Friday, September 03, 2010

Rules of Engagement

I just finished reading Lone Survivor, The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and The Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. Luttrell earned the Navy Cross for his efforts in what was envisioned as a relatively risky—but not impossible—mission that turned into a cluster fuck of immense proportions, resulting in the deaths of not only Luttrell's three teammates, but their entire rescue team when the Taliban shot down their helicopter. ("Cluster fuck" is not meant as a pejorative; the best plans can fall apart due to an inopportune breeze.)

Despite Luttrell's repeated liberal bashing, this lefty finds it hard to believe anyone could fail to find the story of SEAL Team 10 unmoving. While Robinson is inclined toward purple prose in places (notably when describing Taliban, the "liberal media," or other "lefties"), the battle sequences are told in a straightforward way that makes them even more effective. The duty and honor displayed by everyone involved is humbling; all three NCOs won the Navy Cross, and their leader later was awarded the Medal of Honor. (It says something about the esprit de corps of SEALs that when displaying their awards, the Medal of Honor falls below their SEAL insignia.) Luttrell doesn't appear to have much regard for those who agree with me politically, but my respect for his courage, loyalty, and endurance is unbounded.

What he lacks is a sense of irony. The limiting effects of the Rules of Engagement is a constant thread throughout the book. His team had a chance encounter with three Afghan goatherds as they were settling into position on their mission. There was debate about whether to kill the supposed civilians to keep them from talking to the Taliban. They were allowed to live and sent on their way—according to Luttrell—so the SEALs wouldn't have worry about what the media would say if it ever rolled back on them. To him, there was no question the military situation called for their deaths.

Of course, the goatherds did tell the Taliban, and operation Redwing was a catastrophe from that point forward. Luttrell bitterly blames this on liberal politicians who set the ROEs. Let's think about that for a minute. The events in Lone Survivor took place in 2005. Rules of Engagement are presumably set by the Department of Defense, in coordination with the State Department, and, presumably, the White House. That would have made the three principal players Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice, and George W. Bush. The Bush Administration was not well-known with suffering a lot of input from liberals. The Rules of Engagement were, for better or worse, Bush's responsibility.

But are the ROEs essentially wrong? Luttrell understandably sees them as responsible for the deaths of his team and their initial rescue force. He advocates turning the SEALS loose, and trusting them to make the right decisions. That would have sufficed in World War II, where the ROEs were, essentially, "engage and destroy the enemy." The Afghan War is more of a "hearts and minds" affair. Every civilian killed might spawn two more terrorists, who might—might—eventually kill more people than were lost in Redwing. It's impossible to say, but not unreasonable to assume that earning trust among the locals will be made considerably more difficult if they think you'll kill them if they become inconvenient.

The irony comes in because Luttrell actively undermines his own position. The Pashtun village that sheltered and cared for him for several days took him in under their custom of lokhay, which requires a village to defend to the death anyone given sanctuary. The elders placed their entire village under threat of death from the Taliban to protect Luttrell, not because he was an American, but because it was what they do. (Many in the village found themselves in this position in spite of the fact he was an American.)

The Taliban did not eliminate the town to take Luttrell, though he would have been quite a prize. As the author himself says, they couldn't afford to wipe out the whole village, as it would have denied them the support of other villages for miles around, support the Taliban could not do without. In essence, the Taliban's own Rules of Engagement were largely responsible for Luttrell's eventual rescue, as they could have taken him well before the Rangers got to him.

Make no mistake; I am not in any way equating the Taliban with our military. I am merely pointing out what Luttrell, and many conservatives, fails to grasp: winning a war is not just winning all the battles. It means creating a sustainable peace. In this case—to paraphrase Casey Stengle—it means keeping the 60% of the population who are on the fence from joining the 20% who will hate you no matter what. I mourn—as should we all—SEAL Team 10, and those who died trying to rescue them. We can ever repay that debt. The best we can do is to try to pay it forward, to ensure valor and sacrifice such as theirs is requested only when absolutely necessary.

1 comment:

Charlieopera said...

The best we can do is to try to pay it forward, to ensure valor and sacrifice such as theirs is requested only when absolutely necessary.

Great point. Great post. Irony is right. A damn shame this stuff has to happen ... but it doesn't "have to happen" ... not always.