Is Al Qaeda Propaganda Forcing
the Marine Corps to Reinvent Itself?
by Nathaniel R. Helms
“What happened is less important than what you do in response to the
incident.” -- LtCol Christopher I.
Woodbridge, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines from August
2003 through June 2005, commenting on his Operation Iraqi Freedom
of War, Rules of Engagement, and Escalation of Force Guide”.
remarkable success of the Al Qaeda engineered debacle at Haditha in
December 2005 to diminish the effectiveness of its fiercest nemesis is
illustrated in two documents reserved for “Official Use Only” and
obtained by Defend Our Marines from flummoxed Marines.
documents detail the “new" thinking of the Marine Corps high command
in response to unrelenting allegations of war crimes in the
international court of public opinion. Their very creation
demonstrates that the impact of Al Qaeda’s propaganda coups at Haditha
and elsewhere was so great it drove the nation’s premier fighting
force to change both how it thinks and how it wages war.
The papers, titled “The High
Profile Court-Martial: Lessons Learned from Ribbon Creek to Vietnam”
“Law of War, Rules of Engagement, and Escalation of Force Guide,”
prepared in May and September 2007 respectively, are aimed at
countering previous Marine combat policies that relied on maneuver and
firepower to overcome Al Qaeda-led resistance in Iraq. The “new”
thinking is exemplified by the recently adopted maxim, “First, Do No
Harm. You are part of the
world's most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you
engage your weapon. For the sake of our country and our corps, carry
out your mission and keep your honor clean.”
papers, written in May and September, 2007 respectively, shows just
how much damage the Marine Corps sustained when two Iraqi
counter-intelligence operatives successfully duped the receptive
Western press into believing that a squad of Marines had perpetrated
and then covered up a massacre. Instead of rebutting the charges, the
Marine Corps brass has apparently elected to bow to both public and
Pentagon pressure to restrain its forces by imposing more restrictive
rules of engagement and harsher penalties on Marines who fail to heed
them. Meanwhile, the increasing propensity to use attack jets and
helicopters to reduce enemy resistance provides a perplexing
Profile Court-Martial…” report is a 13-page lesson from the Marine
Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) on what senior officers need
to know to prepare for high-profile court-martials. It is filled with
anecdotal accounts, specific examples, and useful tips on what senior
Marine Corps officers should know and do when entangled in war crimes
allegations that have potentially damaging public and command
Lessons learned: Ribbon Creek
According to the prologue, written by Colonel M. E. Dunard, USMCR, the
Director of the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, “The MCCLL
library of lessons and observations are not sole source or
authoritative, but are intended as a means of informing the decision
making process and effecting needed changes in our institution.”
example of what shouldn’t happen, the authors pointed to the so-called
“Ribbon Creek” incident, a reference to the celebrated 1956
prosecution of a drunken Marine Corps Drill Instructor named Staff
Sergeant Matthew McKeon who drowned six of his recruits while marching
them at night through a rain-swollen stream on Parris Island. He
retained the pro bono counsel of a clever New York attorney
named Emile Zola Berman to mount his defense.
“The senior Marine generals feared the outcome of the court-martial
would be to place the Corps itself on trial. These Marine worries
worked to Berman’s advantage in his dealings with General [Commandant
Randolph McCall] Pate. Ultimately, they helped Berman separate Pate
from his advisers and brought the Commandant into the defense
counsel’s camp, where he agreed to testify for the accused at the
wily defense attorney also managed to entice retired Marine Corps
legend Lt. Gen Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller to testify on his client’s
behalf. As a result of Berman’s unanticipated tactics, when Gen. Pate
entered the courtroom, he “walked over to SSgt McKeon and shook his
hand, then said 'I am here to help you in every legal way, …Good luck
to you boy.'”
After testifying the next day “Chesty” Puller was quoted as saying “I
think from the testimony of General Pate yesterday he regrets that the
Marine Corps ever ordered this man to be tried.”
