Rules of Engagement

Gen. James Conway

photo of gen. james conway

Conway is the commandant of the Marine Corps. In this interview he describes how Haditha, in combination with several other incidents, has caused the Marines to reassess training. He also expresses concern about Marine responses to a survey of battlefield ethics and talks about the "level of protection" gained from securing the civilian population in a counterinsurgency effort. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Oct. 9, 2007.

First off, I want to talk about the battlefield ethics survey. What was that survey and your reaction to it when you found out the results?

It was called the Mental Health Assessment Team Survey conducted by the Army. It has been conducted I think four years in a row now, but this was the first year where they included Marines.

As I read it, I was pretty well satisfied with what I saw. [It was] fairly predictable to the extent that Army and Marines have different deployment schedules. Our Marines were fairly well delighted with the seven-month schedule in that it meant less problems at home, more predictability -- those manner of things.

I was not so pleased when I got to the section on battlefield ethics. Here, in a series of about seven questions, I felt that our Marines were on the wrong side of those answers in virtually every case. So it gave me some pause that we would be even contemplating -- more than, say, just the Army, and that was my only measure of comparison -- that we would violate battlefield rules of engagement [ROE] for this or that reason. I expressed some concern over [this] to my commanders and said, "We've got to examine this, because we may be teaching the ROE, but we are somehow not emphasizing the importance of it as it relates to winning this counterinsurgency."

Can you talk more specifically about how the answers were on the wrong side?

Well, again, it's the first year of comparison [between] Army and Marine, and you don't know how the questions were asked really. But in virtually every instance, again, it showed that Marines might be more willing or more likely to abuse civilians if they felt they had additional information; that they might destroy property without cause; they would consider torturing a detainee if it gave up information on where other bad guys might be or where Americans might be held captive -- those manner of things.

So it just gave me some pause because of the constancy of where our answers were and that somehow our troops weren't fully understanding ... that answering on the right side of those questions is how you go about being successful on the counterinsurgency. ...

When the survey was released, critics charged that there might be more violations of values or abuses than have been reported. What's your sense of the scale of the problem that that sends?

I don't know that we can read into the figures and say that if this is accurate, then there must be something else. I think that's a presumption that I'm not willing to make. We accept it for what it is. ...

The Navy will be conducting a similar survey in the future for us. We'll have some insight into the questions and to the actual application of the survey, and we'll make judgments, make comparisons with what the Army has given us. But we're not fighting the survey. ...

... What's distinct about the Marine Corps in terms of the rest of the U.S. armed forces? ...

There are several things distinct about Marines. First of all is that we're a much younger service than all the others. There's an amazing comparison chart that I've seen, and it's a true spike in terms of our average age vis-à-vis the Army, Navy and the Air Force. So we have a great deal of turnover annually with young Marines coming in. And we want a young force. It takes a young force to do what we do.

The other thing I think that's distinctive among Marines is our feeling that we are a very disciplined force, that we respond to orders, that we do what has to be done almost instantaneously. We pride ourselves in that.

Ergo my concern for this assessment team when I saw it. Now, our training takes advantage of those things, and our training emphasizes rules of engagement, laws of land warfare, doing the right thing, because it's how you are going to gain confidence with the host-nation citizens and deprive the bad guy of the support of those same citizens.

Can you talk about the changes that you made, then, in the training or what was lacking in the previous training?

I don't know that things were lacking. We asked ourselves, were there shortcuts that we were taking? Had three or four years of this type of involvement caused us to do some things that perhaps we weren't doing before? So we took a look at it.

We brought together a symposium, from corporal through colonel with a number of general officers attending, to ask ourselves those questions, and they came away with some convictions that we can do some things differently. For example, we have about a 56-hour portion of recruit training called the Crucible and it was being done differently on both coasts. We brought that into alignment. Now we do the Crucible at the same time in both curricula, and we think that's a better change.

We have what we call a martial arts program, Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, MCMAP. It's a two-part effort. One, it certainly is teaching close-in aggressiveness and pretty much on a hand-to-hand basis. But it also is intended to teach values. We don't want to train bar fighters. We want to train people who can apply those kinds of skills in a proper combat setting. We felt maybe we'd gotten away from some of the ethics-and-values aspect of the training and created more emphasis on the thumping and the throws and the stalks and those kinds of things.

So we told our instructors, "We've got to bring that back into balance." ... We've directed our training and education command to look at all of our curricula Marine Corps-wide to determine just where we need to emphasize ethics and values. And if we need to enhance our program, we will.

Lastly, and most importantly, we've got a lot of great young corporals and sergeants now who are battle-hardened veterans. We want those people teaching ethics and values now as we get ready to go back again, because they're the informal leaders in those platoons. They're the people that have been there and done that. And they have tremendous credibility with the young Marines that we do have coming up.

