While American civilians and politicians debate when and whether to withdraw troops from Iraq, the buzz among some military lawyers has been a recent Pentagon rule change that they say potentially limits service members' ability to defend themselves.
In June, the Pentagon changed its Standing Rules of Engagement to allow commanders to limit individual self-defense by members of their unit. Interpreted for me by two Army judge advocate general officers (JAGs), this essentially means that soldiers and Marines may not have the individual prerogative to fire upon an enemy when they are faced with an imminent threat of death or serious injury.
That belongs only to commanders, who may not be present to make a decision every time a soldier or Marine faces a deadly threat.
The impetus behind the rule change likely evolved from concerns that a soldier might misinterpret a danger and kill an innocent instead of a bad actor. But critics say the solution to this ever-present tension is better training, not more restrictive rules.
Commanders and JAGs close to the debate say the rule change poses numerous potential problems and contradicts the guiding principle in all of America's rules of engagement, which is that nothing in these rules limits the inherent right of self-defense. If a soldier or Marine can't make a split-second decision to kill or be killed, even at the risk of making an erroneous judgment, he or she may eventually hesitate, fumble the wrong way, and end up dead.
Not only does this new rule defy common sense and place service people at undue risk, say military lawyers with whom I've spoken, but it could make recruiting difficult. One, in an opinion piece he submitted to the Army Times, wrote:
"If the Army thinks it has a recruiting problem now, wait until the mothers and fathers of prospective recruits learn that the military is trying to give more legal protections to possible Al Qaeda members demonstrating hostile intent than the Fourth Amendment currently gives to criminals in the United States."
His commentary was never published. He asks that I not name him out of concern for possible retribution.