Small Wars Journal

Officials Parsing Words Over 'Combat' in Iraq

Officials Parsing Words Over 'Combat' in Iraq by Kristina Wong, The Hill

The raid to free captives held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is bringing up uncomfortable questions for the Obama administration. 

U.S. special operations forces not only engaged in combat with ISIS fighters last week for the first time, but they also called in airstrikes from the ground, according to defense officials. 

After a U.S. and Kurdish Peshmerga team conducted a raid to rescue 70 Iraqi hostages from an ISIS prison compound in northern Iraq, U.S. forces then called in airstrikes from F-15 fighter jets that leveled the compound.  

“After the hostages were safe, American F-15s flattened the Daesh prison,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, on Saturday.

The White House, however, has repeatedly suggested U.S. troops would not face combat in Iraq…

Read on.



Sun, 10/25/2015 - 10:56pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill. I hope you are right.

I am actually thinking now that the reason this whole thing feels so "off" has more to do with politics in Iraq than politics in America. I wonder if this was done with Kurdish knowledge but without knowledge or consent from Baghdad. If Bagdhad only agreed to let us in if we did not engage in direct combat than perhaps the backtracking is for them.

This is just so completely different from how we handled the Abbu Sayyaf raid or even the failed hostage rescue attempt. Both of those were conducted by Americans so it is not like we have had any problem admitting we were involved in operations. But those took place in Syria.

I guess I will just have to wait to see how things develope

Bill M.

Sun, 10/25/2015 - 9:58pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

3 short points: First, our civilian and military leadership has repeatedly thrown our guys under the bus for tactical missteps (not intentional violations) and value judgments like child rapist incident I mentioned. Some made the media, some didn't.

I don't know the facts on the recent raid, but based on our history of operations and mission approval authorities I suspect your comments about DOD brass being out of step with civilian leadership will prove to be unfounded. Granted it is a possibility, and if that happened, I suspect we'll see tell tale signs in White House messaging.

At times our guys wear helmet cams to help protect them from allegations of war crimes (that frequently occur, and it becomes a he said, she said thing, then a needless investigation). Maybe the Kurds were also wearing cams, and despite our best efforts we can't always control what they do with their imagery. Increasing transparency of our operations is trend we must continue to adapt to. I don't know anymore than the press reports I read, but I do think you may be over thinking this. If I'm wrong, you can tell me you told me so.


Sun, 10/25/2015 - 8:24pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill, I disagree that any of the first three items you mentioned had anything to do with this incident. SOF has operators all over the place. They even conduct raids. But in those cases the SECDEF never minces words about what happened. Why is this time different? Second, the SECDEF was not going to throw the Soldier under the bus, and he didn't. Third, authorizing certain types of operations is not the same as authorizing Americans to participate in the action.

So now I am going to speculate a little based on how events unfolded. The DoD spokesman who briefed the press on the mission less than 24 hours after it occurred was clearly not set to answer questions. Dod saw this as a low level operation, not the kind of thing the Brass needed to be briefed on, nor that they would want to be putting out the word on. It probably happened very fast without a lot of specific guidance or briefings to higher ups. Heck, the SECDEF may not have even been aware of the true nature of the operation.

Going to your last statement, this is not about judgement in combat, this is about who got on the aircraft to start with. This whole thing smacks of a military going in one direction, independent of civilian direction. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems like I am watching amateur hour, not on the part of the operators. They did great. On the part of the DoD brass who authorized the operation.

One last point, why is there helmet cam videos of the raid already available on the internet? "The new video showing scenes from the raid near Hawija, in northern Kirkuk province, was released by the Kurdistan Regional Government. A U.S. military official confirmed its source and authenticity to CNN." Again,seems like the military on the ground are no longer in charge of crafting the message. The whole thing feels wrong. Or maybe I am overthinking it.

Bill M.

