I want you to read this tweet, sent after today’s MOAB drop and written by an American patriot and a man I’m privileged to know, Johnny (Joey) Jones:
I lost my legs because my gov’t was afraid to use the tools they had and saw me as expendable. I wish I’d had this admin.— Johnny (Joey) Jones (@Johnny_Joey) April 13, 2017
In response to online argument, he further amplified his point:
We begged to use bombs on the minefield ghost town I lost my legs clearing. But by all means-continue your rhetorically righteous tweeting. https://t.co/OoyoxZzZtV— Johnny (Joey) Jones (@Johnny_Joey) April 13, 2017
Because, I believe, more of us would’ve come home alive and whole if we’d used bombs to eradicate enemy safe havens-Feel free to disagree https://t.co/jnWsZKdGVO— Johnny (Joey) Jones (@Johnny_Joey) April 13, 2017
By the way, I quote these tweets not to spark any anger against the man Jones is addressing, Daniel Riley (who’s also a vet and amputee; he lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan), but to highlight an important and painful point about our almost 16-year-long war. Excessive American caution has cost American lives and American limbs, and it has left families and friends of the victims with deep psychological wounds. Those wounds would be grievous enough in the best circumstances, but they’re compounded by the fact that many of the decisions not to shoot, not to use artillery, or not to drop bombs were based on a combination of rules of engagement and military misjudgments that were transparently foolish at the time.
To understand what our men in the field faced, you have to understand just a bit about the legal and command superstructure. First, the law of war defines the limits of military force in any context. They’re designed to place outer boundaries on the conduct of any force in the field, not just America and its allies. In practice, however, only America and its allies comply with the law of war.
Second, rules of engagement place an additional restriction on the use of force. The rules can’t be broader than the laws of war, only narrower. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the rules of engagement have defined not just when force is authorized (for example, in the face of a “hostile act” or “hostile intent”) but also which level of commander can authorize the use of any given weapon system.
Finally, there still exists commanders’ discretion. This discretion can only run in one direction, however. Commanders can’t order the use of force in conflict with the laws of war or rules of engagement, but they can choose not to use force even when legally authorized. In other words, even if they have the legal power to bomb a target, they may choose to hold fire. This happened a number of times in my deployment, and this decision can be among the most agonizing a commander makes.
Thus, this concept of of commander’s discretion grants a commander (and a commander-in-chief) the ability to make important changes in the conduct of the war even without changing the formal rules of engagement. With my own eyes I’ve seen commanders apply the same rules of engagement and use dramatically different degrees of force. The rules were the same, but the mindset was different. And the mindset often comes straight from the top.
While we don’t yet have indications that the Trump administration has changed any rules, it seems to have changed the mindset, and that could well not only make a concrete difference in conditions on the ground but also in the minds and hearts of our own troops. Soldiers tend not to respect timidity, and they generally have little patience for commanders who seem to place public or political perceptions over their lives and limbs. Watch this Trump statement carefully:
He doesn’t say he authorized the use of the bomb itself. He says he authorizes the military. This is a key, wise, statement — one that hopefully empowers the military to act from a proper position of legal, moral, and political strength. Obama was notorious for not only implementing strict rules of engagement but for vacuuming an enormous amount of military decision-making authority straight to the White House. It’s hard to think of a more disempowering practice. It’s hard to think of a practice better calculated to lead to timidity in the field. Trump seems to be bringing a change, and it’s a change that’s long overdue.