I was recently able to hear almost all of John Kerry's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I must say I was impressed. His monologue was well structured and eloquently delivered. Being 28, I was not around during Vietnam. Like 99.99% of Americans I was not an eyewitness to Kerry's service. Having no first hand knowledge therefore, I must rely on the testimony of those who, like Kerry, were there. If I had absolutely no knowledge of the subject matter, I would likely accept such well supported and obviously heartfelt testimony without question. However, I do have first hand knowledge as to a small fraction of the subject matter of his testimony. For most of that fraction, he's just plain wrong; eloquent, but wrong.
I separated from active duty about a year ago after spending just over Five years in the United States Air Force. I served as an Air Battle Manager aboard the E-8C Joint STARS. In addition to intelligence collection, surveillance and reconnaissance, my duties focused on the coordination and application of firepower. I worked with artillery, rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters), fighter aircraft, bombers, cargo aircraft, Special Forces ground units and unmanned aerial vehicles, from every branch of the military. In preparation for this duty I received extensive training on the Geneva Conventions, the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), Rules of Engagement (ROE) and Fire Control Measures (FCMs). In addition to implementing these concepts myself, I served as an instructor for over two years, teaching them to others. I also served briefly in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I offer this information not as self promotion, but only to suggest that I have both theoretical and practical knowledge of the following subject matter.
Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry testified that "we are more guilty than any other body of violations of those Geneva Conventions, in the use of free fire zones, harassment interdiction fire, search and destroy missions, the bombings, the torture of prisoners, the killing of prisoners, accepted policy by many units in South Vietnam. That is what we are trying to say. It is party and parcel of everything." During his April 18, 1971 appearance on Meet the Press, Kerry said much the same and added, "I used .50 calibre machine guns, which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people."
Free fire zones, harassment interdiction fire, search and destroy missions, and .50 caliber weapons all sound most unpleasant. Indeed to the average civilian they probably sound so horrible that they would be accepted as war crimes without question. But in reality all of these are within the Geneva Conventions and the LOAC.
A free fire zone (FFZ), which is now called a free fire area (FFA) is an FCM. (Why the name change? Well, it's often said in the military, "Every time an acronym changes, a Colonel gets his wings.")
Operational Terms and Graphics -- Army Field Manual 101-5-1/Marine Corps Reference Publication 5-2A 30 September 1997 -- defines a free fire area as follows:
free fire area (FFA) -- A specific designated area into which any weapon system may fire without additional coordination with the establishing headquarters. Normally, it is established on identifiable terrain by division or higher headquarters. (See also fire support coordination and rules of engagement (ROE).) See FM 6-20 series.
Here's some background and a hypothetical to put it in layman's terms. The Army and Marines divide the battlefield into lanes, and every unit from Corps down to Platoon has its own lane; its own slice of the battlefield. As a general rule, no one from Division A may fire into Division B's lane without first coordinating with Division B. This is good because troops in Division A don't usually know exactly where Division B is or what Division B is up to. Firing into Division B's lane may cause fratricide or disrupt Division B's plans in some way. This is also bad because if troops in Division A see the enemy in Division B's lane, they can't help Division B without time consuming coordination. SoCB"C"bB,CB&
Let's say Division A and Division B are fighting side by side. Let's say there is a portion of Division B's lane, in which Division B has no troops and which Division B can't see (perhaps it's behind a mountain). Let's further imagine that Division A has good visibility of this area and has plenty of artillery or air support which could cover an enemy attack there. The commander of Division B will designate this area a "free fire area" meaning that Division A can fire into that portion of Division B's lane without coordination. It does not mean that combatants are allowed to mow down anything and every thing that moves. The ROE, the LOAC, and the Geneva Conventions still apply in the FFA. It is an FCM not a war crime.
Army Field Manual 101-5-1/Marine Corps Reference Publication 5-2A also defines interdiction fire:
interdiction fire (NATO) -- Fire placed on an area or point to prevent the enemy from using the area or point. (See also interdict and interdiction.) See FMs 6-series and 7-90.
Again this sounds horrible, and you wouldn't want interdiction fire at a family reunion, but it is not a war crime. When conducting interdiction fire, the ROE, the LOAC and the Geneva Conventions still apply.
"Search and Destroy Mission" is no longer defined in Army Field Manual 101-5-1/Marine Corps Reference Publication 5-2A, it is my (limited) understanding that the term was replaced by two separate orders, Movement to Contact followed by Engagement. In layman's terms a seek and destroy mission meant, "Find the enemy and kill them." Not a polite thing to do at Starbucks, but not a war crime.
Refutation of the .50 caliber reference is a little more involved. Since WWII, there has been a rumor floating around the military that use of .50 caliber weapons against soldiers (as opposed to use against tanks, equipment, aircraft, buildings, etc.) is banned by the Geneva Conventions, or the LOAC or some other international law. I heard this rumor as a cadet and I was skeptical since the Browning .50 caliber machine gun can be seen on tanks, helicopters, patrol boats, bunkers and just about everywhere it's needed. During a LOAC briefing conducted by one of the instructors from the Air Force Judge Advocate School at Maxwell Air Force Base I learned that this was, in fact, only a rumor. Indeed a casual reading of the LOAC and the Geneva Conventions will uncover absolutely no restriction on the use of .50 caliber weapons. And that's a good thing since the venerable .50 Caliber Browning machine gun has been mowing down the enemy at long range for going on 80 years now.
The above may sound like inconsequential minutia but I find it relevant for two reasons. First of all, I am disappointed but certainly not shocked to find that a junior officer was confused concerning the above. However, to think that a commander would lead men in to battle under such ignorance is appalling. That he professed such ignorance as enlightenment before the Senate and on national television is exponentially more appalling.
Secondly, most of us were not in Vietnam. But for a few, Americans did not see the courageous or cowardly actions of Kerry. Therefore, regarding most of the accolades and accusations delivered, it becomes a question of who are we to believe. Concerning some matters we have documented facts, such as Kerry's recorded testimony and actual military documents. The fact that Kerry is wrong concerning that of which I have first hand knowledge is sufficient to, in my mind, divest him of the benefit of doubt, and shift the burden onto him to prove that which is unknown.
This article originally appeared at CommentaryPage.com.
Last Updated Thursday, April 19 2007 @ 12:41 PM MDT; 8,120 Hits