Walter E. Williams

The March 23 Iranian capture of 15 British Royal Navy sailors should raise a number of questions. The sailors were part of the crew of HMS Cornwall, a state-of-the-art frigate bristling with high-tech surveillance devices and advanced weaponry. The sailors, dispatched in small boats, were boarding and inspecting merchant vessels in Iraqi waters for contraband.

Why weren't the six Iranian patrol boats picked up by radar, and why weren't warning shots fired as they approached the British crafts? Was HMS Cornwall Commander Jeremy Woods incompetent, or was he ordered to stand by and do nothing?

Standard operating procedure for a Royal Navy boarding party is for the mother ship to be in a position of providing covering or warning fire. There is some speculation that, when the sailors were captured, Commodore Nick Lambert, Britain's senior officer in the area, was trying to work out rules of engagement with the Ministry of Defence in London. That strikes me as a hell of a time to be working out rules of engagement.

You say, "What should HMS Cornwall have done?" They should have fired warning shots, and if the Iranians persisted, they should have been blown out of the water. You might say, "That would have endangered the lives of the 15 British sailors!" That's one of the tragedies of war: People get killed.

Britain isn't alone in using questionable rules of engagement. U.S. troops have been in pitched battles with terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan in which terrorists run into a mosque to seek safety. There have been reports that terrorists have used mosques as arms caches. However, U.S. Lt. Col. Christopher Garver unequivocally said that U.S. troops do not enter mosques for the "sole purpose of disrupting insurgent activities."

During the Italian campaign of WWII, U.S. forces found Germans using the historic Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino as an observation post. Our bombers turned the monastery into a heap of rubble. According to the laws of war, if combatants use protected property, such as places of worship and hospitals, as shields or camouflage, they are guilty of violations of the laws of war and are responsible for the protected property. Today's politically correct rules of engagement unnecessarily risk the lives of our fighting men and women and reduce their efficiency.

Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
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