Donald Trump and James Mattis came to office vowing to “win” America’s wars again. But unless they change our politically correct military culture, it is certain America won’t.
With Thursday night’s cruise missile strikes in Syria, the United States is facing down the barrel of another war in the Middle East. But as President Trump and congressional leadership weigh the risks on an expanded, messy conflict, possibly including U.S. ground forces, they also ought to examine whether a military plagued by overlawyering has what it takes to prevail.
As a fourth-generation veteran, a proud graduate of West Point and a combat infantryman, I saw up close the perils of a war in which our rules of engagement values the lives of our enemies above those of our own troops. It cost me my Army career. And it cost men in my unit their lives. In only a few months in Wardak province, Afghanistan, in 2008, one-third of my 89 man unit was killed or wounded in combat. When it became clear why, I had to act.
Intelligence had confirmed that Taliban spies had infiltrated our main forward operating base posing as translators and other workers. These spies were hired and their backgrounds checked through a procurement office at a higher echelon within my command. They were calling in mortar strikes and telegraphing when and where our units went out on patrol. It was no longer a mystery why so many of us were coming under attack so frequently.
Our rules of engagement required that we could only hold the enemy without charges for 96 hours before we had to let them go. Even though my command knew that the evidence against these spies was incontrovertible, they ignored my company’s repeated requests to transport and render charges against these spies as required. Also adding to my sense of urgency were credible intelligence reports of an imminent large-scale attack against one of my four outposts.
I knew that if my men and I let the enemy walk out the front gate of our base, that they would go back to helping the Taliban kill us. We had been forced to let enemy fighters go 12 other times during earlier operations in our deployment.
As the commanding officer, I enlisted the support of 1st Sgt. Tommy Scott and we decided to take matters into our own hands. We interrogated them one by one, insisting they tell us the truth about how and why they were collaborating with the enemy. My first sergeant open-hand-slapped one spy while I took another spy outside and fired a gun into the ground, to scare the others into cooperation.
Our actions netted enough unclassified intelligence to convince our Afghan police counterparts to detain the spies when our own command would not, thus temporarily stopping the 96-hour clock. (Note: The classified methods used to discover the spies could not be shared with our Afghan police counterparts, hence the need for unclassified confessions to validate our initially classified findings.)
The rules of engagement were clear on the matter. I wasn’t to intimidate the detainees by threatening them. I knew that. But I had been left with no other options by my command and the broken policies that govern our rules of engagement. The lives of the men I had sworn to serve hung in the balance.
When news reached my higher command, two transport helicopters were flown in the next day to relieve my first sergeant and me of command. As we sat in the two otherwise-empty helicopters we both teared up at the irony. Both helos provided more than enough space to transport the enemy spies for which we had just sacrificed our careers. Those same spies would be released a week later, just as charges for “war crimes,” and other lesser offenses were leveled at us.
No one was hurt. No one was abused. Our actions that day were designed with the intention of saving American lives, nothing more and nothing less. And just like that, both of our careers, and the careers of three of my men, who served as guards during our interrogations, were over.
My discharge, though it wasn’t “dishonorable,” would forever be a black mark on my record and meant a reduction in benefits after having already cut short an honorable Army career of 13 years. It would be harder to get a civilian job, as I would discover in interview after interview. Still, I’d end up one of the lucky ones. I found a job. But to me it wasn’t about a paycheck. It was about restoring honor to the men I had served alongside. In our unit careers had been effectively ended. In the entire U.S. military, literally hundreds of men and women, almost all from the Marines and Army who bore the brunt of the ground combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, had had their careers ended by administrative and judicial actions.
We are asking our troops, especially our ground troops, to do far more with far less. We capture the enemy and higher echelons let them go. If we shoot at them, we get investigated. And the stigma of an investigation has become a career-ender. If we scare them, our commanders want to try us for psychological “torture.” Two of my fellow soldiers, Pfc. Paul Conlon and 1st Lt. Donnie Carwile, are never coming home and several my men and friends have been maimed for life because of them.
If we continue to send our men and women to fight in what has become one of the most difficult combat environments known in history, they deserve to know that the American people and government will have their back.
At stake is not only restoring honor to men and women who have been sacrificed on the altar of political appeasement, but also whether America can ever win a major ground war again. After what I witnessed, I’m not sure.
• Roger T. Hill is a former infantry captain in the 101st Airborne and a decorated combat veteran.