Can you talk a little bit about the training that goes on at Mojave Viper?

Mojave Viper is our Phase Four, Phase Five preparation for units before they go into Iraq and Afghanistan. It's the last step, if you will, of the most sophisticated training before they actually embark and head over. It's conducted at Twentynine Palms, [Calif.]. It's a period of three weeks or so that a battalion will be out there.

We have hired about 400 Iraqi Americans who assist us in creating little villages that are very analogous to what you see in Iraq. And the situations that take place inside those villages with the mayor and the city council, with the citizens, with the insurgents that are implanted into the numbers, all give very realistic training on a 24-hour cycle for the Marines that are undergoing training. We've had units go through that have then gone to Iraq call back and say, "You know, nothing I've seen here surprises me based on our Mojave Viper experiences." ...

Can you describe in a little bit more detail the exercises that take place with the Iraqi villagers?

Mojave Viper will give you several things happening at once. That's the value, that's the beauty of what's taking place. As you enter the village, you'll walk past the mayor's office, where the mayor and the city council will be sitting down with the battalion commanders and a couple of his officers, discussing what's next.

The mayor will be a hard bargainer. He'll want this or want that, and he'll offer this or that, but not quite as much as you want. It's very cordial; it's often conducted over a meal, but there's some hard bargaining that's taking place there.

Down the street you've got a bazaar. Your troops may be moving through on patrol, and there's a cacophony of noise and things that are taking place, people shouting at you. The troops are supposed to stay on alert and observe and make sure that there's nothing out of the ordinary. There could be a sniper shot that would ring out. So what's your reaction if you're the squad leader? What do you do to protect your people and take down the sniper?

Over at the entry control point at about the same time, there may be a vehicle approaching at rapid speed avoiding the obstacles that you've set in place. Do you take them under fire, or do you determine that it's an Iraqi man getting his pregnant wife to the hospital quickly?

So all these things are taking place. And again, it just emphasizes the importance in the finality of our small-unit leaders, our corporals and sergeants making great decisions based on the stimulation that they're receiving. ...

Can you talk about the impact that the Haditha incident has had on the Marine Corps?

Well, it's not just Haditha. Haditha is one in a series of three or four incidents where we may have Marines who have violated the rules of engagement. I say "may" because these incidents are either under investigation or they're ongoing trials, and therefore I cannot or will not talk about them specifically.

But in the aggregate, it's, again, caused us to take a look at how we are conducting our training, how we are emphasizing ROE, how we prepare a battalion to go into combat. And it's caused us to specifically examine the cultural knowledge and the values aspect of dealing with the citizens of Iraq and the citizens of Afghanistan.

Can you talk about the public relations side and how you engage in the battle for hearts and minds?

In Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, the host-nation citizens are aware that things have taken place. Where we think we have been wrong or have created unnecessary civilian deaths, [we] certainly do the right thing early on with the families, attempt to provide them compensation or solatia payments to acknowledge our potential wrongdoing. It's not an admission of guilt. It's an admission of the fact that a civilian has been killed and we have been involved. There must necessarily be an investigation and follow-on after that. We make sure that the families certainly understand that.

We also, though, see sort of a unique thing that takes place in the culture, and there is this almost acceptance, [which] I don't think would be as true in a Western nation, that says, "Well, inshallah" -- it's God's will -- "that these things happen. It's unfortunate. We certainly regret the loss of our family members, but we must move on."

So we observed that. It doesn't make anything right. It does make it a little better from a public relations perspective to continue to do good things in Haditha and some of these other places where we've had incidents and put that pretty much behind us.

How much have these incidents ... affected the changes you've been making in the training?

We have made changes in the training to further emphasize, again, cultural knowledge, cultural awareness when you're working with host-nation civilians.

This whole issue of values and ethics -- our core competencies in the Marine Corps -- are honor, courage and commitment. And here we emphasize the honor aspect of this thing. We told our Marines, "Do the right thing," … [and] "Keep your honor clean." So that's what we strive to accomplish, saying that just in that moment of crisis, it may be 120 degrees, rounds may be impacting, your buddy may be bleeding, but you've got to do the right thing. You are the strategic corporal -- a term that we've used now for years -- and what you do has strategic impact. It may be involved in a tactical situation, but it may well have strategic impact on our overall objectives.

[How do you handle the media when an incident happens? You want to tell the truth but are dealing with the fog of war. At the same time, you need to get information out there quickly, because the other side is getting their version of what happened.]

