Rules of Engagement

‘Rules’ of war limit Marines



Register columnist

We call it “the war in Iraq.” But to many of the Marines here, it’s not really a war – at least not on their side.

“They are fighting a war,” a Marine from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment tells me – “they” meaning the insurgents lurking “outside the wire” of a Marine forward operating base in the Euphrates River town of Barwanah, in western Al Anbar province.

“But us?” the Marine goes on. “We aren’t fighting a war. We’re just doing a police action.”

The young Marine is right. While the insurgents here and throughout Iraq battle American Marines and soldiers with deadly weapons of warfare – IEDs (“improvised explosive devices,” or roadside bombs), sniper attacks, mortars, two of which exploded near this forward operating base just the day before – the Marines have to respond under “rules of engagement,” or “ROEs,” that would be familiar to any cop in America.

Are the Marines catching sniper rounds from a cluster of buildings in the city? In a conventional war, that would be reason enough to light up the buildings with suppressive fire.

But under the Iraq ROEs, unless the Marines get “P.I.D.” or “positive identification” – eyes on a guy with a rifle, or a muzzle flash, something very localized and specific – they can’t fire back.

Do the Marines see four young males fleeing the scene of an IED attack? The Marines can try to chase them down in vehicles or on foot – this while the Marines are carrying 60 or 70 pounds of equipment on their backs – but they can’t even fire warning shots from their M-16s, much less lethal ones, to try to make them stop.

Under the rules, if the suspects are running away, if they pose no direct and immediate threat to the Marines, the most the Marines can do is shoot “pyro,” small flares, as a warning – a warning that Marines believe simply leaves the fleeing enemy laughing.

And so on. By tradition and temperament, a Marine infantry company is a blunt instrument, designed to storm a beach or take a building with force and violence that overwhelms the enemy; it’s a hammer, not a scalpel.

But in the confusing world of urban counterinsurgency warfare, Marine infantrymen here find themselves bound by rules that often seem more appropriate to the streets of an American city than to an actual combat zone.

True, in the rare event of an all-out firefight, a direct confrontation with the enemy, the rules change. When faced with a conventional attack by insurgents, Marines can respond conventionally, with overwhelming firepower.

But in routine, day-to-day operations, every single shot fired by Marines here must be documented and reviewed by higher command.

Let me repeat that: Every single shot fired by Marines is reported to and reviewed by higher command – regimental level or above – to make sure that it conformed to the ROEs.

The rules are unquestionably well-intentioned, and in the long and bloody annals of warfare, almost uniquely American.

They are designed to minimize Iraqi civilian casualties – and in a conflict that is as much or more political as it is military, at the upper levels of command perhaps the rules make sense.

But to the grunts on the ground, where the wounding and dying is, they are a source of endless frustration.

“Seems like you can’t even spit around here without getting investigated,” says one young Marine – although of course he didn’t actually say “spit.”

“It’s absurd,” says a Navy corpsman assigned to the Marines. “It makes the bad guys think we’re weak.”

Even senior Marine officers, whose job it is to see the big picture, and to enforce the rules of engagement established by higher command, understand only too well how hard it is for a 19- or 20-year-old lance corporal to be shot at or IED’d day after day and not be able to shoot back at enemies who hide behind and among civilians.

“It’s a tough, tough thing for them,” says 3/3 battalion commander Lt. Col. Norm Cooling. “I always tell them (the junior Marines) that fighting a counterinsurgency is a lot harder, mentally, intellectually and spiritually, than fighting a conventional war. … The (insurgents) know that they can play by a different set of rules than we can, and they take advantage of it.”

It wasn’t always that way. Young Marines on their first tour in Iraq are often astonished – and even a little envious – when I tell them about being with a Marine infantry company in OIF I (Operation Iraqi Freedom I), the initial march up to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. There were rules of engagement then, too, but it was also an actual war – and the basic, unwritten rule of engagement was that for every enemy round that came in, the Marines would send a thousand rounds back.

Did that sometimes cause Iraqi civilian casualties? Yes, unavoidably. But it also saved American lives – and you could argue that in the long run it saved Iraqi lives as well, because it left the enemy either intimidated or dead, and shortened the initial conflict.

But no longer. The Marines here know they are under close scrutiny – by the press, by the politicians and by the often fickle American public. And that knowledge permeates almost everything they do.

For example, I sat in with Marine officers and NCOs planning a night raid to capture a sniper who had been taking potshots at Marines in Barwanah. Aware that a reporter was present, and not sure how their comments might be interpreted, some of the Marines were careful to describe the sniper not as simply “the sniper,” but as “the alleged sniper.”

These are tough, brave men, American warriors. But sitting in that briefing room, it was almost as if the Marines saw the ghost of Johnnie Cochran hovering in the corner, just waiting to sue them for violating the sniper’s – that is, the alleged sniper’s – civil rights.

Still, while the Marines may gripe about the ROEs, they are Marines – which means they also obey them. Anyone who thinks American troops are running wild in Iraq, recklessly shooting at anything that moves, has probably never been to Iraq. For every charge of excessive force by American troops, such as the allegations about the killings of civilians in Haditha, there are hundreds of unreported and unheralded examples of American Marines and soldiers showing astonishing restraint in their use of force.

Again, in counterinsurgency warfare, where battle is waged not only in the streets but in hearts and minds and TV news broadcasts, perhaps that is sound policy. If the goal is to win over the people, and not just to kill the enemy, perhaps there is no alternative.

But no one should doubt that American Marines and soldiers are paying for their restraint, and for the American concern about civilian casualties.

They are paying for it in blood – their own blood.

The day after I spoke with those Marines in Barwanah, an IED hit a Marine 7-ton truck that was on patrol in the town, fortunately causing only minor injuries, and insurgent mortar rounds again landed near the Marines’ forward operating base.

The enemy was continuing to wage war.

And the Marines were continuing their police action.

CONTACT US: Gordon Dillow has been a Register columnist for 10 years. A graduate of the University of Montana journalism school, he served as a U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam in 1971-72. Contact him at 714-796-7953 or at

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