Commentary Search

To teach or apply ROEs

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Stacee Glass
  • 321st Missile Squadron

When I was a plebe at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the stories of “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper” were just making headlines as tales of heroism and tragedy, providing raw accounts of the true war in the Middle East. While I admired these men and women for their courage and sacrifice, what I truly wanted to know was if anything could have been done to prevent their deaths in the first place. They were well trained and superior fighters. Did the United States give them every tool necessary to survive? Were they handicapped in ways that could have made the difference between life and death?

I started with the infamous story of the SEALs on the mountain side who encountered a goat herder from the local village where the enemy held a strong presence. The major question was why they let him go if they knew the possible consequences. Were there any options other than kill or release? I began studying international war law, the Geneva Conventions and ultimately, our own rules of engagement (ROE) to try to find an answer. I became more deeply interested in how we develop, create and disseminate our ROE for the troops actually employing them in combat.

My research was initially focused against any form of restrictive ROE; I felt that our service men and women were well trained and capable of making the right decision when it came to engaging the enemy. I was convinced that very restrictive ROE could cause hesitation in combat and lead to disastrous and unintended consequences.

As I conducted interviews and read literature, I discovered the true need for ROE. The United States holds the moral compass for the rest of the world, even if at times it may seem restrictive. Others do not play by the same rules as we do. We must set the example. We do not succumb to easy tactics, but strictly follow the international standard we expect everyone to uphold.

However, I did find that the methods we use to convey our message and expectations could be more effective. Young officers and new Airmen cannot be expected to remember the intricacies of the Geneva Convention, International Humanitarian Law, or Human Rights Law during the chaos of war. What they would benefit from is a deeper discussion of the ethical and moral codes they are to embrace. If we can promote confidence that whatever decisions are made during battle were rooted in what was most ethically appropriate for that moment, we could make our military more effective and lethal.

In summation, creating a system more firmly founded in ethical and moral development rather than strict adherence to nuances in complex legal literature will make us a more effective warfighting force. Ultimately, it will prevent unintended mental and moral consequences. Our troops should go into battle with confidence in the ethical and moral codes they embrace and the knowledge that their country supports their well-trained decisions, rather than carry the weight of the threat of punishment when war does not play their way.