Gun Run

Everyone’s talking about the “Tactical Directives” that guide the use of force in combat in Afghanistan.  When I was there, toward the end of my year, a Tactical Directive came down to us in the form of a long memorandum.  We had to read it verbatim to our subordinates and then send back up a by-name report that everyone understood it.

This Tactical Directive thus joined an array of other “rules of engagement” procedures and edicts that were already in place.  Most merely codified beliefs that all of us already knew to be good practice.  We had to exercise restraint in the use of our weapons, even if it put us at risk.  No good would come of killing innocent civilians (and none of us wanted to do that anyway).   Nothing prevented us from shooting back if we were attacked.   

In truth, though, these prescriptions did circumscribe our actions a bit and generated a lot of discussion among us.  A few seemed to offer blatant advantages to the enemy.  I could offer examples, but most would reveal more about how we fight than I care to share here.  So, instead, I will offer just one anecdote.

Once while under attack, we began receiving fire from gunmen perched on top of a kalat wall.  We were talking to helicopters overhead, and we asked the pilots if they could strafe the kalat in order to kill or drive off the gunmen.  We all knew shooting into a kalat incurred the risk of hitting non-combatants and thus was generally forbidden unless a unit was under direct fire, which we were.  Still, the Tactical Directive asked us to consider withdrawing in such circumstances, even if it allowed the insurgents to win the day.  But in the heat of battle withdrawal seemed an unsoldierly thing to do and perhaps just as dangerous as fighting it out.

The helicopter pilots were willing to make the “gun run,” but they too operated under strict rules.  Before they would shoot, they asked for the initials of the ranking American on the ground, which was me.  The request was clearly designed to absolve them from responsibility in case of some horrendous infliction of death on civilians. 

The request also seemed slightly incongruous—especially with the radio nets absolutely jammed with voices trying to relay critical bits of information. The moral dimension didn’t give me too much pause, though, and I quickly gave the pilots my initials.

We then witnessed the awesome sight of two OH-58D Kiowa Warriors scream over the target kalat at a height of about 20 meters.  Both helicopters were firing every machine gun and rocket they had.   

After the battle we went to investigate.  We had received no more fire from the kalat, thank goodness, but once inside we could not find evidence that the helicopters had hit anybody.  That was good, too, because from out of the thick-walled interior buildings came over thirty children, women, and old men.   None of them were hurt, or particularly mad or upset; they claimed that the gunmen were strangers who had held them hostage.  But if any of the non-combatants had been hit by American fire, I would have had a lot to answer for.

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