Kathleen Parker

The JAG officers also question whether the regulation can be lawfully implemented, as restricting self-defense potentially contradicts the military Code of Conduct, which states that American fighting forces should not surrender when they have the means to resist. Of potentially greater consequence, they say, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that one's work position cannot diminish one's inherent right to self-defense, because its "inherent." Soldiers and Marines in theaters like Iraq are already at a disadvantage given that most tactical situations they face require split-second judgments where the enemy already has the initiative and the advantages. By changing the SROE in ways that reduce their ability to respond to imminent danger, they're at an even greater disadvantage. Forget about the deficiencies of armored Humvees and other tactical equipment. If soldiers and Marines can't act quickly when dangers arise, even the best equipment won't save lives.

Just as important as the ability to fire when threatened is a soldier's understanding that his command will stand behind him. To believe otherwise could cause hesitation and indecision, leading to deadly consequences.

The machinations of military bureaucracy have long been a concern to those in the trenches, especially to the soldier-lawyers who must interpret rules hatched in civilian cubicles and apply them to the chaotic instants of war. Witness another bureaucratic gem that has been circulating the past several days - an "escalation of force" flow chart from the Commander of the Multi-National Coalition-Iraq.

To see this thing is to not believe it. Picture a page loaded to the margins with boxes filled with tiny print and arrows pointing the way through a series of steps from "training" through "use-of-force" to how to disburse "condolence $$" to Iraqi claimants. If a soldier or Marine can find his way through this maze, he should skip Iraq and head straight for Harvard Business School and his new career as dean.

Whatever the theory behind these kinds of directives from on high, the trickle-down effect is hesitancy, concern over command support, and increased confusion on the ground. The potential for an adverse effect on morale goes without saying. As one Army officer who asked not to be identified put it: "We've got to get some warfighters over there who understand how to actually win, not look for ways to evade responsibility for 'lethal force decisions'."

Not everyone agrees that the new rule places limits on self-defense, even though the language seems plain enough. Some believe the rule should be read very narrowly: that such command limitation isn't likely to happen except in rare circumstances.

But where there's disagreement, there's room for doubt, which can be deadly under fire. At the very least, the new rule bears close scrutiny if any future interpretation could lead to a soldier or Marine hesitating because they haven't clearly been told that they have an inherent right to defend themselves.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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