Imagine if the United States had fought World War II with a mandate to avoid any attack when civilians were likely to be present. Imagine Patton’s charge through Western Europe constrained by granting the SS safe haven whenever it sheltered among civilians. If you can imagine this reality, then you can also imagine a world without a D-Day, a world where America’s greatest generals are war criminals, and where the mighty machinery of Hitler’s industrial base produces planes, tanks, and guns unmolested. In other words, you can imagine a world where our Army is a glorified police force and our commanders face prosecution for fighting a real war. That describes our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For more than a decade, complaints about the rules of engagement have bubbled up on soldiers’ message boards, in stray comments — often by soldiers’ parents — on conservative websites, and in the occasional article in the mainstream press. Frequently, this comes in the context of lauding the military for its restraint. Yet despite being such a vital — and sometimes decisive — factor in a more than decade-long war, the rules of engagement are still poorly understood, and their impact is largely unknown. As ISIS continues to grow and its reach expands from the Middle East to Europe, the United States, and beyond, it’s time to consider the true cost of America’s self-imposed constraints.