Ultimately SSgt McKeon was convicted of negligent manslaughter and
drinking on duty and was sentenced to nine months, of which he
actually served 12 days. Even so, it wasn’t a complete disaster for
the Marine Corps.
“In the aftermath of the Ribbon Creek deaths, the Marine Corps
successfully avoided a Congressional investigation that would have
threatened the character of recruit training and obtained the
opportunity to implement reforms on its own terms,” according to the
Lessons learned: The court martial of Lt Calley
Ironically, the authors use the example of the court-martial of “My
Lai Massacre” defendant 1st Lt. William Calley as another
example of what happens when people in the military are accused of
murdering civilians during combat operations. Calley’s example
explores the government’s case for prosecution and the strategy
employed by his defense team, also taking into account the public’s
unexpected sympathetic reaction to his prosecution.
“While the jury rejected the various defense themes by convicting
Calley, the scapegoat theme [engendered by the uninformed public]
would find widespread acceptance in the massive public outcry that
followed Calley’s conviction.”
One result was that Calley received a life sentence, of which he
served 1,230 days, or 56 days for each Vietnamese civilian he was
convicted of killing, the report concludes.
"First, Do No Harm"
From the “Law
of War, Rules of Engagement, and Escalation of Force Guide":
"First, Do No Harm" - Counterinsurgency,MCWP 3-33.5
"The idea is to end each day with fewer enemies than when it
started." - General
David Petraeus, USA
their honor clean. Doing the right thing must guide our conduct in all
operations, at every level, and in every application of tactics, ROE,
LOAC, and EOF procedures." - Lt Gen James Mattis, USMC
pocket" classes in the Law of War
sure that both commanders and Marines understand why they can expect
to be charged with crimes for violating the ROE and the Law of Armed
Conflict, the Multi-National Force-Iraq has prepared an illustrated
of War, Rules of Engagement, and Escalation of Force Guide.” Its
purpose is to provide “…'hip pocket' classes to instruct Marines in
complying with the Law of War, rules of engagement and escalation of
force, procedures, and acting in a manner consistent with 'keep our
honor clean' and the Commandant of the Marine Corps direction to
integrate ethical conduct into every aspect of operations.”
The text includes a discussion of the Law
of War – also known as the Law of Land Warfare, the Rules of
Engagement, including the definition of Positive
Identification (PID), a hostile act (HA), proportional response,
imminent use of force, escalation of
force, the treatment
of detainees, protection of designated person and property, pursuit if
self defense, and how to turn in Marines who violate the rules for
Also included in the instructions is a step
by step explanation of “the
graduated steps for response to potential threats, expressed in terms
of distance as the possible threat approaches friendly forces.” It
certainly sounds simple enough at first glance!
• In the
first step of evaluation, quickly evaluate and assess the perceived
threat at a range of 300 meters.
between 300 meters and 200 meters gain attention of suspected vehicle
or person by using visual signals, including flags and flares.
• In the
third step, audible signals ought to be executed at 200 to 100 meters
and lethal measures of direct action should be applied between 100 and
0 meters from the target.
prohibitions, rules of engagement and escalation of force seems to put
a lot of pressure on the Marines who will have to make life and death
decisions in the blink of an eye, often when they are stressed out,
exhausted, dehydrated, hungry and scared. For instance, an average
person running at full speed can cover 300 meters in 45 to 55 seconds
depending on age, fitness, and encumbrances. An average shooter can
put a three-round group in center mass at 300 meters without any
trouble. In a vehicle traveling 60 miles-per hour (100 KPH), a driver
can cover 300 meters distance in a few seconds. A Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED)
laden with explosives can easily kill an unprotected Marine at that
distance. It makes for some tough choices, particularly when making
the wrong one lands the Marine in jail.
Marines make the right choices in such perilous situations the
instruction booklet offers 33 scenarios to help them make their
decision to shoot or not to shoot as simple as possible. Below are a
few of the training scenarios:
Scenario #1: Sniper Operations
Question: You are a
sniper in the AO in a hidden position. You see a boat traveling from
east to west 400m from your position. It stops near your position and
Iraqis unload some bags. What do you do?
