R. O. E.March 16th, 2008

Rules of engagement–ROE for short–don’t involve prenuptial etiquette but the use of deadly force against human beings. I watched a couple of dozen young Americans testify to their personal experiences with rules of engagement, and their testimony was compelling. These kids were given the power of life and death over defenseless people in places far, far from home, and it hurt them grievously.

These were veterans of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. One after another, they recounted killings of unarmed people and acts of random violence against homes, places of worship, animals, children, and sometimes entire villages. They described brutal, occasionally lethal interrogations, and fruitless predawn searches of private homes, with families held at gunpoint by soldiers in full battle array. These were kids who joined the military to do something decent and honorable and who found themselves violating their own moral code. One posed for pictures with dead bodies. One tortured a prisoner. One shot a woman carrying a bag of groceries. Most stood silent while others did worse things.

The confessional for these outstanding young people is Winter Soldier, a four-day conference that ends tomorrow and features the personal testimony of survivors of America’s current armed conflicts. Organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, Winter Soldier takes its name from a similar conference conducted in 1971 by Vietnam veterans to testify to crimes committed there. This conference, like the 1971 meeting, is meant to establish once and for all that the atrocities committed by American soldiers are not the acts of “a few bad apples” but have their origins in the rules of engagement established by the people at the top. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these rules change so often and so capriciously that they can’t honestly be referred to as rules at all. What these kids were part of, some until only a few short months ago, was a movement of heavily armed and exhaustively indoctrinated boys ranging about a hostile foreign land without rules. The result was mayhem, and the victims who survived will never be the same.

Some of the accounts came across as cool and surgical, others as moving and impassioned, and all were credible, many documented with slides and video. The crimes are too many and too varied to catalog here in a summary of so many hours of testimony. Marines seemed to predominate among the soldiers I saw, and it was wrenching to see these kids, hardened and trained to a keen edge, reduced to abject contrition by the moral issues that challenged them in the field and afterwards. These are exemplary young people who have committed frightening offenses on our orders and are suffering for it.

I didn’t see an officer, and I didn’t see a career NCO among those testifying. The soldiers in attendance were lower-ranking “grunts” mostly, the riflemen and drivers and forward observers who function as seasoned professionals before age 20. The people who gave the orders were conspicuous by their absence.

Also absent were the embedded mass media, who bear so much responsibility for the injury done to these brave kids. You can search the CNN site and the NPR site and the Boston Globe and you’ll find no mention of this historic conference. Although Iraq Veterans Against the War live-streamed the whole conference to an audience including active-duty military personnel around the world, the mass media declined to cover it. Even though the stories were heart-rending, related by soldiers who evoked strong parental feelings in me and tearful responses in the audience, the embedded mass media turned away. These were the most courageous of soldiers telling their stories, and they were spurned by journalists. It’s censorship of the most despicable kind and can only further compromise whatever last shreds of credibility the so-called free press can still muster.