Denying Self-Defense to GIs in Iraq

Article excerpt

As part of President Bush's troop surge now under way in Iraq, he insisted that Iraqi leaders "lift needless restrictions on Iraqi and coalition forces." That's an important step, but a deeply ironic one, because it overlooks other unreasonable restrictions imposed on US soldiers - by the US government.

In 2005, the Pentagon amended its Standing Rules of Engagement (ROE). The new rules make it harder for US troops to boldly counter hostile acts, and they specifically allow commanders to limit the right of soldiers to defend themselves!

The United States seeks to bring peace to Iraq by winning the "hearts and minds" of the civilian population. Unnecessary collateral damage and innocent civilian deaths undermine this effort. Presumably, the new ROE, which allow unit commanders to "limit individual self-defense by members of their unit" after notifying the secretary of Defense, were adopted with a noble purpose in mind: to lessen civilian casualties. However, limiting the right of self-defense is too drastic and it puts soldiers at risk.

Commanders take these restrictions seriously. Newsweek magazine recently quoted Marine Capt. Rob Secher, who complained that "anytime an American fires a weapon there has to be an investigation into why there was an escalation of force."

The current, restrictive approach is a jurisprudential about- face. I'm a Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Officer in the Army Reserves and before I deployed in 2003, professors at the Army JAG School taught me - and I subsequently taught soldiers - that troops never lose the right of self-defense. It is a right so valued that, according to a 2001 article in the "Army Lawyer," US Army Commanders preparing for operations in Kosovo "refused to rest until they received interpretations of NATO ROE consistent with self-defense ..."

Indeed, the inherent right of self-defense provided the basis for the US response to 9/11. In an October 2001 letter to the UN Security Council, John Negroponte (then the US ambassador to the UN) reported "that the United States of America, together with other States, has initiated actions in the exercise of its inherent right of individual and collective self-defense following the armed attacks ... on September 11, 2001."

How can the inherent right of self-defense exist in order to enter a war, but not to fight it to win? Despite the obvious inconsistency, some senior JAG Officers, who are considered operational law experts, have turned away from the long-standing view that soldiers have a right to defend themselves and instead have embraced the restrictions. …