September 10, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Rules of Engagement

Policemen are soldiers who act alone; soldiers are policemen who act in unison.

Herbert Spencer, 1851

Whenever there is a national emergency that requires that it be dealt with by using armed force, people in the know are reluctant to bring the military in. They would rather have it handled by the police. There is a good reason for this. The rules of engagement are entirely different for the police and the military.

It does seem strange that there are special rules for killing people, but there are. The rules during the American revolution were different for the British and the colonists. The British were trained to fight in orderly parade rows, to fire their muskets in unison and so on. The colonists, cowards all, fought Indian style, shooting from behind trees and rocks and then running away. Eventually, the rules changed so that everyone sort-of fought that way.

During World War II, no one would dream of having soldiers lined up in neat rows. They would simply all be mowed down by a machine gun. Machine guns didn't exist in George Washington's time.

Somewhere in the process of dealing with deadly force, someone has to decide what the objective is and when you are allowed to kill someone. Fortunately, soldiers and cops aren't allowed to make up their own rules; they have to play the game according to the book. That is what the congressional hearing about Ruby Ridge and Randy Weaver, and the hearings on Waco are all about. Congress is now trying to make retroactive rules of engagement for both of those encounters. Were the government people police or soldiers? It would make a big difference, because the rules that apply to the military are very different from those that apply to the police.

One source of the confusion is that when you put a cop in a camouflage suit and give him an automatic weapon or a rifle with a telescopic sight, he might get a bit confused. This is especially true because many of the police have also been soldiers or marines.

I learned about rules of engagement from the movie westerns. The hero barked out, "Drop that gun!" The villain fired at the hero and missed; whereupon the hero shot the gun out of the villain's hand. A soldier in combat or a cop wouldn't survive for long with those rules.

The rules during WWII were simple: If you saw an armed enemy, you shot him, and you shot to kill. The Germans believed that it was more strategic to wound the enemy.The only time that you didn't shoot was if the enemy had his hands in the air or on his head and had no weapon. I understand, from what I've read, that in Viet Nam, just about everyone was considered to be the enemy. A real war is very different from what happens in the movies. What's more, once you have killed an enemy, that's it. You don't mourn because he wasn't really a person; he was the enemy.

The police have very different rules. A cop is not supposed to shoot anyone who isn't trying to kill him. That rule isn't too different from the rules of war, although in a war the assumption is that everyone is trying to kill you. The worst thing a cop can do is to kill an unarmed person, especially a child. The few incidents where a cop has killed a kid who was pointing a toy gun at him, were a horror for the family of the kid and the cop. It was, of course, an accident. No cop sets out to kill a child, but in a shadowy hallway anything can happen. It is hard to predict the actions of a frightened cop or a frightened soldier. A trigger happy man is a frightened man; or vice versa.

If Ruby Ridge were a military operation, there would be no one left to testify before congress; least of all, Randy Weaver himself. It would have ended as Waco did. It would have been rationalized, as it was in WWII, that killing a house full of Germans isn't murder. It's either justice or self defense. The strange part was that Waco was not supposed to end as it did. All indications are that it was a mass suicide that was triggered by the invading force.

What horrified people is the fact that at Waco the people killed included a number of children and their mothers. I doubt that anyone could have been more horrified than the cops(or soldiers) themselves. Yet, that is the nature of war; anyone in the area is in mortal danger.

I can't help believing that the person who must bear the responsibility for the terrible things that invariably happen in a war is the one who starts it. Those are the rules that I was taught by my parents and teachers. As a child that made sense. As an adult, I have my doubts.

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