by Maya Schenwar

From March 13-16 hundreds of veterans from the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gathered in Maryland for Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan. This four-day event brought together veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and present video and photographic evidence. In addition, panels of scholars, veterans, journalists, and other specialists gave context to the testimony. These panels covered everything from the history of the GI resistance movement to the fight for veterans' health benefits and support.

While there were hundreds of support events across the country (including one in Syracuse) and non-stop coverage from independent media, the mainstream media was a virtual black out on the event. For additional information on the lack of corporate media coverage, check out "New York Times Explains Winter Soldier Blackout" at <>.

"All personnel must ensure that, prior to any engagement, non-combatants and civilian structures are distinguished from proper military targets." - Consolidated Rules of Engagement for Iraq (2005) When it comes to modern-day war, the very term "rules of engagement" (ROE) can be a contradiction in terms. In theory, these military guidelines require soldiers to steer clear of civilians and civilian property, use only the minimum amount of force necessary to subdue a target and request approval from the Pentagon for missions that will yield high "collateral damage." Specific rules change based on unit, circumstances, risks and threats.

Yet when a soldier's life is at stake, he or she is less likely to follow instructions printed on a card than to follow the instincts of survival and self-protection. When it comes to the war in Iraq, says former Wisconsin National Guard transportation specialist Daniel Fanning, the concept of strict adherence to the ROE is practically obsolete.

"We covered the rules of engagement in basic training, but not to the extent we should have," Fanning told Truthout after speaking on a panel at the Winter Soldier 2008 conference, held March 13-16 in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Once we were over there, they literally became a joke." At Winter Soldier, the "joke" was starkly exposed. Though some soldiers received cards delineating the current rules of engagement, others were simply updated verbally whenever the risk and threat level - and therefore the ROE - changed. Either way, soldiers said, the ROE were never the governing force over operations in Iraq.

Former infantryman Clifton Hicks spoke of a patrol of 82nd Airborne troops mistaking the celebratory gunshots fired at a wedding party for hostile fire, wounding two wedding guests and killing one - a young girl.

"I looked through the doorway, and it was the first time I'd seen a little girl dead.... These things happen," Hicks said, noting the usual on-the-ground response to ROE violations. "Little girls get killed by soldiers in Iraq every day, not because we want to, but just because it happens. We didn't even have a translator. We couldn't even say we were sorry."

Hicks's unit notified the Tactical Operations Center of the situation. The soldiers were told, "Charlie Mike": military jargon for "continue mission." They got back in their Humvees and rode away. The ROE state that soldiers must determine with "reasonable certainty that the individual or object of attack is a legitimate military target" prior to attack, according to the Consolidated Rules of Engagement for Iraq (2005), which were leaked to in February.

Yet at Winter Soldier, veteran after veteran told of civilians mistaken for combatants. Testifiers spoke of untargeted shootings of buildings full of innocent families, running over civilians in the road without filing reports, raids on misidentified houses. In Iraq, many said, it's often unclear who's an enemy and who's a friend.

Garett Reppenhagen, who served as a sniper in Iraq in 2004, depicted that blurred line in particularly painful detail.

Acting on reports that gunfire was emerging from a vehicle (although he himself couldn't be sure), Reppenhagen and others fired repeated shots through its windshield, killing its passengers. They were later informed that the men in the vehicle were not insurgents. They were the deputy governor's bodyguards: their allies.

"These are the kind of confusions that go on every day in Iraq," Reppenhagen said. "It's almost startling how little control you have, and how much fear perpetuates you to not really concern yourself with things like rules of engagement or Geneva Conventions. Your primary concern is getting yourself and your buddies home alive."

Beyond a lack of clear identification of "the enemy" - there's no Civil War-style Blue v. Gray code on the streets of Baghdad - combatant status is often fluid, according to Fanning.

"Sometimes the people who are friends one day are your enemies the next," he said. "It's dependent on what's going on in the news, on how other Americans have treated them, on what conditions are like that day."

When rules of engagement start being broken, the baby often goes flying out with the bathwater, according to Reppenhagen. Soldiers begin to flout the guidelines simply because they are not enforced, and, in a war environment where little makes sense, lawlessness does not seem unnatural.

Reppenhagen described his sergeant issuing orders to shoot farmers tending their fields after dark, simply because they were out past curfew. The orders were followed; the farmers were shot dead.

"What I had learned about rules of engagement was rapidly changing," he testified. "I was never updated on what changed or who I was able to shoot at. We just basically changed them ourselves. We learned, 'Oh, we didn't get in trouble for that? Well, let's try this.' By the time I left Iraq, it was pretty much fair game to shoot at anyone we thought was a threat."

The process of development for the rules of engagement is supposed to work in the opposite direction, according to former medic Jason Hurd: Theoretically, they start out looser and narrow as soldiers gain more knowledge about the specifics of a particular war. By the time Hurd got to Iraq in 2004, the rules of engagement were technically more strict.

"You had to have positive identification before you could engage a threat," Hurd told Truthout. "If you perceived a threat, you had to use other means to try to get away from that threat before you engaged it. So you had these things called levels of aggression: if you had a perceived threat, your first action should be to try to get it away using hand and arm signals. Next is to raise your weapon. If that doesn't stop the threat, you click the switch off of safe and fire a warning shot," and so on, until lethal force is used - or so the rules would have it. In a high-tension situation, though, it's often impossible to follow the progression to a tee, Hurd said.

According to the 2005 Consolidated ROE, the first level of aggression is to shout a "verbal warning to halt." Despite their ostensible assumption that soldiers are able to communicate enough to alert targets that they are about to attack, the ROE do not take into account the language barrier between most American troops and most Iraqis.

When it comes to armed private contractors operating in Iraq, the rules are even murkier, according to Jeremy Scahill, author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." As in the military, the State Department's rules recommend following multiple, graduated steps before using lethal force: first shouting, then showing the weapon, then demonstrating an intent to shoot. "If you must fire your weapon, fire only aimed shots with due regard for the safety of innocent bystanders and immediately report incident and request assistance," the regulations read.

Yet, according to Scahill, once the rules become inconvenient, they're easily discarded. "The primary objective of private security contractors working on US government contracts is to keep their 'principal' alive - the person, place or thing they're guarding," Scahill told Truthout. "It's all about 'protecting the noun.' There are rules under the State Department contracts. But in reality, it's shoot first and don't ask questions."

Private contractors are not subject to prosecution under Iraqi law, and interpretations differ on how much US military law applies to them, so the consequences of rule-breaking are, in effect, negligible. On the military end, too, the negligibility of those rules becomes a way of life. Soldiers are guided, according to Hurd, by instinct, questionable reports and, above all, the utter terror of life in the midst of a pointless war.

"We react out of fear, fear for our lives," Hurd testified, "and we cause complete and utter destruction." For More Information: Please visit <>.

This article was originally published at on March 26, 2008.

Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.