There's several sort of complicating issues here. One, I, based on my experiences in Iraq, do not have a lot of faith in the journalistic integrity of Arab media. We have seen them outright lie in terms of what's taking place on the battlefield in an effort to gain information dominancy, if you will, and turn a host-nation population against us. Not much we can do to control that. ...

... I know you've expressed some frustrations about Al Jazeera, some of the other Arab media [and their actions during the first battle of Fallujah. What happened?]

We knew that Al Jazeera was in Fallujah when we were given the order to attack. We would like to have had the opportunity to move the civilians and the media out for their own safety and well-being. We were not able to do that.

So in the attack then, we were being very precise with our fighters. We had an AC-130 aircraft that was very effective at night, and he was pinpointing targets, taking out large numbers of insurgents. Our snipers were actively doing the same thing, taking out large numbers of insurgents. We found a group of 50 one night at a roadblock, and they were destroyed. Another bomb took out another 50 leaving a mosque on the way to their positions. So there was some collateral damage I accept.

But Al Jazeera stuck a microphone in the face of a doctor at the hospital there -- who, by the way, was a bigger insurgent than any of the ones that we killed -- and the doctor said, "Well, they've killed 750 women, children and elderly." Well, we killed about 750, but they weren't women, children or elderly; they were insurgents. Yet that's what the world was led to believe. That was what the Iraqis and the Sunnis in the government believe. So the information operations that were being used against us, without any clarity on anybody's part on what was taking place inside the city, was very detrimental to the effort.

As a commander, what did that mean strategically for you?

I can tell you that it turned Fallujah into a safe haven for a period of months. We were caused to cease our attacks into Fallujah. We put a cordon around the city, but for all intents and purposes it became a safe haven because Americans had been stopped from clearing the city. It wasn't, then, until November [2004], which was what, six or seven months later, before we actually cleared it only to find there were death houses there. That's where the leadership had held out for a long period of time. It was a base of operations for things that took place in Baghdad, so a very nasty place that we could have resolved way back in April. …

Could you talk in more detail about the coverage of Haditha in the American media?

Well, I can say that I think there was some -- what's the right term? -- some sensationalism involved. Our media has a responsibility as a fourth estate to present factual information on what's taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan so our fellow Americans can make good decisions. I think that there's, again, too much editorializing, too much sensationalism in certain instances where you have large, unfortunate events take place, and no small amount of politics that are being played in some of the reporting.

That Haditha occurred -- some used it to say, "Well, the troops are tired; the troops are brought to this level of a sort of tenacity by events that take place there that they then must seek revenge for."

I don't agree with any of that. I think that an event happened. I think that the investigations are going to tell us what actually happened. What we're seeing, in fact, on the West Coast is that a number of Marines have either received lesser charges or have been found not guilty for the things that initially people were willing to condemn them for.

We just need patience in this whole process. There is a finite process that needs to work out here. It's called military justice. People will be charged; people will be held accountable. That's the way we work as Marines. We just need to be given that chance before people jump to conclusions about guilt or innocence.

What is the impact this can have on a Marine out in the field? I've had a lot of Marines tell me, off the record and on the record, that they're worried ... that [this is] going to be causing a certain amount of second-guessing of yourself out in the field.

Those [investigations] cause us some concerns with regard to how Marines may react. If Marines are concerned that they will always be investigated, it is going to impact how they respond on the battlefield, and that's the last thing we want.

Now, there have been, for instance, at entry control points a number of investigations conducted where Iraqis have been killed or wounded. That's direction that's coming out of Baghdad. That's good direction. The last time I checked we'd had, like, 145 investigations. Of those 145, one Marine had been found guilty of excessive use of force; the others had been cleared.

So an investigation works both ways. It either finds that there is fault, or it clears a Marine for his actions. And that's what Marines need to understand. There will necessarily be investigations, but we're not going to hang people out to dry if they're simply doing the right thing at that time.

And by the way, we will evaluate people based on what they knew at the time, not with perfect 20/20 hindsight in terms of what we may find in the car or not find in the car, as the case may be.

I want to talk more generally about fighting an insurgency. Can you talk about the balance of protecting civilians versus killing insurgents?

… The nature of an insurgent [is] that he hides among the population, so you've got to sort out who's who on virtually a daily basis. The key to a successful [counter]insurgency is taking away the civilian populace support for the insurgent. When they decide that they've had enough and they start giving you information, intelligence on where he is, he cannot survive long in that population. ...

That's what happened in the Al Anbar province now on a very successful scale, and that's why I think that the insurgency there is essentially dead, because the people have had it up to here with the murder and intimidation. They have finally gained the courage collectively to stand against these people with our assistance. And that's how you end an insurgency.

