By Peter Sessum
People tend to think that other people think like them. So when a civilian says he is worried about vets becoming violent I know it is not because he has an insight into the military mind. It is a reflection on him that he thinks that if he had our training and experience that he could kill a lot of people. But that is part of the problem, he doesn’t have our training and experience, especially our training with Rules of Engagement (ROE) and that is why civilians worry me.
ROE is the cornerstone of military action. While ROE can differ from theater to theater, and in some cases operation to operation, it is what determines when deadly force is authorized. It separates legal action from war crimes. That is why I am more worried about civilians, they don’t have ROE.
ROE is not something that is glossed over for military members. Before a soldier is allowed to pick up a rifle he or she has had a numbers of classes. One of those classes is the Law of land Warfare. What everyone knows as the Geneva Conventions. (And if you think that it isn’t plural you know less than you think.) So before a grunt has learned how to use his primary weapon he knows when not to use it.
In a movie when the troops are ordered “don’t fire unless fired upon” that is part of their ROE. It means even if a person has a gun you can’t shoot them unless the other person shoots first. I am going to be honest, from a grunt’s perspective that sucks. It means the bad guys get a free shot. If he is a good shot* it means you or one of your friends might die before you can do anything about it.
There are a number of different levels of ROE. The worst that I have heard is the United Nations (U.N.) where deadly force can only be requested through the headquarters by radio after taking hostile fire and is sometimes denied. Of course that is Peacekeeping. War is on the opposite end of the spectrum and ROE is much different. There is no radio calls to higher HQ, each individual can determine if conditions authorize deadly force. Authorize does not mean require. Just because deadly force is authorized does not mean it has to be used. Every vet I know has stories where deadly force was authorized but not exercised and restraint was the better decision.
So there I was, in downtown Kabul…no shit. We had just left the NATO compound and was at a checkpoint to drive through another secure area. It was just the one vehicle and I was in the back pulling security. This was one of the first checkpoints that one would take to either go to a military base or to the president’s compound so it was a target.
As the driver was talking to the guard a vehicle started coming up on us quickly. At the time, the ROE authorized deadly force for “hostile intent” so if a threat was perceived we could act on it. The intelligence had told us to look out for suicide bombers in cars. Specifically, a single person in a large vehicle or a vehicle made for multiple passengers. Our position was between two large military compounds and where traffic was usually pretty slow because it was funneled through hard corners. So a van with only a driver speeding towards us was a concern.
This was one of those time started to slow kind of moments. I quickly did the math and it added up to him being a possible threat. I tracked him through my rifle sights and he just kept coming. I picked a spot on the ground; my point of no return. If he did not slow down or turn before then I was going to fill the cab full of lead.
I had just flipped my selector lever to fire and took a sharp intake of breath, the kind you take right before you yell. I was going to shout for my driver to go and then start firing. Just as I inhaled, the van turned right and sped out of sight. Truth be told he really should not have been speeding in that area. Security is high and people are on edge. I am glad I held until the last moment because I would not have liked to kill a guy who might have been on the way to the hospital because his wife was in labor.
What is the connection between civilians and ROE? Simple, civilians don’t have one. There is no training or schooling on when it is OK to use force and when it is not. Outside of their layman’s understanding of the law, the only thing they have to guide them on is their own morals and I am not willing to put a lot of faith in that. I don’t trust it that because there are too many examples of a civilian killing people over trivial things.
Last year, not far from my home, 19-year-old Allen Ivanov took rifle he bought a week prior, went to a party and killed three people, one of which was a girl that in his head wronged him. Somewhere, in the back of his mind that was an acceptable course of action. With all the random shootings I feel like we haven’t gotten a clear reason as to why they did it other than it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Even when a gun isn’t used, I feel like there is very little reasoning into why a civilian uses violence.
Even though I am no longer in the military I still have a set of rules that determine if force is necessary. When it is, the minimum amount of force should be used to resolve the situation. Those rules are:
- Is it a direct, physical threat to me, my family or those under my protection?
- Do I have the means and legal expectation to address the threat?
- What is the least amount of reasonable force needed to resolve the situation?
There are some important words in there. Direct is a big one. If I don’t think the person or persons in front of me are an immediate threat to me or mine then there is no real danger. Simply put, a direct threat is someone walking towards me saying they are going to kick my ass or taking a swing at me not walking away and saying that their big brother is going to come fight me.
Means and expectations also matter. I am not a law enforcement officer or someone with a hero complex. How often has a vet heard someone say they are happy the vet is there in case something happens? I know people have said that at places I have worked at. My response is usually “what do you think I am going to do?” Unarmed, without INTEL on who or what the threat is my plan is to lock my office, turn out the lights and take a nap out of the way until the cops arrive. If a gunman kicks in the door it’ll be on because I have nothing to lose, but I am not clearing a four story building with four entry points and multiple stairwells against an unknown threat with only a pen and my wits.
If it does come time to use force, the least amount of reasonable force should be used to deescalate the situation. The most important words is not “least” but “reasonable.” I have had a lot of silly conversations with untrained people about application of force. If a cop has a gun drawn they are not going to shoot a knife out of a suspect’s hands. Cops, and military, are trained to aim center mass. Aiming for the center of the torso gives you the most area to hit the target. Think of it like aiming for the bulls-eye when you only have to hit the dartboard. Aiming for the outer ring might mean you miss the board entirely. This is also why they don’t aim for the head, too small and moves a lot when running. If the suspect rushes the cop they are not going to holster the gun and then pull out a taser. Here is a video illustrating why.
ROE is not just specific on action but also on where it is applied. Anything outside the direct threat is collateral damage. As we all know collateral damage is bad, in the military we go to great pains to avoid it. Even though I am no longer in the military there are a certain set of conditions that must be met for force to be applied. Civilians don’t have that. How did Ivanov decide that his ex-girlfriend moving on with her life was a good reason to take a rifle to a party and start shooting? Aaron Ybarra was “mad at the world” and was upset that his friends didn’t respect the threat he and his shotgun posed so he went to Seattle Pacific University and started shooting. He has 112 years to figure out how that math doesn’t add up.
In the civilian world it is all collateral damage. Unfortunately, video games don’t often penalize for hurting innocent people and in fact some encourage it. When there is no criteria for differentiating threat from non-threat then everyone is a potential target. When the intent is to just hurt people, there is no difference between a person that should be attacked, like an armed terrorist, and someone that shouldn’t, like a child. That is why they can shoot people in a school or church so callously.
I also worry about people that haven’t really suffered because they have no coping mechanism for the when things go bad. I am sure for Ivanov being dumped was the worst thing he had ever experienced in his life. But the rational response is not to go and shoot people. Somehow, in his head that was the proper course of action. I sympathize, I have been dumped where it feels like your heart was ripped out of your chest. But the worst thing I ever contemplated was to sleep with all her friends. Not exactly an adult reaction, but it is far better than shooting up a party and it keeps me out of jail. Here is a video to lighten the mood.
That is why civilians worry me more than veterans and the civilians that worry me the most are the ones that claim to be afraid of vets. Because you know that if they had the means and the training that they would hurt people. As much as they don’t want to admit it to themselves, the reason they think someone is easily capable of violence is because in their heart they are. So if you think as a vet I am dangerous know that it is because of what you have going on inside your own head. Don’t put it on me.
* Good shot is relative. Your average, and I mean middle of the road average, rifleman should be able to consistently hit a one meter target at 200 meters. That is the distance of two football fields, including both end zones, away with iron sights or without magnification. For comparison, a sniper should be able to make a shot at five times that distance.