BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
4 April 2000
DO IT RIGHT OR DIE
I attended the premier of "Rules of Engagement" (ROE) last Sunday night in Los Angeles. What a powerful flick! "Saving Private Ryan" showed what infantry combat is really like. "Rules of Engagement," conceived by my cousin, Marine war hero Jim Webb, and directed by Hollywood veteran Billy Friedkin, also has incredible you-are-there combat footage. But it's just not a war flick. It drives home the point of how our warriors today are being hung out to die by the inside-the-beltway suits and the protect-my-career-at-all-costs generals.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, our warriors have been dispatched to hellholes around the world -- often in places like Kosovo to act as the referee between two hostile tribes -- and placed in the sort of risky situation the flick depicts.
The brass has done a 180 from the ROE used by Israel Putnam at Bunker Hill in 1775 when he said, "Men, you are all marksmen -- don't one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes."
Today, well-armed and well-trained troops can no longer cut it alone. Commanders should also be issued a reinforced squad of lawyers to decipher ROE designed to protect politicians, statesmen and generals rather than the grunts down on the deck dodging the incoming.
U.S. ROE are churned out mainly by non-streetwise civilians along with senior military leaders who, in theory, are charged with looking out for the welfare of the troops.
Unfortunately, most of these dudes have never walked the walk -- or those who did caught career-convenient amnesia -- and nobody seems to have a clue about what goes down in a killing zone where battle savvy and quick reactions are the keys to survival.
Take the case of Special Ops troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October of 1993. Even though Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery said, "I believe U.S. forces will be at risk without the armor reinforcements," Secretary of Defense Les Aspin killed his request for tanks.
Aspin was playing politics with American lives. Sending tanks might signal that the United States was "increasing its presence" in Somalia when Congress was pressing the White House to get out and write the misadventure off. Since Gen. Colin Powell, then the senior military adviser to the president, went along with the political game, Field Commander Montgomery and his troops never got the right stuff to do the job.
And by not giving Montgomery the requested tanks, Aspin imposed restrictions that exceeded even the most stringent written limitations ever issued in any ROE to any U.S. force in the field.
As a result, 18 America soldiers died and more than 100 were
Had the top brass learned from the past, Mogadishu wouldn't have happened. In 1983, our warriors were clobbered in Beirut, Lebanon, by a terrorist who drove an explosives-laden truck into a U.S. billet.
Casper Weinberger, the Sec Def, had ordered that the use of force was authorized but only in self-defense. Then the on-the-ground Marine commander played it safe and prohibited the security element from having loaded weapons while on sentry duty. That included the sentries guarding Posts 6 and 7 -- between which the suicide truck bomber broke through and destroyed the barracks.
The ROE were: "Peacetime rules of engagement would apply." But peacetime rules didn't help the sentry on Post 7 when he heard a vehicle approaching at high speed.
The Marine suspected a terrorist attack, immediately slapped a magazine in his M-16 rifle, chambered a round, shouldered the weapon and took aim. By the time he was ready to fire, the truck had already sped through his position and slammed into the billet -- killing 242 Marines, sailors and soldiers.
To prevent these senseless mistakes, the ROE have got to go back to being G.I.-proof simple. A short, easily understood directive -- not thick documents with 87 appendixes requiring days of interpretation by top-gun attorneys.
It's time common sense was applied to the ROE so that more Americans don't die in vain. The top brass must have faith that those on the ground or in the sky in hostile or potentially hostile environments will make the right calls. Just as Israel Putnam trusted his patriots at Bunker Hill in 1775.
This great film shows all that and more.