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Tuesday, 18 February 2014 09:08

Rules of Engagement (ROE) and Limited War Ideology Featured

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Rules of Engagement (ROE) and Limited War Ideology


Rules of Engagement or ROE, as is popularly referred to, is a model of leadership that has been used since several centuries ago. For instance, historical military wars that had been fought both before and during world wars applied leadership models involving written principles and where combat soldiers are trained on rules of engagement. ROE is beneficial in that participants at the lowest level in the chain of command make decisions that are in line with the mission as defined by higher level ranks in the chain of command. It promotes mission accomplishment, compliance with policy and law, and force protection. However, it can be costly owing to the inflexibility in terms of actions to be done and how they are to be done. In the Vietnam War, the American military mission was carried out following the rules of engagement, with respect to the chain of command (Davidson, 1991). This paper discusses the limited war ideology, in the context of the Vietnam War.

The Chain of Command during the Vietnam War

  1. Individual Soldiers in the Field

      In the Vietnam War, the infantry soldiers were supposed to take orders from the battalion commanders.  They were responsible for the implementation of the mission activities as planned and directed by the combatant commanders. In the perspective of the lower-level soldiers, the limited war ideology did not have much meaning. Their main concern was undertaking the job that faced them and ensuring that they protect their lives. Issues of world politics and the grand strategy for the mission were secondary to their immediate strategies to protect their lives and their friends. The rules of engagement made the war of the combat soldiers difficult. They felt that the rules instituted by the higher levels of command did not allow them to fight as effective as they had wanted.

  1. Battalion Commanders

      The battalion commanders were the second from the bottom of the chain of command during the Vietnam War. They made the day-to-day decisions for the ground soldiers. In relation to the other levels, Battalion Commanders had a high operational freedom, depending on the operations and the kind of force that they had. Colonel David Hackworth has been recognized by military scholars as one of the best leaders during the Vietnam War. He respected orders or rules of engagement as directed by the higher-level officers, but bended rules whenever it was essential to make his combat units effective while, at the same time, making the Division Commanders happy.  For instance, Col. Hackworth sometimes used the guerrilla tactics used by the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong guerrillas).

  1. Division Commanders

      The division commanders reported to the American General in charge of the War. In general, combat engagements during the Vietnam War took place at the company and platoon levels and sometimes at the divisional level. The divisions, led by commanders, carried out operations involving engaging their platoons and companies on patrols. In relation to the Rules of Engagement, the division commanders were a hindrance to units’ combat operations because they had a high requirement for responsibility and accountability for institutional policies. This restricted their scope of decision making and freedom in influencing the war.

  1. General William Westmoreland

      In the Vietnam War, American General William Westmoreland was the Commander in charge of the United States military operations in the Asian country, between 1964 and 1968 (Sorley, 2011). He is the person who had full responsibility of the War. In fact, he is fully responsibility for the failure of the grand strategy. During the time of the war, he was required to report to the then Secretary of Defense on the progress of the war. His duty was to oversee the mission and implement the decisions that were taken by the government and passed down to him through the Secretary of Defense. He believed that the National Liberation Front could be defeated by enforcing the use of air power, artillery, and large-unit battles.

  1. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

      The Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara carried the decisions of the government and advised General William Westmoreland about the direction to be taken, with respect to the US’s strategy for the War (Sorley, 2011). He also informed the president on the situation on the battlefield as informed by the US General. Secretary McNamara said afterwards that the strategy failed because the United States underestimated the mission, particularly ignoring the significance of the challenges experienced by the soldiers on the ground. The United States supported the government of South Vietnam, irrespective of the fact that the government was undemocratic, and, hence, unpopular with the people. It was only after the National Guard was mobilized following his recommendation that the United States’ forces had a significant impact, in the Vietnam War (Davidson, 1991).

  1. President Lyndon Johnson

      President Lyndon Johnson was at the top of the Chain of Command, in the Vietnam War. He made the final decision in terms of the grand strategy. In the War, the limitations of the ROE model were evident. The President made a decision not to mobilize the national troops for the Vietnam War. He did this despite the recommendation made by the Secretary of Defense McNamara, who asked the president to mobilize 235,000 national guards and reserves. The president felt that sending the National Guard would expose the US’s strategy to the Chinese, and might negatively influence the US’s intervention in the War. In addition, the President was conscious about using the national forces because he feared they could be needed to fight the Korean War in case it erupted again. The President thought that the War in Vietnam was insignificant and would be through within a year.


In Vietnam, all American units from the infantry soldiers to the division level had a responsibility to understand and act in accordance with the rules of engagement that came down from the US Army headquarters in Vietnam (Moss, 2010). The limited war ideology has been associated with aggressive international actions. This is because it ensures political correctness of the procedures and actions taken by the military. For national policy, mission, and security actions, the ideology is vital as it defines within which legitimate actions can be taken. It defines national security and provides the context in which decisions regarding policy are made. However, in relation to the limitations inherent in the ROE, historical difficulties such as those witnessed in the Vietnam War must be taken seriously.


Davidson, P.B., (1991), “Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975”, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Moss, G.D., (2010), “Vietnam: An American Ordeal”, New York, NY: Peachpit Press

Sorley, L., (2011), “Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam”, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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