The Corner

National Security & Defense

Our Immoral Rules of Engagement

In response to Legacy in Literary History

Jonah’s post quoting from The Hill on American rules of engagement against ISIS is deeply disturbing. If it is true that we’re refraining from air strikes if there’s a risk “of even one civilian casualty” (and I say “if” because rules of engagement are supposed to be classified), then the administration is imposing a deeply immoral standard on American forces.

Jonah’s exactly right that this standard — especially now that it’s announced — drives ISIS much deeper into the civilian population, incentivizing the use of human shields and creating — as he says — “safe zones” for ISIS operations. All of this, of course, means that more civilians will die — not from the American pilots who are forbidden to drop their ordinance — but from ISIS. Every month that it endures and grows, it kills more innocents, often in the most horrible ways imaginable. 

Moreover, we’re turning the purposes of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) on their head. The intent of LOAC is to render conflict more humane by imposing basic rules of war on belligerents. But LOAC only works if offenders are punished, if they face greater adversity through their violations than their defiance. Yet under current American policy, ISIS has absolutely no reason to comply with even one syllable of the law and every incentive to disregard LOAC entirely. They don’t care about our moral disgust, only about their military triumph.

Finally, it’s deeply demoralizing to most American pilots and soldiers, men and women who risk their lives to defend our nation. Fortunately, the rules have not yet cost American lives in the air, but if they’re applied to any ground combat, the toll will be high. Even less-restrictive rules of engagement have cost American soldiers their lives and limbs throughout the War on Terror, including in circumstances when they knew they were engaging enemy forces but were denied permission to fire from higher headquarters.

It’s not virtuous to prolong a war – to allow our enemies to rampage – for the sake of upholding ineffective rules of engagement that far exceed the requirements of international law. If the law of war means anything, it means that violators must be punished. It’s past time to punish ISIS.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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