Rules of Engagement


Rules of Engagement (ROE) are clear commands to military forces regarding the manner in which force may be applied depending on the circumstances, conditions, desired outcome, or mission. They are mainly limitations on the amount of force that can be used as well as on capabilities and weapons to be employed. Rules of Engagement are considered as law in some countries or as directives in others. Rules of Engagement are mostly applied in international war or missions and indicate the actions or measures that are not acceptable during the operation. Rules of Engagement are normally put down on a ROE Card that acts as guidance to the soldiers, indicating a summary of the ROE regarding the use of force in that mission. Rules of Engagement have many befits as well as costs. Apart from clear instructions, the military organization enjoys clarity in terms of the amount of force to be applied in a military operation and also cuts down on unnecessary commands every other time as well as guarantees prevention against any potential breakdown in discipline and therefore secures discipline.

Some of the costs of Rules of Engagement are the loss of the battle and also the loss of lives if the actual happenings on the ground do not match what is in the plan. In such a case, new directives may be required, which would take a long time to effect, since commands must come from higher ranking officials downwards to the soldiers on the ground. Ideology is mainly associated with international and aggressive war. Ideology is mainly what defines the limits within which legitimate action may be taken and also defines what is dangerous. Ideology forms the basis for the formation of security policies by defining what National Security is and actions that are necessary to protect it. Limited war ideology was applied in the Vietnam War as a strategy to avoid provoking the participation of the Soviet Union members such as China. This paper seeks to examine the correlation between the rules of engagement with the limited war ideology and its assumptions from the perspectives of the six levels of command during the 20th century experience in Vietnam (Moon, 1998).

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Individual Soldiers in the Field

Soldiers on the ground are subject to command from their commanders and hence cannot take any action without the authorization from the commanders. Rules of engagement were very restricting to them and they were not allowed to pursue their enemies beyond certain zones. They were also not allowed to attack in some situations unless they were attacked first. These restrictions led to the loss of many soldiers and no military objective was achieved.

Battalion Commanders

Ideology policies were restraining them and made them experience more casualties. Some of the operations were set in areas where they did not add any military value. This meant that no clear objectives were achieved while many lives were lost. For the battalion commanders, it was more difficult to command the forces and to issue directives that would protect their soldiers due to the restrictive rules, which bound them to do so. The inability to attack restricted areas made it difficult to control the flow of men and weapons into Vietnam.

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Division Commanders

The division commanders were highly restricted by the rules of engagement. For example, they could not send troops to restricted areas such as North Vietnam. This was an advantage to the enemies as they used such areas as hide outs. Division commanders therefore were not able to engage the troops to pursue the enemy and fight them.

General William Westmoreland

He feared that the extended conflict would take up more soldiers and wear out their ability to fight and supply more soldiers. He therefore applied the restrictive rules of engagement, hoping that this would destroy the enemies’ desire and willingness to fight. In his public statements to the public, he expressed optimism that the US troops were successfully gaining ground against the North Vietnamese army (Moon, 1998).

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

The Secretary of Defense was using the rules of engagement to prevent the escalation of the conflict by limiting the practices and the areas of the US troops. Later, on July 20, 1965, he proposed the President to go against the ROE and mobilize 235,000 National Guards and reserves. However, the President, being bound by war ideologies and international rules, declined the offer as he felt that the war would be over soon. McNamara later confessed that the US was defeated because of underestimating the enormity of the Vietnamese and their capabilities.

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President Lyndon Johnson

Due to the restrictions of the limited war ideology, international war policies, and rules of engagement, President Johnson refused to mobilize the National Guards because he felt that such a move would trigger the involvement of the Soviet nations in the war.


The Vietnamese War was mainly an ideological conflict with communities and the international nations enforcing rules of engagement to regulate the action and the amount of force that was acceptable in the international war. These rules of engagement were however seen by the soldiers on the ground and the commanders as excessive restrictions that barred them from achieving their objectives and also led to the loss of lives and mutilation of many others. On the upper chain of command, the President, Secretary of Defense, and the general agreed to apply the rules of engagement, hoping that this move would wear out the desire of the enemy to fight and would therefore lead to an agreement. However, this was an underestimation of the enormity of the opponents, which had grieved consequences.

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