Sun, 10/25/2015 - 7:39pm

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

Read the other articles it should convince you that your fears are unfounded. First, over 30 U.S. SOF operators participated in the raid as combat advisors, to include U.S. aircraft, so it was hardly a rogue operation. Second, the SecDef said that MSG Wheeler did what we expect our soldiers to do that situation. Third, the SecDef said there would be more raids.

To me it is disturbing how many people in our chain of command rush to the conclusion our men did something wrong in combat, and how they are then put in a position where they have to prove their innocence. Fortunately, in this case the SecDef supported the actions of these SOF operators shortly after the event. That is important for MSG Wheeler's family and friends. It should be important to all of us.

That hasn't been the case for many events in OIF and OEF-A. Recently U.S. leadership was willing to throw a SF CPT and SFC under the bus for a minor assault on a child rapist in Afghanistan because he was an officer. Lawyers and desk jockeys who have minimal field time rushed to defend the Afghan Officer and championed pushing discharging a good soldier out of the army. All in the name of protecting Afghan culture. This demonstrates how disconnected these theorists are from the reality of those who have to make a decision in a complex context that a distant lawyer or desk jockey will never comprehend. You tell the people you're there to improve their lives, they ask for help against criminal behavior, and you turn your back on them and yet continue to push a narrative that has now been invalidated. Clearly that Afghan woman and child didn't value the cultural norm as much as some of our own people.

Laws, regulations, and policies may be black and white, but judgment isn't. When soldiers in a combat advisory role see their partners in trouble personal, then their personal ethics will pull them into the fight. When soldiers see women and children being abused, their personal ethics will cause them to step in to prevent it from continuing. It represents who they are as men, their character. Fortunately we can't program that out of them with laws, regulations, and policies. Our people are not robots who can be programmed to be something other than who they really are at their core. Do we really want it to be another way?


Sun, 10/25/2015 - 2:33pm

I guess I am somewhat conflicted about this. Reading the article what actually happened is hard to say.

The order were that U.S. Soldiers were not "supposed" to place themselves in situations where enemy contact was likely. My first impression was that this Soldier was playing fast and loose with that definition, or just disregarding it because he wanted to play Cowboy. On the flip side, we conducted a raid into Syria to kill Abu Sayyaf - how is that not Combat.

This is not a new problem. When a Soldier died in a "training mission" in Columbia as part of the War on Drugs, was that Combat? How about the Marines killed in the Beirut Bombing? How about Khobar towers? When they were shot in Chattanooga?

Is the key that you were on foreign soil? Is the key that you could shoot back? What happens when you are not looking to close with and destroy the enemy, but the enemy shows up on your doorstep anyway?

Don't get me wrong, I am not in favor of playing semantic games with reality. But as soon as you start down this road you have to make some clear distinctions. Then you have to explain those distinctions to the American Population. You have to make those distinctions clear to your Soldiers.

I don't have an answer that I feel comfortable with yet. But I get an uncomfortable feeling about this. There seems to be no right answer to this.

I guess the one question I would really like to have answered is "was the MSG on this mission with the full knowledge of his superiors?" Were there real, hard and fast rules that kept Americans away from the fight, or was that just political rhetoric? Did the MSG violate those rules, or was he following the direction of his command? The difference matters, but it won't matter to many. If it walks like a duck and all that. It is hard to argue that when you died during a raid into enemy territory by enemy fire, that you were not engaged in Combat when you died. Still, I don't feel comfortable validating that if you were there of your own accord and not by the orders of those appointed above you.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 10/25/2015 - 1:07pm

I truly wish that the legacy of Master Sergeant Wheeler will be the end to our self-deception and parsing of words over US forces in combat with no boots on the ground. We have to be honest with ourselves and the American public that when it is in our interests we are willing to put American personnel in harm's way and they may in fact be in combat. We need to have the moral strength to admit how we are employing our military forces and why.

We should never shy away from saying that we are going to do what is necessary to protect our interests and that includes putting US forces in harm's way and that that may result in combat. If we cannot say that then perhaps those interests are not sufficient to warrant putting US men and women in harm's way.