2003-2006, I could not identify any behavior that was threatening or even unusual for a vehicle in an urban area. Often, the only act that triggered the engagement of a civilian vehicle was the crossing of an imaginary line that, even when marked, couldn’t possibly have held the same significance for the driver that it did for the Marine shooting him. I found that a considerable number of Marines were simply unwilling or unable to see things from the civilian’s perspective despite being able to rattle off General Mattis’ 5-3-5 (which include “First, do no harm” and “Iraqis are not our enemy, but our enemy hides amongst them”) without hesitation. GEN McChrystal confirmed that this hadn’t changed as of early 2010 when, during a virtual town hall meeting with troops in Afghanistan, he said, “To my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it.” In fairness, McChrystal also acknowledged that his ROEs were sometimes bastardized in the bureaucratic route from his pen to a card in a combat armsman’s hip pocket.
Some might say that no one ever said the troops had to agree with the doctrine or should be held responsible for conditions that were essentially brought about by policy decisions. True as this is, the widely accepted narrative is that because of their honor and bravery, the troops are exercising restraint, protecting civilians, and have unimpeachable discipline such that any ROE given to them will be obeyed without question. This assumption, and the limits of imposed discipline generally, clearly need a closer look. Psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo showed decades ago in separate experiments that ordinary people readily rationalize harming innocents, and a full third of them may even take pleasure in it, when a higher authority takes responsibility for the human cost. No individual factor (e.g., economic class or parental upbringing) accounted for by Milgram or Zimbardo was able to predict this behavior in subjects yet, astoundingly, their findings remain absent as caveats to “honor” and “bravery” in the discourse on military restraint.
A compounding factor rarely addressed by, well, anyone at all, is that servicemembers who kill civilians, whether intentionally or accidentally, will usually escape legal scrutiny. This is partly inherent in the decentralized nature of counterinsurgency – commanders cannot be everywhere at once. It’s virtually impossible to fact-check or even identify a falsified patrol report unless relatives of the victims approach US forces and accept all the accompanying complications, from risking yet another EOF to insurgent retaliation to US forces’ disbelief. Suffice it to say that I have firsthand knowledge of the regularity with which cover-ups and their many rationalizations can occur below the platoon level. Ask yourself: What’s to stop them?
There are many reasons why US troops have such a hard time accepting the wisdom of strict ROEs. It’s not that they are uniquely bad or undisciplined. One factor, perhaps the most important, is common to all highly functional militaries: Primary group cohesion, otherwise known as “brotherhood.” By the time a combat arms unit deploys to Afghanistan, its members have spent months of hardship in training during which they’ve forged deep interpersonal bonds.1 Their desire to protect each other is often valued over (or fallaciously equated with) accomplishment of the counterinsurgency mission:
1 For an outstanding illustration of this camaraderie in action, see William Manchester’s quote in Lawrence LeShan’s The Psychology of War, Helios 2002, p. 97.
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July 29, 2010