By Dr. Harold Pease
It seems ludicrous that a government would create laws and restrictions on it’s military that would virtually leave them fighting with one hand tied behind their back. And yet that is exactly what our government has done in the past, and continues to do now.
According to U.S News and World Report, June 30, 1975 citing the just released, formally top secret, “Rules of Engagement for the Vietnam War” (Congressional Record June 6, 1975, pp. S9897-S9904) our men had to fight under horrendous conditions not imposed from the enemy but from our own State Department. What follows are some of those rules. On-ground assaults in urban areas “known to shelter enemy forces generally had to be preceded by loud-speaker warnings and leaflet drops.” Our troops could return fire “only when the enemy was positively identified and in close contact. Sniper and mortar fire were not counted as ‘contact’ unless ‘such fire interferes with the scheme of maneuver or is inflicting casualties or damage to equipment.’ ” Only flat-trajectory weapons (rifles, machine guns, grenades and recoilless rifles) could be used in civilian-populated areas, which largely exposed our men, and “then only if there was a specific, identifiable target.” Obviously on the ground, U. S superiority in firepower was deliberately not exploited.
Nor was it in the air. Pilots were not allowed to fire where they thought the enemy was hidden- even when fired upon- until they were “sure the strike would be positively oriented against the source.” And in many areas there was the nightmare of getting approval at higher levels even if you spotted the enemy or you were taking ground fire. The chain of command often went through the “province chief, district chief, sector commander and a battalion or higher command” which by the time this was completed, the enemy had disappeared. Enemy airfields were off limits if a “plane with a third nation’s markings was present.” Dams, locks, dikes and targets within 11 1/2 miles of the enemy’s major cities were “banned without prior approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Good luck on that one.
These rules actually aided the enemy, and it is because of them that this 14-year-long-war lasted so long and was lost. (We base our date from our sending advisors’ under President John F. Kennedy to the Vietnam Treaty ending the war under President Gerald Ford.)
On another mission his unit suffered casualties from an exploding device that had been placed in their path minutes before. He said, “There were villagers laughing at the U.S. casualties and two suspicious individuals were seen fleeing the scene and entering a home.” A rule of engagement prohibits our troops from entering and searching a home without Afghan National Security Forces personnel present. Access to the house was denied, and the perpetrator escaped.
Placating the enemy by not using our full resources and imposing rules on us that actually aided the enemy in Vietnam led to our defeat. We were told then that we had to focus upon winning the hearts and minds of the people. It did not work then; why would we suppose that it would work now? Historians claim, “Those who fail to understand history are condemned to repeat it.” Apparently we are. Tell that to the dead in both wars.
Dr. Harold Pease is an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 25 years at Taft College.