOP and are painfully aware he has most likely stashed a fully automatic weapon behind your couch or under your coffee table. What do you do?

Four Navy SEALs in the Hindu Kush, on a mission to put eyes on a known terrorist, are “stumbled upon” by a trio of goat herders. Following the rules of engagement, or ROE, they decide they have no choice but to let them go, knowing full well the group will probably alert nearby terrorists of their presence. Hours later, three are dead and one is paralyzed from the waist down, dragging himself across the shale, rifle miraculously still in hand. Six years later, in 2011, an immediate-reaction force (IRF) of thirty-eight men, including seventeen Navy SEALs, five Navy Special Warfare (NSW) support personnel, three Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) operators, three Army Reserve personnel, and two Colorado Army National Guard, is sent to assist Army Rangers fighting insurgents in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan. Upon their arrival, the landing zone (LZ) is far too treacherous, especially for the hard-to-maneuver CH-47D Chinook. In order to safely land, they need to open fire, to soften the LZ, but cannot, due to the ROE. Moments later, every man on the Chinook is dead.

Back in 1863 when Francis Lieber wrote what would become known as the Lieber Code for Abraham Lincoln, it seems highly unlikely either he or Lincoln realized how these “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field” would be “improved upon.” After the Lieber Code came the Geneva Convention, which has four parts, dated 1864, 1906, 1929 and 1949. And then we have our Laws of War (LOW) which are meant to apply to any nation under the United Nations Charter and the aforementioned conventions. The government decided, however, that all the existing treaties and conventions were not enough, that the LOW were too broad and did not outline troop actions on the ground nearly specifically enough, and thus the ROE were born.

The United States has imposed ROE on our military for the past century with the effect of an ever-tightening noose. It was during the Cold War that the United States truly ramped up the process of playing politics above backing our troops, a problem which was compounded in Vietnam. Today, Iraq and Afghanistan have become sterling examples of the catastrophic and often fatal results of the current ROE. And it just keeps getting worse. According to members of a Calvary Scout Platoon, who wish to remain anonymous, while George W. Bush was still president, troops were still able to do things such as engage a terrorist on the side of the road who was placing an improvised explosive device (IED). But under Obama, troops are instead directed to observe, because heaven forbid an international incident with a farmer occur. Farmer or not, planting a bomb meant to murder our troops seems like precisely the right reason to take someone out.

If it does not seem right to place all the blame on Obama’s shoulders, it is only fair to remind the public that when he was elected president, he was also made commander-in-chief of our military. That is not to say there isn’t trouble in the upper echelons of the military, because there is. Finding a member of the military brass who is willing to put everything on the line in support of the men and women with their boots on the ground is not unlike trying to herd cats through a waterfall. The lack of support has been proven time and again, most recently as top brass give personal anecdotal evidence, rather than actual, fact-based evidence, to say the troops are not only fine with pay cuts but looking forward to them. The way they tout “winning hearts and minds” over winning wars and preserving our soldier’s and sailor’s lives is, at best, distressing, at worst, criminal.

Delays in calling in airstrikes can last for hours while a unit under fire waits for the request to clear countless bureaucratic hurdles, and known enemy combatants cannot be fired upon unless they make the first move. As a result, in the Middle East, insurgents have learned to simply put their rifles behind rocks, knowing American troops will be forced to hold their fire. In the hills of the Korengal Valley, and everywhere else, insurgents using handheld radios as devices to plan for murdering American troops like to force village children to stand next to them during such chats, which also effectively stays the hand of any soldiers in range. Not only does the enemy know the United States ROE word for word but they also know how to make it work in their favor. To see their guile in action we have only to consider one case: the Butcher of Fallujah.

The Butcher of Fallujah, real name Ahmad Hashim Abd al-Isawi, has been called even viler than the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is credited with the videotaped beheading of Nicholas Berg, among other horrors. al-Isawi was behind the horrific murder and maiming of four American contractors, one of whom was a former SEAL, an incident which was absolutely an instigating factor behind the Navy SEALs being sent after him in September of 2009. The moment the men were slaughtered was enough, let alone burnt and having their charred bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River by a crowd of cheering Iraqis. And even that atrocity was not before the men were beaten, maimed, and dragged through town behind a vehicle using a rope. With that act, al-Isawi’s fate was sealed.

Five years passed before actionable intel came regarding al-Isawi’s whereabouts, and the SEALs who went after him had an incredibly successful mission. In fact, although the Butcher of Fallujah was armed when they found him, SEAL Matthew McCabe managed to take him not only alive, but entirely unharmed. Yet only hours later, the Butcher used a page from the Al Qaeda Manual (also known as the Manchester Manual due to the location of its discovery) to create a maelstrom of deception and trouble for the SEALs who had taken him so flawlessly.

