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
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
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 wounded.
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
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.