Here’s a really fucked up joke I’ve heard from way to many army friends acquaintances:

Q: You’re a sniper watching a bridge, and you got orders saying to shoot anyone trying to cross.  Suddenly a small child approaches and begins to cross the bridge.  What do you feel?

A: Recoil.

[Cue the laughter of assholes.]

So…the idea behind this joke is that orders are orders, that bad ass killers are justified in whatever they do anyway, and you’re a pussy to be questioning them based on something as emasculating as feelings.[1]

The Nazis tried that at Nuremburg.  It didn’t go so well.

An American soldier destroys food supplies in My Lai.  Photo taken by official Army Photographer Ron Haeberle (source).  Content Note: Several of the images at this site are graphic and disturbing.

So the My Lai Massacre is the common name for a series of unlawful killings of over three hundred South Veitnamese civilians an operation over 16-18 March 1968 in what was then known (to the Americans) as the Son My region.[2]  Over the course of these three days, American troops carried out a massive sweep of the area, searching for a Viet Cong Battalion that had allegedly retreated into the region following the Tet Offensive.  Although there was no significant enemy contact during the operation, between three to five hundred civilians were murdered by Americans during the first day of the operation.  A vital contributor to this atrocity was the fact that the Americans were convinced that any person (man, woman or child) found in the region were Viet Cong sympathizers and therefore to be treated as the enemy.[3]

In the trial that (eventually) followed, it was alleged that ROEs amounted to: destroy anything “walking, crawling, or growing.”[4]

There are multiple overlapping factors that contributed to the My Lai Massacre, and I’m not in any position to give them the detailed treatment they deserve.[5]  But the absence of any viable ROEs was central: Instead of trying to study enemy activity, devise a means of separating VC from civilians, and providing a way to deal with civilians that protected them while maintaining the security of US forces, the officers in charge essentially hand-waved the problem away by declaring everyone an enemy.[6]

So here’s the question we brought up in the last post: A child has shown up at the DZ and has seen you setting it up.  What do you do?

According to the Law Of Armed Conflict (LOAC), detaining a non-combatant is an act of violence.  Civilians and their property are to be respected, looting is forbidden and you can’t force them to do military work for you (plus regular non-military work must be paid for).  Most importantly, civilians cannot be deliberately targeted or arbitrarily detained or otherwise removed from their homes.

But like many rules regarding war, there are exceptions to complicate things.

To start with, there’s the blurred line between civilian and soldier that comes when you’re dealing with an insurgency.

Treating civilians as potential threats that might need to be defended against is a train of thought that’s loaded with risk.  Yes, that person could give away vital information to the enemy, but that person is still a non-combatant.  You’re not supposed to kill or detain non-combatants.  The problem is, insurgencies can only function effectively with the support of a population, meaning that the line between civilians and combatants is going to get blurry.

The common stereotype is the seemingly innocent family (husband, wife, kids, etc…) that cry out in horror and grovel before the soldiers as they burst into the house, only for those same soldiers to discover a giant arms cache underneath a few loose floor boards.

Usually it’s a lot more subtle than that.  On the most basic level, the civilian insurgency supporter is a person who keeps their mouth shut.  Especially in a small community or neighbourhood, people are going to know each other’s business.  So an individual simply needs to not report what they know in order to (technically) qualify as a supporter for the insurgency.

It gets even more complicated after that.  In any such community, you’re going to have plenty of individuals who might believe in the insurgency, but aren’t actively doing anything to support it.  Meanwhile there may be other people who are against the insurgency who are coerced into supporting it.

Which one’s your enemy?

This is why it’s necessary to recognize the risks of counter-insurgency operations in an unfriendly environment.  This is also it’s vital to implement controls that will allow soldiers to mitigate these risks with the minimal use of force.

So a random civilian spotted you as you were busy laying out the markers for a DZ?  Regardless of their personal feelings, that person could be a threat.  They may not specifically set out to warn the enemy, but every minute they’re walking around the chances that something will slip goes up.  Worse, that child who wanders into the DZ could be an even greater threat as well.  Kids will talk about anything.

Now a civilian actively carrying messages for an insurgency has crossed the line and become a combatant themselves, but you can’t take action based on what a civilian might do to make them your enemy.

This is where things can get really dangerous if tight ROEs aren’t implemented.

Now the specific details of ROEs differ from mission to mission.  They are created by the commanding general in consultation with the JAG, and must be re-approved for every new mission.  But two pretty common features for all ROEs are the concepts of self-defence and defence of non-combatants.

