Michael Ledeen says the real problem in Iraq is we’re not killing enough people:
Anybody who’s spent time with Iraq veterans has heard complaints about the short leash attached to our military. Every now and then a story surfaces that gives a bit of detail, in which our soldiers mutter that they’re forced to put their lives at even greater risk because they often are forbidden to initiate action.
Ledeen is right, of course, that rules of engagement are crucial. And he’s right, too, that many Iraq vets are upset that the current ROE fail to maximize the safety of US forces. Which is a natural response. If I were being deployed to a war zone, I would want my ROE to maximize my safety, too. On the other hand, if I wanted to bring stability to a foreign country, I would want foreign occupation/peacekeeping troops to act with great restraint in their use of firepower. In practice, one winds up compromising. You get ROE that are far less restrictive than what you’d see for a civilian police force, but still substantialy more restrictive than troops are going to be happy with. So soldiers, not-unreasonably fearing for their lives, break the rules now and again. But it only takes a handful of incidents to completely poison relations (think of the NYPD’s problems with African-American New York then add language and religious barriers, automatic weapons, mortars, and heavily armored vehicles) and you’re in the shitter.
In principle, one could get this balance right and things like the new Counterinsurgency Manual have a lot of operational advice in this regard. The larger point, however, is that you’re putting troops in an intrinsically difficult situation. If you send 130,000 people someplace dangerous for years, incidents where someone errs on the side of personal safety and winds up killing local civilians in a way that doesn’t seem justifiable to the local community are all-but-inevitable. They’re also lethal to the mission.