“Once in the prosecution center, however, he should say that he was tortured.” (The Al Qaeda Manual, Seventeenth Lesson: Interrogation and Investigation)
“If an indictment is issued and the trial begins, the brother has to pay attention to the following:
1) At the beginning of the trial, once more the brothers must insist on proving that torture was inflicted on them by State Security (investigators) before the judge.
2) Complain (to the court) of mistreatment while in prison.
4) The brother has to do his best to know the names of the State Security officers, who participated in his torture and mention their names to the judge. (These names may be obtained from brothers who had to deal with those officers in previous cases) 6) During the trial, the court has to be notified of any mistreatment of the brothers inside the prison.”
(The Al Qaeda Manual, Lesson Eighteen: Prisons and Detention Centers)

Once in custody, al-Isawi claimed the SEALs who carried out the raid – Petty Officer Matthew McCabe, Petty Officer Jonathon Keefe, and a third senior SEAL referred to as Sam Gonzales – had come to his holding cell and assaulted him. His sole injury was a small cut on his lip which a doctor testified appeared to be self-inflicted. There was an endless stream of falsehoods and contradictions in the Butcher’s story, but thanks to certain members of the military brass and the cowardice of a young master-at-arms, Brian Westinson - who had abandoned his post more than once - the three SEALs were put through hell. All three were completely exonerated, but not before being endlessly bullied and dragged through the muck and mud by the military and government they had sworn to give their lives defending. The message taken away from the case was that if you’re a member of one of the most elite military forces in the world, do an exemplary job, and insist on telling the truth no matter what the cost, you will be treated like insignificant refuse by the upper echelons.

There is a clear problem with today’s rules of engagement. The ROE are an ever-changing, fluid set of strictures, and they continue to put our soldiers and sailors at risk. The day has come where military personnel are being maimed and killed because they are so concerned about the ROE or being vilified back home in the States by a bunch of Monday-morning-quarterbacking politicians and journalists. Although the ROE claims in writing that our troops have the “inherent right of self-defense,” reality falls at the other end of a bleak, bloody spectrum. The current White House and many high-ranking members of the military – who seem to have forgotten where they came from – put “winning hearts and minds” far and above the value of our troops’ lives. That is not only wrong but utterly detestable.

Author’s note: To those who yelled “Shoot him!” at the beginning of this article, imagine being a soldier who is not allowed to defend himself despite a clear and present threat. Imagine being denied the right to defend yourself and your brothers. To read a detailed and skillfully delivered account of SEALs Matthew McCabe, Jonathon Keefe, and Sam Gonzales’ ordeal, read Patrick Robinson’s book, Honor and Betrayal. Patrick Robinson is also the author of Lone Survivor, the story of Marcus Luttrell and Operation Red Wing. Also an excellent read is Betrayed, by Billy Vaughn, father of SEAL Aaron Vaughn who was killed in the attack on Extortion 17, the Chinook mentioned in this article. If you wish to read The Al Qaeda Manual's English translation, it can be found at: http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/misc/10.pdf.

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Remembering Operation Red Wing:
SEALs:
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
Nightstalkers (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

Remembering Exortion 17:

SGT Alexander J. Bennett
SPC Spencer Duncan
CWO Bryan J. Nichols
CWO David R. Carter
SSG Patrick D. Hamburger
TSgt John W. Brown
SSgt Andrew W. Harvell
TSgt Daniel L. Zerbe
PO1 (SEAL) Darrick C. Benson
CPO (SEAL) Brian R. Bill
PO1 (SEAL) Christopher G. Campbell
PO1 Jared W. Day
PO1 John Douangdara & Navy SEAL Dog “Bart”
CPO (SEAL) John W. Faas
CPO (SEAL) Kevin A. Houston
Lt. Cmdr. (SEAL) Jonas B. Kelsall
MCPO (SEAL) Louis J. Langlais
CPO (SEAL) Matthew D. Mason
CPO (SEAL) Stephen M. Mills
CPO Nicholas H. Null
PO1 (SEAL) Jesse D. Pittman
SCPO (SEAL) Thomas A. Ratzlaff
CPO (SEAL) Robert J. Reeves
CPO (SEAL) Heath M. Robinson
PO2 (SEAL) Nicholas P. Spehar
PO1 Michael J. Strange
PO1 (SEAL) Jon T. Tumilson
PO1 (SEAL) Aaron C. Vaughn
SCPO Kraig M. Vickers
PO1 (SEAL) Jason R. Workman

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http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/misc/10.pdf "The Al Qaeda Manual"