In the case of a random civilian appearing at the DZ, they can be detained temporarily for the safety both of the soldiers involved and the civilian themselves (keeping them out of harm’s way during the upcoming operation).  Detainees can be searched as a safety measure, which gives the soldiers involved a means to determine whether this person is a combatant or civilian.  In the former case, they can be held until the main body jumps in, then handed over to the CSM to be processed as a PW.[7]  In the latter case, they can be held until the main body has safely landed, at which point they would be released.

This sterile description of the facts makes it sound simple, but in reality this could still be a massively fucked up situation at best.  Hence the reason why the ROEs have to be clear and unambiguous.  Civilians seem to think that soldiers are grown in a lab and emerge fully formed from some kind of glass chamber when required.  In reality, armies are made up of human beings with human connections, and even the younger troops have families and loved ones.

So let’s say you’re one of the Pathfinders force that jumped in to prepare the DZ, and a couple of local children wander into your area.  Let’s say a couple of twelve year old boys who are friends, and one of them has their younger sister (eight) with them (“If you’re going out to play in the woods, take your little sister with you.” [exasperated sigh] “But Mom! She’s annoying and she walks too slow!”).

So that’s your scenario.

What’s going to happen when they see you?  Well, you’re cammed up and armed to the teeth, so they’re going to run for their lives.  So you’re going to have to chase a group of terrified children through the woods, hoping like hell that you don’t run into a group of adults while you’re at it.

Assuming you catch them, they’re probably going to scream and shout.  The older ones might fight back, while the younger one would probably cry, so there’s that to deal with as you drag them back to the DZ. Then you need to question and search them (because insurgencies do sometimes use children as scouts and messengers). While this is happening, keep in mind that you or one of your buddies might have children of your own that are a similar age.[8]

Then you need to keep them calm for the next several hours as you wait for the main body to jump in.  Bribing them with a Soldier Fuel Bar[9] is not going to be enough.  You need to keep these children safe and calm…while keeping in mind that in the next few hours you might have to shoot and kill their father.  This is the kind of scenario where you feel like a monster even if everything goes right and no one gets hurt.

For ROEs like this to be effective, there needs to be very clear information as to what the you could be facing when they jump in, and very clear instructions as to how to act depending on the circumstances.  They need to be told what the population breakdown looks like, who the enemy are, what kinds distinguishing insignia they may have, what kind of items and equipment are common and what might be indicative of insurgent membership.[9]

And in order to provide this information, the Chain of Command would have to research all of this.  And as we’ve seen, that’s not something Bland has had anyone even attempt so far in Uprising.  The airborne troops of CSSR are jumping into James Bay without any clear idea of who they’re up against, other than a vague description of a hundred or so poorly trained locals.  The NPA warriors defending the Dam itself are likely to be self-identifying (in that they will be armed and occupying the Dam), but beyond that there isn’t going to be a lot to go on when they enter the Chisasibi and Radisson.

“The operation is to be conducted as an air assault into a hostile environment.  It’s not an aid-of-the-civil-powers operation.  However, commanders are to use minimum force until engaged by armed forces and then only enough force to stabilize the situation at hand.”

These are the ROEs provided by Gen Lepine.  If you read the comments in the last post, you’ll know there’s some debate over how these words come across, but for me, they basically screamed ‘cover my ass!’  Basically, whatever might go wrong, the General could point to a part of his orders to prove that it wasn’t his fault.

Did the assault meet with unexpected resistance?  Were there unexpected casualties?  ‘I told them not to treat it like an aid to civil power operations!’

Did the assault get out of control?  Was there a My Lai type of massacre where paranoid soldiers rampaged through the towns, killing anyone who looked suspicious to them? ‘I told them to use minimum force!’

These orders present an excuse for all occasions, but nothing that can guide the use of force.  In a realistic situation, the Task Force Commander (TFC) would be in Gen Lepine’s office, insisting on clarifications.  Failing that, I could imagine things going to hell very quickly.

Just to be clear, I don’t work in a higher headquarters and my encounters with generals (CAF or otherwise) is limited.  I have no experience with how the broad outlines of ROEs get laid out, so maybe this is a realistic portrayal. But it seems to me that, in a situation this delicate, with a civil war erupting across the country, it would be in the General’s best interest to provide some lots of detail.  While it’s possible for someone like Cmdre Miller to cook up a reasonable set of ROEs based on these few lines, I don’t really see how that would work.

And in the absence of proper ROEs I don’t think I would be too far off to expect the TFC to go over Gen Lepine’s head to the CDS or even the Minister of National Defence to complain.  And when that failed (because it would) to threaten to resign or call off the mission without proper (lawful) ROEs.

