The decision to pull the trigger once aim is taken is often slightly labored, but is and must be made with the quickness. There have been media stories on violence and atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Iraq mostly – haven’t heard too many out of Afghanistan. And people often are quick to blame the command climate or the levels of combat stress, the leadership within the squad or platoon – there are a number of things cited as a failure when atrocities occur. But in war, atrocities will occur (not that I advocate or support them). It goes against our own American principals as well as the Geneva conventions, but an element of the ‘fog of war’ is the age old question: When do I pull the trigger?
I have a journal entry from November 2004 I would like to share with you:
‘I saw the flash for a brief second and then saw and heard the boom, as the explosion went off right next to the HMMWV. That was how we wound down the day today, after still only having two Strykers working, and an up-armored HMMWV. We were returning to FOB Freedom from FOB Diamondback when about 2 km out, we passed under a set of twin underpasses. They come from the highway, and although they are within 20 meters of each other, one is significantly taller than the next. I always scan them as we go under and come out from them, because you never know who is up there trying to throw a grenade. Well today, some jerk was. I has just passed under it, scanned the top, and the HMMWV was about to clear the underpass when the explosion occurred. It was about 10 meters from the side of the vehicle, near the median. Initially we thought it was an IED but we saw and heard the blast, but didn’t feel it. We figure someone hiding on the overpass lobbed it off real quick when they saw us coming. It makes me mad, because I had just cleared it and saw nobody, and was scanning the off-ramp when I saw go off. I flipped the safety on my weapon to semi and was prepared to pepper the off ramp and overpass, but didn’t want to shoot over top of the HMMWV and its gunner. So I swung left and looked to our three o’clock to see if the blast was to initiate any type of ambush. I saw nothing, but by then it was too late, we were past it all, and there was no need to shoot. But I should have suppressed the wall and anyone who was hiding up there, and the HMMWV’s gunner told me later that he doesn’t care if I shoot over his head, or two feet from him, just as long as I know he is there and don’t hit him.
So this makes the second night in a row that I could have shot but didn’t. Last night on the last escort of a sixteen hour day, I observed what seemed to be three muzzle flashes from a building. We had an engineer convoy from FOB Freedom to FOB Marez, and then we were to return (minus the convoy). Eleven vehicles, mostly FMTVs and HETTs, we positioned our only two Strykers at the front and rear of the convoy. I took rear, and I took the M240 machine gun. As we passed, about 600m away, I saw the apartment building and the window where the flashes originated from. They were white flashes, with sparks. I didn’t hear any rounds ping anything, or any rifle crack, but distinctly saw it. They came about a second apart from each other, and reminded me first of fire crackers, but I don’t think Iraqi’s have fire crackers and if they do they don’t set them off at night past curfew in buildings. So I should have lit into the building with at least a good burst from the M240, but not sure what it was, and with many other buildings around it, I didn’t want to spray and walk the rounds onto the building in question.
I am not afraid to fire, or hesitant one bit- discipline; trying to minimize any collateral damage and civilian injuries. But my trigger finger is getting itchy with all the action recently, and sooner or later, some target is going to present itself and I am going to fire.’
Looking back I can recall those incidents. And I can recall times when I and my men withheld our fire for one reason or another. And I recall times when we opened fire, and it resulted in a bullet meeting an innocent person. We’ve worked double-time to apply aid and help those we just erroneously injured. And there were times we shot, and we just didn’t know.
You take the totality of the information available to you at that time, right then – right there. You do your best to identify the threat, to divorce yourself from raw emotion and hatred – or any grudge or gripe you have – and do notice I said that you ‘do your best.’ You make an educated guess. And afterwards those that make the choice hope that they made the right decision, and then you put it out of your mind.
When to pull the trigger and when not to is a very complex, personal thing. And it is something that to those who have to make that decision – all things being considered – can be a burden or curse. I always told my soldiers that if they felt that a situation warranted pulling the trigger and it happened to not turn out the way it should have, that I would back them.
I would get asked why ‘SPC so and so’ shoot that driver in the neck, or why ‘SGT so and so’ shot that warning shot. And I would always answer the same way: “Sir, they felt threatened based on the actions being taken by the individual, and given the totality of the information they had under those circumstances, they made a choice.” And when I got asked if I felt that they made the right choice [ergo, did I think it was justified] I would say “Sir, I cannot answer that, and neither can you. Neither one of us was standing there, and neither one of us saw it the way that he did.” Everyone knew the rules of engagement (ROE) and everyone that was’t a psycho or maniac made what they felt was a justified decision. And that is the cold, hard truth.
It’s never easy, it’s never pleasant. But walking that fine line between when to shoot and when not to is a difficult and obscure existence that has oh-so many facets and factors to it. Scenarios can be drawn based on correlation of similar incidents, but no one situation is exactly the same. And to the outside observer it can be seen as an easy question, do one or do the other. But such seemingly easy solutions both can have horrific and life-lasting, very real consequences…