Asking Our Soldiers to Do Police Work: Why It Can Lead to Disaster

Armed-forces personnel are trained to "engage and destroy," peace officers "to protect and to serve." Expecting young recruits to play both roles is expecting too much.



The soldiers' proverb that "it is better to be judged by 12 than carried by six" has recently gained new currency among American troops in Afghanistan. For combat soldiers, its meaning is clear: when in doubt, shoot first and ask questions later. While civilians may find this violent mindset shocking, it's important to recognize that we train our soldiers to, in the words of the U.S. Army's soldier's creed, "engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat."

From its very inception, the Unites States military has defended American interests by threatening and, if required, committing violence. In basic training, drill instructors bellow the question, "What makes the green grass grow?", to which new recruits respond by screaming, "Blood -- bright red blood!" and stabbing a dummy in the guts with a bayonet. This is how we train our warriors and how we have done it for over 100 years.

We train our troops to kill, equip them with the world's most effective weapons, and send them to war. Yet in many instances, our leaders then ask these trained warriors to serve as peace officers, a job that involves entirely different expectations and holds them to a different standard. There are special subunits within the military whose members are trained to play both cop and commando, but the very nature of name "special" demonstrates that this is not normal training.

Admittedly, "police actions" are nothing new to U.S. Armed Forces. President Harry Truman used that term to describe the Korean War. In Vietnam, the most notorious of American policing actions, generals (or presidents) declined to bomb certain targets for fear of provoking intervention from China and the USSR. But in Korea and Vietnam, these "police actions" were typically at the strategic level. In Afghanistan, the troops patrolling the streets are expected to both fight as warriors and serve as peace officers at the tactical level. The blurring of this distinction is not without consequences, as young men and women struggle to protect the same people they've, in some instances, been ordered to fight.

Take the example of Private First Class Edward Richmond, Jr., who in 2004 was providing security in a small village outside Kirkuk, Iraq, while his unit searched the village for high-level insurgents. Richmond's squad was tasked with providing security while the rest of the unit cleared the village (a cordon search mission). Richmond's squad leader, Sergeant Jeffrey Waruch, instructed the squad on its rules of engagement: "Shoot any males fleeing the village, but check with [the squad leader] if possible before firing."

When the operation began at daybreak, American soldiers heard gunshots and screaming in both Arabic and English coming from the security line. Richmond noticed a man leaving the city near his position.  Remembering his initial order, Richmond requested permission to engage the target. Waruch later testified that "Edward asked if he could shoot the man." Waruch ordered Richmond not to shoot the fleeing man and instead headed towards him, instructing Richmond to assist him in detaining the fleeing Iraqi.

As the two soldiers approached the Iraqi, he became agitated, and Waruch ordered him to put his arms up. As Waruch went to search the Iraqi, he directed Richmond to stand guard with his rifle ready. Waruch quickly patted the man down, looking for weapons and when he tried to pull his wrist down to handcuff him, the man resisted. Waruch told Richmond to point his weapon at the man and told him to "shoot him if he moves." At that point, the man stopped resisting and Waruch was able to cuff him.

As the two soldiers headed back to their perimeter with their prisoner, the Iraqi man tripped and stumbled into Waruch. Richmond shot one round, hitting the detainee. He later stated that the detainee had jumped at Waruch.

The Iraqi died as a third soldier came to the scene. Without knowing exactly what had happened, the third soldier looked at Richmond and said "you are f---ked." Richmond had been in Iraq for less than three weeks.

Presented by

Arthur Rizer, a former Washington State police officer who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, currently works at the U.S. Department of Justice. He also trains military police for the U.S. Army Reserves.

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