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Pentagon Orders Iraqi Troops to Be Retrained

June 1, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: All coalition troops in Iraq — 150,000 soldiers, Marines, Air Force and Navy personnel — will get new training in battlefield ethics and values.

The order follows allegations that U.S. Marines murdered 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last November.

In a statement today, Commanding General Peter Chiarelli, said the training would emphasize “the importance of disciplined, professional conduct in combat and Iraqi cultural expectations.” Chiarelli added, “As military professionals, it is important that we take time to reflect on the values that separate us from our enemies.”

For more on this, we turn to Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps lawyer and judge who served two tours in Vietnam. He taught the law of war at West Point and now teaches that at Georgetown University Law School.

And Paul Rieckhoff, an Army National Guard lieutenant who led a platoon in Iraq in 2003 to 2004. He’s now executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization that advocates on behalf of troops still serving.

And welcome to you both.

Colonel Solis, how big a deal, how serious is this, for the commanding general of all forces in Iraq to issue an order like this?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS, Marine Corps: It’s extremely serious, and it’s also extremely unusual. Stand-downs from aviation units are not as unusual, but for ground units like this, it’s extremely unusual, because they come up only in the most extreme circumstances.

During the Vietnam War, for example, you had stand-downs to stress racial relations, to stress things like drug prevention programs. But there hasn’t been a stand-down for ground units for a long time, many years.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Rieckhoff, would you agree this is serious? And do you think it’s warranted?

LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF, U.S. Army National Guard: I think it’s very serious, and I think it is warranted. It definitely can’t hurt.

The military is constantly retraining and updating training, and they’re under increased pressure everyday, and I think we all understand the gravity of the potential of what’s happening on the ground in Haditha.

And it definitely would do us some good to take some time to retrain, to emphasize the Army values and the Marine Corps values, and just remind soldiers about the rules of engagement, the proper use of the escalation of force, and how to minimize civilian casualties. I think it is appropriate.

Training scenarios

Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.)
U.S. Marine Corps
Our forces in Iraq today are the most professional and best-trained, most intelligent of any force that we've ever had before. But people can forget that there are guidelines, there are tenets that one must follow in combat.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Colonel Solis, you've led training sessions like this. What do they entail? How are they really going to work? How are the commanders over there going to do this retraining?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Well, I believe they will probably stand down, as the order implies.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning they step back from...

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Exactly. There will be no patrolling today. There will be no details today. Everybody reports back to the FOB, to the forward operating base. We're going to have a session at a certain time.

The Marines, the soldiers come in, sit down, either in a conference room, if they have the luxury of a conference room, or wherever. "Sit on your helmets, gents, ladies. We have something that we have to talk about today."

And for the next hour, the officer or lieutenant, captain, perhaps a major, is going to stress the very things that you mentioned a few minutes ago: professional conduct on the battlefield.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the statement from the general said that they were going to use a slide show and that they had training vignettes. That was the phrase. What are those? How do those work?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Well, vignettes are essentially little scenarios where the individual who's giving the class may say, "OK, Smith, let's say that you're out on a roadblock and you have a vehicle approaching you at 50 miles an hour. What do you do?"

"Well, I would fire a warning shot, sir."

"And the car continues come on. What would you do then?"

"Well, then I would fire at the engine block, sir."

"And the car still continues. What then?"

So it forces the soldier to relate to a specific situation and give his assessment of what should be done.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you said that the basic message here is to uphold the professional values but, in layman's terms, what is that?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Well, it means how one conducts oneself on the battlefield as a professional. That is to say our forces in Iraq today are the most professional and best-trained, most intelligent of any force that we've ever had before. But people can forget that there are guidelines, there are tenets that one must follow in combat.

You can never intentionally target civilian non-combatants, for example. Reminding individuals that, just because one of your soldiers has just been killed, your anger can't be taken out on whoever happens to be in the area.

The evolution of training

Paul Rieckhoff
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
I think all soldiers and Marines from the start, in basic training, are taught about the laws of war, are taught about the Geneva Convention, are taught about appropriate use of force.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Rieckhoff, before you were deployed to Iraq, what kind of training did you and your colleagues, your fellow soldiers, receive in this area?

LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: Well, we received extensive training. I think all soldiers and Marines from the start, in basic training, are taught about the laws of war, are taught about the Geneva Convention, are taught about appropriate use of force.

When I went through infantry officer basic course at Fort Benning, Georgia, we go through an area called the schoolhouse. And we were all taught about My Lai and Lieutenant Calley's role in the My Lai massacre as a case study of what not to do.