Even if the mission went ahead, this is the sort of thing that could lead to a dangerous lack of trust within the chain of command.  The officers of the CSSR would be faced with an ugly decision: Either pass on these bullshit orders on as though they supported them, or else admit to their NCOs and troops that they were fighting an insurgency in Canada without any ROEs.  My guess (or hope, at least) is that they’d go with the latter option, since at least then their men might trust their own officers as they went into action, instead of writing off the entire chain of command as dangerously incompetent.

Then, at least, there would be a chance that the officers, NCOs and soldiers going into harms’ way might be able to figure out what to do together.

I deployed to Afghanistan over the winter of 2008-09, some time after the Afghan Detainee Scandal blew up on the news.  The scandal itself was – in my opinion – somewhat overblown (the only reason it hit the news was because a Canadian soldier acted to stop the abuse of Taliban detainees by Afghan National Police), but army corrective took action anyway.

Throughout my workup training, instructors and officers emphasized the importance of following the laws of armed conflict.  More than that, they emphasized how the chain of command would support us.

“If you’re not sure what your responsibilities are, ask!  Get on the radio if you have to.  Go straight to the TOC.  We’ll have a JAG officer on the other end to advise you.  Doesn’t matter if it’s o-dark stupid, we’ll wake his ass up and get him to the TOC to tell you what’s what.”[11]

Real life, I don’t know how well all of this might have worked out, but the statement was clear.  Here are the rules, we got your back.  Even for a loser from the militia who’s job was to stack crates.  The idea that any of us might go into an operational theatre without knowing the score was seen as intolerable.

***This Post’s Featured Image is also by Ron Haeberle, was taken moments after he dismounted from his chopper in the Son My region.  He arrived 17 minutes after the first wave and joined C-Company as they entered My Lai.  Source (Again, Content Note: graphic images).***


[1] This is an example of the kind of attitude that often alienates us from the civilian population, as well as (probably) being a contributor to veteran suicides.

[2] My Lai was one of several hamlets in the Son My region where the bulk of the killings took place on 16 March (the hamlet of My Khe was the other major site).  Specifically identifying locations in the region was difficult due to inaccurate maps that were rife with translation errors used by the American Forces.

[3] At the very least, there was likely some VC-sympathizers in the area, given the presence of landmines and booby traps which caused the only American fatality during the operation (not in My Lai itself, though).  However, aside from a brief exchange of gunfire at the Landing Zones, there was no enemy activity reported during the entire three day period, and less than half a dozen weapons were recovered in total.

[4] These comments were alleged to have been uttered by 2Lt Calley, the only US soldier to be convicted for his role in the Massacre.

[5] The Massacre likely never would have been investigated had it not been for the heroism of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr, a chopper pilot who witnessed the killings.  He made several efforts to intervene in the killings, ultimately using his own body as a shield to escort women and children to his chopper.  His report to the higher chain of command is credited with halting the killings.

WO Hugh Thompson
WO Hugh Thompson, shortly after testifying at the trial of 2Lt Calley.  Source.

[6] It’s also worth mentioning that, even if the people of My Lai were all VC, it’s still unlawful to just kill them.

[7] Handling PWs (the Canadian acronym for Prisoners of War) is typically an NCO responsibility, meaning that PW processing would be the responsibility of the Company Sergeant Major (CSM) of the first Commando to jump in.  Ideally, in a mission like this, there would be some kind of MP support as well (either jumping with the main body or following close behind), to help with long term detention and processing.

[8] The Canadian Forces is built around a long service model, with the expectation being that soldiers will usually stay for an extended period of time.  Since membership in the special forces is limited to troops with at least a few years’ of being fully qualified in their trade, and units like the Pathfinders requiring even more time in on top of that, you can expect the troops in this scenario to be in their mid-twenties or older, thus likely to have children of their own.

[9] Soldier Fuel is the official energy bar of the Canadian Armed Forces.  It comes in light brown (peanut butter) and dark brown (chocolate) varieties.  It’s dense.

[10] To the best of my recollection, the NPA never employs any kind of uniform, or other distinguishing clothing (like armbands) throughout the course of the novel. This is sketchy as hell, but not altogether uncommon for modern insurgencies.  That’s where distinguishing equipment could come into play.  For example: In a place like modern-day Chisasibi cell phones and cheap motorola-type radios are probably common, but a VHF radio with a voice-activated headset might not be.

[11] I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but I especially remembered one WO who was particularly emphatic.  He insisted that the mere act of uttering the word ‘detainee’ over the radio net would cause the JAG to wake up screaming.

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