Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rules of Engagement

I don't generally write "political" posts because people are provably: ignorant, unreasonable, and self-centered. Read any cognitive psychology book. I'll get into the specifics in another post maybe.

At any rate, I recently posted a video released by WikiLeaks about an incident where a US Apache helicopter mowed down a group of "possible" insurgents, which happened to include two Reuters staffers. I'm an active reader and contributor of Reddit, a rather large online community that encompasses a wide range of perspectives from people of all walks of life. The video initiated a heated discussion in many many threads, with thousands of comments, and I've read a fair selection and hopefully gleaned something meaningful from it.

The most interesting item I encountered was a post by a former US military combatant who had served in precisely the same area where the video took place. It echoed - from a personal perspective - the position that the personnel heard on the audio track acted legally within the standard rules of engagement determined by the US military for attack helicopters in urban environments in Iraq. The situation was exacerbated by the stress of increasing insurgent activity at the time of the incident, leading to the unsettling tone of the commentary.

These things don't bother me particularly much. War is a fact, and a horrible, dirty, despicable, and undeniably negative fact at that. People die, and that's the point of war (pretty much). The subsequent coverup is also understandable, to a point. It's clear that it's difficult to wage a war without public support, so certain things must be done to keep that support. Fair enough, we all knew that, no big deal.

Two things bothered me.

Thing one: the Rules of Engagement are designed, written, controlled, and enforced by the US military. What is the purpose of these rules? To minimize costs in personnel and material, and maximize efficacy (achieving military goals). Civilian deaths increases costs because of court costs, PR costs, and perceived costs from public outcry, etc. Without public support, the tax money dries up (or somebody else gets elected), and the troops have to go home. It's a simple equation. 

Logically, the solution offering maximum efficacy and minimum costs is nuclear annihilation: the enemy is irrevocably wiped out, and not a single ally is lost. The amortized cost of the weapon is absolutely minimal. Win! Except the domestic public and international governmental bodies would be horrified, the generals and commander in chief would be charged and judged to committing war crimes, and this type of thing certainly wouldn't be done.

The other extreme is sending in a force armed entirely with handcuffs, legions of detectives, psychologists, and lawyers, and capture, investigate, and try each potential enemy. Each case would be dealt with justly and with an absolute minimum of collateral damage (aside from inaction). This scenario is just as clearly impossible as the previous.

So we identify the need for a middle ground.  Can we honestly say that a middle ground where it's acceptable for a helicopter to circle over a kilometer away and kill a group of people without absolute certainty that they pose a direct threat is where the line delineating the "Rules of Engagement" should be drawn? How about a middle ground where it's acceptable for that same helicopter to target and attack a van whose occupants show no interest but to help the wounded? When that van contains children? And what can we say about those rules of engagement when they prompt officials to deny any wrongdoing or mistakes, don't offer support or condolences for the survivors, and don't release the events for the public at large to consider the implications? What effect does that have on democracy?

Thing two: the ex-military man who wrote the post was intelligent, eloquent, and morally just man. He wrote with conviction, was well-informed, and refrained from name-calling, generalizations, and other low-brow techniques that can sometimes convince unreasonable people. The problem was that he argued the actions of the pilots and gunmen were justified, solely on the fact that their actions were within the letter of these Rules of Engagement. As if they were ordained by God himself. But they aren't - they're just written by some people in suits in a building somewhere, who're trying to balance a min-max equation of costs and benefits, and the derivative of the equation happens to be zero at the point where Apache helicopters and weaponized unmanned drones cross - a little to the right of the police-raid-arrest-trial nightmare, and a little to the left of nuclear holocaust.

Let's rethink those Rules of Engagement. This time, let's consider the foreign civilians as equals.

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