Marines keep combat rules to themselves
Testimony at hearings for Iraq war crimes, however, suggests
restrictions governing the use of deadly force are a gray area.
Angeles Times, July 31, 2007.
CAMP PENDLETON — The
war-crime hearings underway here have led to an unusual public airing
of some of the Marine Corps' most tightly held combat secrets: the
so-called rules of engagement that govern when Marines can use deadly
force in Iraq.
Testimony thus far suggests the rules are ambiguous and subjective,
and leave many Marines feeling they are being hamstrung in their
ability to protect themselves by killing or capturing the enemy.
In the Haditha cases, where enlisted Marines are charged with murder,
defense attorneys assert their clients were following the rules of
engagement when they shot 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and
children, minutes after a fellow Marine was killed by a roadside bomb
in November 2005. Five were pulled from a taxi and killed, and 19 were
killed in three nearby houses.
Prosecutors, with equal conviction, say the Marines were violating the
same rules. The hearing officer said he's confused about what the
The rules of engagement are so central to Marine culture that they are
treated as a closely held secret. During hearings in other cases, the
courtroom has been cleared while evidence about the rules has been
discussed. Reporters who travel with Marine battalions have to sign an
agreement not to disclose such rules.
Boiled down, the rules require a four-step process before Marines can
fire their M-16s: show, shout, shove and then shoot. A Marine must
also have positive identification of a target as a threat. A target
must have shown not just a hostile intent but also hostile actions.
But the definitions of positive identification, hostile intent and
hostile action are subjective, and thus can change from one area to
the next, one day to the next, according to testimony.
In the Hamandiya case, defendants are accused of kidnapping and
killing an unarmed Iraqi man in April 2006, then planting a shovel and
assault rifle near his body to make it look like he was an insurgent
planting a bomb.
Testimony by one of their officers in that case suggests frustration
with the rules of engagement may have led the Marines to look to a
B-grade Hollywood movie for a tactical solution.
A platoon lieutenant testified that one night while on a fruitless
ambush mission, his Marines started talking about the 1999 movie "The
Boondock Saints," in which young men in Boston begin killing the
gangsters that are terrorizing their neighborhood and seem beyond the
reach of the law.
The movie's message was clear: The killings weren't legal, but they
were morally justified.
A couple of nights later, a squad of Marines led by Sgt. Lawrence
Hutchins III allegedly carried out a plot to kidnap and execute a
suspected insurgent leader in Hamandiya as a warning to other Iraqis
to stop attacking Marines. Hutchins faces murder charges.
The lieutenant, who testified in the Hamandiya case Friday, said he
was unaware of the plot but added that on other occasions, he had
ordered tactics not mentioned in the rules of engagement, like choking
suspects and putting a gun in one suspect's mouth until he provided
information about planned insurgent attacks.
"It was a gray area," said 2nd Lt. Nathan Phan, "and I thought I was
doing the right thing to get information to save Marines' lives."
The judge, hearing testimony from Phan and defense witnesses, told the
defense attorneys that their case seemed to be based on the assertion
that the rules of engagement "are tying our hands up and people are
laughing at us."
In the Haditha cases, where enlisted Marines killed numerous civilians
during a raid, the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, has repeatedly
expressed exasperation at testimony about the rules of engagement.
Capt. Kathryn Navin, a lawyer who briefs Marines in Iraq before they
go into combat, testified that it is permissible to shoot and kill
people fleeing a roadside bomb attack even if they are unarmed and no
proof exists that they were involved in the attack.
But, Navin added, it is not necessarily permissible to kill someone
just for pointing a gun at you.
"So the [rules of engagement] are more restrictive than the common
law, where [a civilian] can kill someone who points a gun at you?"
Ware asked with a note of incredulity.
Capt. Jeffrey Dinsmore, who was the battalion intelligence officer
when Marines killed 24 civilians in Haditha, testified that there is
continuing conflict between frontline Marines and upper-level officers
about what constitutes positive identification and what behavior
defines hostile action.
In the preliminary hearing of Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, prosecutors
assert that, under the rules of engagement, he had a responsibility to
identify his targets as threats before firing. Tatum is accused of
killing six unarmed civilians in Haditha, including women and
"Marines are required to positively identify a target, even a house
that is considered hostile," said Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury, the lead
prosecutor. "Is it challenging? Yes. Unfortunately that's the reality
But Tatum's lawyer, Jack Zimmerman, said Tatum was following the most
important rule of all — coming to the aid of other Marines, who were
firing at targets inside the house.
"You cannot sit back in this air-conditioned room at Camp Pendleton
and second-guess these young men," Zimmerman told Ware.
Ware will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis on whether
Tatum should go to court-martial. He has already recommended that
Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt not be court-martialed.
One of the thornier issues about rules of engagement concerns firing
at houses where insurgents may be hiding behind civilians. In their
pre-combat lecture, Marines are told that once a house has been
declared "hostile," it is permissible to fire on it.
But a Pentagon law-of-war expert, W. Hays Parks, said, "The fact that
[the insurgents] use human shields doesn't give us authority to start
firing and say, 'The fault is yours, not ours.' " Parks was testifying
in the case of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, accused of dereliction of
duty for not investigating the Haditha killings.
But looser rules seem to apply when a decision is made to use air
power. Testimony suggests that civilian casualties are expected, and
tolerated, when a decision is made to drop a bomb or fire a missile at
a "high-profile" target rather than send in ground troops.
"You can declare [Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi hostile
and drop a bomb on the house and kill him and everybody in the house,"
said Lt. Col. Brian Cosgrove, one of Hutchins' attorneys.
After they receive lectures in Camp Pendleton and Iraq, Marines are
given small cards summarizing the rules of engagement to keep in their
Marines called as character witnesses for the defendants have made no
reference to whether they are judged fit for combat based on their
knowledge and obedience to the rules of engagement. Rather, a Marine's
dedication to helping colleagues survive appears to take precedence.
"He's a good noncommissioned officer," Capt. William Diaz testified
about Cpl. Trent D. Thomas. "Good NCOs are hard to find. He would get
his Marines home alive; that's the primary thing."
Thomas, making an unsworn statement to the same jury, said, "Every
Marine I ever served with knows Cpl. Thomas has his back."
The jury, which had convicted Thomas of kidnapping and conspiracy to
commit murder in the Hamandiya plot, decided not to sentence him to
additional time in the brig beyond the 14 months he spent behind bars
awaiting his trial.
Navin testified that Marines are given a 70-slide lecture on the rules
before being sent to the front lines. The final slide in the formal
lecture shows a cartoon of an Arab figure, riding a camel and waving a
sword, who has just lopped off the nose of a fighter jet on the
The pilot asks, "What are the rules of engagement?"