Marines [in Marjah] had intelligence that insurgents intended to target approaching U.S. forces with 50-gallon drums filled with homemade explosives and metal fragments. But when officers at the command asked for permission to strike from the regional command in Kandahar, they were rejected...The Marines proposed targeting the drums at an angle to avoid damaging the house in case, as one officer noted, "they contained baby milk." Again they were denied. Finally, as the sun rose, a Marine unit began approaching the compound. The frustrated officer, fearful that a detonation would kill the troops, declared the target a case of self-defense. No longer was he required to seek permission. Three Hellfire missiles were launched at the drums, igniting them into a huge fireball, indicating that they were filled with explosives. "You can't fight a war like this," the officer growled [emphasis added] (WaPo, July 9).
To make matters worse, recruit training in the Army and Marine Corps is purposefully designed to inculcate an unqualified desire in soldiers and Marines to violate powerful psychological and cultural taboos on killing. I don’t argue that boot camp should stop training soldiers to kill, but I do assert that conditioning humans to kill fundamentally changes their psyche in ways that cannot be switched off like a light switch when the time comes to perform counterinsurgency. Besides, some recruits join the military specifically because they want to kill people, even if that’s not the reason they give their families.
Another reason, for which I have less direct proof but which seems nevertheless apparent, is that US culture is generally very individualistic. Like all militaries, the US military strives to foster a strongly collective orientation. It can’t be denied, though, that recruiting and incentives have been tailored to an individualistic population. The late Army of One campaign is the most obvious example. The Post 9/11 GI Bill, which offers the prospect of a full ride in college at the expense of a yet undetermined generation of taxpayers, is another. Self-denying ROEs are a major source of cognitive dissonance for the individually minded:
"If we allow soldiers to die in Afghanistan at the hands of a leader who says, 'We're going to protect civilians rather than soldiers,' what's going to happen on the ground?” said a junior Army officer in southern Afghanistan. “The soldiers are not going to execute the mission to the best of their ability. They won't put their hearts into the mission. That's the kind of atmosphere we're building" (WaPo, July 9).
There are, of course, some servicemembers who do get courageous restraint:
"The guys down here get emotional because friends get hurt, and we see bad guys every day," said LTC Johnny Davis, commander of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. "What you want to do is be patient. It doesn't have to be right now. If he is not a threat to you or not giving you effective fire, separate him from the people...Just yesterday we captured a three-man team, with the jugs, the command wire. So, that's how you do it. And you have to be patient, and take them out one cell at a time" (NPR, July 1).
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July 29, 2010 © 2010, Small Wars Foundation