Answer: You have not seen
any hostile intent or actions from the Iraqis. You should not engage.
Continue to observe. Investigate activity.
Continued: You observe
the same men in the boat but now they are armed with AK-47’s. Should
Answer: THINK! Possession
of weapons by itself is not hostile intent. They could be for self
defense. You should not engage but you can detain and question them.
Scenario #7: The Hospital
Question: You are
conducting security and observation operations in North Ramadi. As you
near the Ramadi General Hospital, you receive an unknown amount of
small arms firing from the east, near one of the hospital buildings.
What do you do?
Answer: Seek cover.
Before returning fire, PID of the target needs to be established and
proportionality/collateral damage should be assessed. If you can PID
the source of the small arms fire, and if you can effectively counter
the threat without excessive loss of life (civilians in the hospital)
or damage to property (hospital and medical equipment), you may return
Scenario #11: The
Question: You are part of
a patrol in Ramadi. As your patrol rounds a street corner, you begin
to take sporadic fire from a group of three individuals a block or two
away. Your squad returns fire and pursues the enemy. After moving up
the street, you see them dash into a nearby mosque. What can you do?
Answer: You may only fire
into the mosque if the enemy continues to threaten you or your unit
from their position inside the mosque. Keep in mind the need to use
“proportional force” and the possibility of harming innocents who may
already be in the mosque. Cordon/secure the area and notify higher
headquarters. DO NOT ENTER THE MOSQUE. For troops-in-contact (as is
the case here) an O-6 Commander [Colonel] (or higher) must approve
entry into a mosque.
Scenario #12: Stationary Vehicle
Question: Your unit is
conducting a mounted escort convoy southwest of Camp Al Asad traveling
east on MSR Mobile, when you come upon a stationary blacked-out van in
the eastbound lane facing westbound. As you approach, you observe
possible movement inside the vehicle. What do you do?
Answer: A vehicle stopped
in the middle of the road facing the wrong direction is definitely
suspicious, but, by itself, does not equal HA [hostile action] or HI
[hostile intent]. There are several possible reasons why this vehicle
is stopped here (i.e. it is broken down, had an accident, abandoned,
PVBIED, sniper, etc.). You should not engage the vehicle. Perhaps you
can initiate escalation of force procedures to see how the vehicle
reacts. If you suspect a VBIED, you should stop, cordon the area and
call Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
Scenario # 22: The Taxi Driver
You are part of a vehicle mounted and dismounted security patrol
involving an M1114 and ten persons in Rutbah. The patrol is crossing
route Michigan (north to south), when a blue Chevy Caprice approaches
moving east to west at a high rate of speed (estimated 60 mph).
The M1114 (Humvee) is on
Michigan and the dismounts are split on the north and south sides of
Michigan. The M1114 gunner begins EOF (Escalation of Force) by waving
his hands at the vehicle while the driver maneuvers the M1114 to the
south side of Michigan. The vehicle continues to approach. What do you
Answer: The fact that the
Chevy Caprice is approaching does not, by itself, constitute the
hostile act/hostile intent needed to authorize the use of deadly
force. Continue with EOF measures. Perhaps hand waving is not visible
enough to get the driver’s attention. When time and circumstances
permit, wave flags or chem lights. If flags or chem lights have no
effect, then progress to pyro, laser devices, pen flares, or flash
bangs. If still no effect then progress to warning shots, disabling
shots and finally kill shots if necessary.
Prepare for controversy
“Prepare for controversy after guilty verdicts in war crime
prosecutions,” the authors of "The High
Profile Court-Martial" warn. “Many of the same political factors
that influenced public opinion about the war in Vietnam after the
Calley verdict in 1971 can be expected to be encountered should there
be guilty verdicts in war crime cases arising from the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq.”
With rules like these it is hard to imagine why!
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
15 February 2008
Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our
Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war
correspondent, and, most recently, author of
My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).