So I think it is extensive. And I think it also, you know, is a testament to the fact that the military does a pretty good job of disseminating this information and ensuring that high level of professionalism.

That's one way this military is different from Vietnam and past generations; the higher level of proficiency and professionalism is really different from past generations.

MARGARET WARNER: And was the training specifically tailored to counterinsurgency situations, versus, say, being out in a real battlefield, head to head with another enemy?

LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: It's evolved. I think the military does a good job of evolving its training to meet the adapting and evolving enemy.

So we were constantly going through scenarios, talking through case studies, just like the other guest mentioned, where you sit down with your soldiers and you talk about, "What would you do here? What would you do there?"

And also emphasizing to each soldier, down to the lowest level, that the use of force is a last resort; you only use that deadly force if you're immediately in danger, your unit's immediately in danger, or civilians are immediately in danger.

A difficult kind of warfare

Lt. Col. Gary Solis (Ret.)
U.S. Marine Corps
I tell my students that: Remember, you are the officers that are the governors on the conduct of your soldiers. It's the duty, the responsibility of NCOs and officers to ensure the professionalism of those under their command.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Colonel Solis, how much of this training sticks with a 19-year-old who is living in this and operating in this threat-filled environment? Every other minute, he's got a threat coming from here and there, and he just sees one of his best buddies blown up by a roadside bomb.

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: It's tough. This is the most dangerous, the difficult kind of warfare one can imagine: insurgency. And the forces that are operating on young soldiers and Marines are tremendous. I don't think anyone can imagine them unless you've been there.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you tell your students?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: I tell my students that: Remember, you are the officers that are the governors on the conduct of your soldiers. It's the duty, the responsibility of NCOs and officers to ensure the professionalism of those under their command, to ensure that their soldiers and Marines know, are reminded, are constantly in mind of the rules on the battlefield. It's not a free-fire zone.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the soldiers themselves? What about those 19-year-olds?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: It's very tough. And that's why you have to have good leaders and why we do have good leaders. That's why things like Haditha are so unusual, because these leaders, these NCOs and officers are constantly reminding them, "Don't do anything stupid, gents. Remember, ladies, this is what we're here for. You cannot, et cetera."

Soldier responsibility

Paul Rieckhoff
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Ultimately, it does come down to that small unit commander, and that's a tremendous amount of responsibility.

MARGARET WARNER: Lieutenant Rieckhoff, what's your view on how well these lessons stick when you're out in that kind of a stress-filled situation? And what does it take to make them stick?

LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: Well, I think they do stick pretty well. And I think the fact that Haditha so far is an isolated incident, if it is in fact proved to be true, is an indication of how well most of our people have performed.

We've had hundreds of thousands of troops through theater over the course of a few years, and we've had relatively few incidents so far.

So I saw on the ground the tremendous restraint that our soldiers demonstrate on a daily basis. Where they're being fired at, and they don't have a clear shot, or civilians are potentially in danger, they exercise a tremendous amount of personal restraint, professional restraint, often at their own peril.

It's a tremendously tough situation. But I was continuously impressed everyday by how well these soldiers perform, even the young ones, 19 years old in a country where they don't understand the culture, they don't understand the language.

They do understand the gravity of the situation, and they understand that everything they do has an impact, not only on that immediate area, but on our global standing. I always told my men, "Remember, you're here on behalf of 300 million Americans. Everything we do will have an impact on all of those people and how we're viewed globally."

MARGARET WARNER: And what is the role of the senior officer on the scene, whether he's a non-commissioned officer or, say, a platoon leader, a lieutenant, in a sudden emergency, firefight combat situation like that?

LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: Well, that's where the buck stops. I mean, that unit commander is ultimately responsible for everyone that is subordinate to him or her.

And they have control over fields of fire. They have controls over which weapons are employed and where, the magnitude of force. And they can call cease-fire; they can adjust fire. And they really have control over that unit, whether it's a team, a squad or a platoon.

So, ultimately, it does come down to that small unit commander, and that's a tremendous amount of responsibility. But our people are up to it, and they've demonstrated that they can do well under increasingly tough situations, when they're going back on third and fourth tours. They've still performed pretty well, despite the hardships.

MARGARET WARNER: So, really, Colonel, it all comes down to, not just the command skills, but the character of the senior officer on the scene?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Absolutely. I think leadership is all important. If you find a breakdown in discipline, you're going to have problems. And so it's the NCO on the ground, it's the lieutenant on the ground that really bears the brunt of the combat in Iraq today.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Colonel Solis and Lieutenant Rieckhoff, thank you both.

LT. PAUL RIECKHOFF: Thank you, ma'am.