Permissible Arms

The Most Interesting Sub-Plot in the Gen. McChrystal Debacle

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency by ericdcummings on 2 July 2010

by Michael C of On Violence

(Before the post begins, Eric C and I would like to thank Karaka for giving us the opportunity to guest post on her site, both today and Monday. The guest-post exchange continues next Thursday at our site, so check it out.)

“McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.”

Michael Hastings inserted that controversial statement in his recent article on former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. I guess I just want to ask, so what?

Through several paragraph, Hastings shows how disgusted the troops are with the Rules of Engagement in particular. He describes the mood as, “The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal.” In another example, “A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian.” There is also this gem, from a Special Forces Operator, “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

Hastings repeats a few of the misnomers surrounding the rules of engagement himself, but is pretty clever by putting the words in the mouths of troops in Afghanistan. This begs the question, when did we start asking our troops if tactical decisions were Ok with them?

Can you imagine a reporter interviewing Soldiers about D-Day? If there was a worry about excessive casualties, would they have canceled the invasion? We lost more men on D-Day then we have in both the Iraq and Afghan wars–one day compared with ten years. Leaders deliberately kept the men in the dark.

Did Soldiers get interviewed on the tactical logic of Civil War skirmish lines? The Union alone lost five or six times as many men in one day at the battle of Antietem then we have in all of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Were grunts interviewed about their thoughts on World War I full-frontal charges? I doubt it, they thought it was an illogical strategy. In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the Italians resorted to killing every tenth man in a line, as well as punishing their families back at home, if the Soldiers refused to go out.

If Generals believe that restrictive rules of engagement are a tactical necessity that will win the war, that should be the only justification necessary. If the American people don’t want any more casualties, then they should advocate for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, not tactical changes that would lose the war.

The only tragedy of the rules of engagement (and General McChrystal/Petraeus’ COIN strategy) is the poor implementation by subordinate commanders in Afghanistan–including division, brigade and battalion commanders across the country. From what I can tell, extremely poor understanding of the rules of engagement, or a complete disregard for them, is hurting our Soldiers, not the rules themselves. General McChrystal failed in part because he couldn’t communicate to his subordinates. Even General Petraeus isn’t blaming the ROE, but poor execution of subordinates.

A Marine Corps Private First Class gives a quote in the article that explains why Generals, instead of Pfcs, make the strategy and Rules of Engagement: “We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place.”

Michael Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.


6 Responses

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  1. Eric C said, on 2 July 2010 at 10:28

    So first, again, big thanks to Karaka for lending her space to Michael and me while she’s on vacation.

    On the post, I find this comes up again and again: Soldiers openly questioning leadership, especially if troops are in harms way.

    It just feels like this is a radical change in the mindset of our army. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they are all volunteers. Maybe it has something to do with Vietnam. I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing, except when it involves knee jerk reactions to policies, like Michael detailed above.

  2. Starbuck said, on 2 July 2010 at 10:42

    Ah yes, my favorite strategic theory, “we should just drop a bomb on this place”.

    Someone responded on Michael Yon’s Facebook page damning all the Ivy-league grads. The answer to Afghanistan was simple, not complex, as Harvard grads claimed. According to him, we should just “bomb them” and listen to Gen. Petraeus, and not Harvard grads.

    I didn’t know if I should weep or laugh.

  3. Eric C said, on 2 July 2010 at 11:10


  4. Michael C said, on 2 July 2010 at 13:55

    I guess I feel like I can speak on this topic just because I told my men to hold their fire. Now, our ROE in Afghanistan at the time wasn’t nearly as restrictive as now, but I still said hold. Also, I saw so many bullets wasted so many times. But the point is the idea that you can instill fear in your enemies. Look to Monday because Eric makes some great points.

    @Starbuck- I haven’t been reading Yon as much just because he is getting pretty far out there, and almost only doing facebook not his blog.

  5. Karaka said, on 8 July 2010 at 09:19

    It definitely speaks to the separation of larger, nation-wide strategy from local combative efforts. The most telling point of that article (insofar as this subject goes) is when Hastings describes how the intentions of a COIN strategy have become diluted and distorted when it finally reaches the boots on the ground. That illuminates the real problem: understanding the strategy, the policy, so that soldiers feel confident in what they are doing.

    I do think the professionalization of the military has contributed to an eagerness to publicly question. But I also am not convinced that that is entirely a bad thing. Where this particular anecdote falls, I think, is in the chain of command that does not adequately brief its soldiers on what–and why–they are doing what they are doing, either from a lack of own understanding in the officer class or personal failings.

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