[Multi-National Force-Iraq commander] Gen. [David] Petraeus told us in a counterinsurgency, protecting the civilian population is of utmost importance. How do you balance that with force protection, with protecting our own?

Well, force protection, of course, is a 24-hour effort, and you try to make sure that as you employ in a certain environment, you've got the necessary protections to be able to succeed in your mission, be it body protection, vehicle protection or whatever.

But again, you gain a level of protection when you have your sources that tell you what's out there, give you intelligence on what you can expect, and make your efforts much more precise than would otherwise be the case. So force protection is a natural part of what we do.

Being able to work with the population is something that must be earned. And you do that on a weekly basis, working with these people, showing them again that you are trustworthy and that you will value the information, and act on it as well. ...

You accept that there are going to be risks. Anytime you go outside that entry control point, you know that you're at risk. OK, that's the nature of an insurgency.

But it's a must. You've got to be able to be out with the people in order for them to gain that trust and confidence. You've got to go to where they are. Otherwise they're going to say: "Well, he is fearful of coming here in the first place. How can he protect me when I get a knock on the door in the middle of the night?" ...

Can you talk about the insurgent tactic of hiding behind civilians? We've heard elsewhere that it's actually a tactic for the insurgents to actually bait U.S. forces into firing on civilians. Why would they do that? How would they do that?

The insurgent tactic of hiding among the civilians is as old as Mao Tse-tung and his Little Red Book on insurgency, and probably goes centuries before that. ... It's known that he cannot come out and engage what he would call the main force. He simply does not have the strength to do that. So he hides, he intimidates, he seeks to blend in so that he cannot be picked out and either killed or captured.

It makes it difficult because you want to be able to engage, but you have to engage with precision lest you have the Hadithas … and some of the other incidents that we have now seen occur. So it really is hard. It's probably as tough a fighting as any that you're going to find, because a shot rings out, you know where the shot came from, but you can't turn and destroy that building because there might be civilians in that building.

It's draining on our people. But that said, we have tactics and techniques we've evolved over the weeks and months now to be very effective at that type of thing. And we know how to engage these people. ...

Let me give you an example. Before we crossed the berm in Kuwait in '03, we had an expression that we used to help our commanders understand application of the rules of engagement. We said if we initiate fire, the issue is collateral damage; if the enemy initiates fire against you, the issue is proportionality, OK, so that if you take a single sniper round from a building, if you can identify the window that that fire came from, then you can put fire on that window, certainly.

That you would destroy the entire building with a 500-pound bomb does not meet this concern for proportionality, and it's not something we would encourage our troops to do. So that's, again, the nature of an insurgency. If this were open warfare and we knew those buildings were cleared, the village was empty, we wouldn't hesitate. But where there are civilians, we must exercise those concerns. ...

Coming back to counterinsurgency: Something that's also sort of been clear about Iraq is that there's been both conventional-style fighting, like Fallujah II, for instance, ... and then this ... grayer area of not being sure who the combatants are, who the civilians are. Can you talk about how difficult it is to balance all that out?

It's not difficult to balance out the various types of fighting at all really. Fallujah II, we think, is an instance of where the enemy made a terrible mistake. If you look at the little red primer on insurgencies, it would say do not take on main force units until you're ready to defeat them.

There was no way that 1,500 insurgents in Fallujah were going to defeat the Army and Marine battalions principally who attacked that city. … [They] were 1,500 people that were killed or captured. And arguably [they] were 1,500 insurgents that could have been used more effectively, placing bombs and doing the other things that insurgents do. So serious mistake. …

Is it difficult for our forces, then, to adjust from that sort of fighting?

In Iraq it is not difficult to adjust, because where you have these sort of conventional fights, they're brief, they're one-sided, and we always win. So we're happy to see them attempt to do that.

In a larger setting, it concerns me … that we are principally focused now on counterinsurgency, and we're not doing what we call major contingency operations: training with combined arms, live fire, with amphibious ships, with jungle and mountain warfare training. ...

Those things are not being done today, based upon the cycle that we're on. But it's our strong belief that we've got to get back to doing those things as soon as we possibly can so that we offer to the nation the things that they expect of the Marine Corps.

I understand you can't talk in specifics about rules of engagement on the ground. But can you talk generally about how the rules of engagement are different in an insurgency than from other conventional conflicts?

The rules of engagement are not terribly different. The rules of engagement that we put into place as we crossed the berm going into Iraq in '03 are exactly the same rules of engagement that are in place today.

At its essence, what the rules of engagement say are that if you feel threatened by an enemy force or by an incident that's taking place in front of you, you are authorized to engage. That hasn't changed, nor should it change, be it a conventional environment or an insurgent environment. ...

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posted february 19, 2008

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