Professionalism/Operation Red Wings and the Rules of Engagement

Background and History of Rules of EngagementEdit

The rules of engagement (ROE) delineate when military personnel are allowed to use force. They provide guidance for situations such as determining when it is appropriate to take action against civilians, return hostile fire, and take prisoners. The ROE also identify when soldiers are required to ask for directions from higher authority.[1] It is made overtly clear that a soldier's right to self defense is not limited by the ROE. The rules encompass military, legal and political components, ensuring that U.S. soldiers are acting in accordance with international and domestic war policies. Although all ROE follow the same basic guidelines, adjustments are made to them depending on the mission. [2]

The ROE originated during the Cold War when nuclear warfare was feared as possible retaliation for any military wrongdoings. To prevent incidents and outline allowable actions, the United States government established the ROE. The media's increased role during wartime also contributed to the creation of the ROE because small mishaps began to be highly publicized.[1]

Operation Red WingsEdit


On June 28, 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL team (Lt. Michael Murphy, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz, Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew Axelson and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell) was conducting a reconnaissance mission to scout the terrorist Ahmad Shah in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.[3] While hiding out, the SEAL team encountered three unarmed goat herders, including one teenage boy. The team was then faced with an ethical decision. Should they free the goat herders and risk being compromised or kill unarmed civilians to protect themselves? Eventually, the team leader Lt. Murphy decided to uphold the ROE and let the goat herders go.[4] About an hour later, the four SEALs were surrounded by more than a hundred Taliban warriors. A firefight erupted and the Taliban militia forced the team to retreat further.

Lt. Michael MurphyEdit

Lt. Murphy is credited with risking his own life to save the lives of his teammates. He moved into the open to gain a better position to transmit a call for help.[4] Moving away from the protective mountain rocks, he knowingly exposed himself to increased enemy gunfire. Lt. Murphy made contact with the SOF Quick Reaction Force (QRF) at Bagram Air Base and requested assistance. He provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team.[4] In 2007, Lt. Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his brave actions during the battle.[5]

Attempted RescueEdit

An MH-47 Chinook helicopter, with eight additional SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers aboard, was sent in as part of an extraction mission to pull out the four embattled SEALs. They knew the risk going into an active enemy area in daylight. On its way to help, the Chinook was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all 16 men aboard.[6] On the ground, the four SEALs, Murphy, Luttrell, Dietz and Axelson, continued the fight. By the end of the two-hour gunfight, Lt. Murphy, Axelson and Dietz had been killed.

Marcus Luttrell: The Lone SurvivorEdit

The fourth SEAL, Luttrell, was badly injured and knocked unconscious by a rocket propelled grenade.[4] Gratefully, a local named Mohammad Gulab came to his aid and carried him to a nearby village where he was kept for three days. The Taliban came to the village several times demanding that Luttrell be turned over to them. The villagers refused. One of the villagers made his way to a Marine outpost with a note from Luttrell, and U.S. forces launched an operation that rescued him from enemy territory on July 2, 2005.[7]

Professionalism of Mohammad GulabEdit

Mohammad Gulab assisted Luttrell due to an Afghan code of honor known as Pashtunwali. Pashtunwali is a non-written ethical code and traditional lifestyle which the indigenous Pashtun people follow. Among its main principles includes nanawatai, which refers to providing asylum to a person against his enemies and to protect him at all costs.[8] Gulab did not defend Luttrell for personal gain, but out of a sense of honor that transcended generations, two thousand years of Pashtunwali tradition.[4]

Gulab and his fellow villagers that harbored and saved the life of Lutrell are still proud of their courageous action and would do it again despite of the consequences that followed.[7] In the face of Taliban threats to overrun Sabray, the villagers protected, gave first aid to, fed, and clothed Luttrell. Soon after he saved Luttrell, Gulab was forced to abandon his home and his possessions due to Taliban death threats. He is now living in California, unlikely to ever be able to return to his still threatened village. “I have no regrets for what my family, my fellow villagers and I have done,” said Gulab in an interview, “We knew what the Taliban’s reaction would be from the day we carried him in our door.”[7]

Decision Making in Operation Red WingsEdit

Organizational CultureEdit

One of the likely factors that guided Lt. Michael Murphy in his decision to let the goat herders free was the organizational culture of the U.S. military. The theory of organizational culture states that “cultural norms, values, beliefs, and assumptions” unconsciously guide and direct the behavior of members in an organization.[9]

The organizational culture of the U.S. military is characterized by a “highly structured and authoritarian way of life with a mission-focused, goal-oriented approach, … [a] strict sense of discipline, tending to adhere to rules and regulations, … [and] decisive leadership that expects loyalty of subordinates.”[10] All three of these aspects of the military organizational culture played a role in the decision-making in Operation Red Wings. The mission-focused mindset led Lt. Murphy to make a decision based on the goal of following his commands orders, rather than based on maximizing the safety of himself and his comrades. The strict adherence to rules led Lt. Murphy to follow the ROE regardless of the circumstances. Lt. Murphy displayed decisive leadership by taking control of the situation and following through with the decision. The other three soldiers, who were subordinate to Lt. Murphy, were loyal to his decision and followed commands. While organizational culture was not the sole determinant in Lt. Murphy’s choice, it appeared to play a significant role.


Lt. Murphy and his team exemplified integrity in their decision to follow the ROE and the Navy SEAL Code. Integrity is a hallmark of a professional, particularly when performing a virtuous action, such as following the ROE even if it means risking your own life.

One of the core principles of the Navy SEAL Code is “serve with honor and integrity on and off the battlefield.”[11] Additionally, this code states that SEALs “voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of [their] profession, placing the welfare and security of others before [their] own.”[11] Lt. Murphy followed both this code and the ROE with integrity. He accepted the hazard to himself and his comrades in choosing to release the shepherds, while placing their welfare above that of his SEAL team.


Another factor that played a role in Lt. Murphy’s decision was consequentialism, which is the view that “the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences.”[12] Lt. Murphy weighed the potential consequences of choosing to kill the shepherds or let them go. In the event he killed the shepherds, he would have received punishment from his superiors for violating the ROE, both his SEAL team and the U.S. military would have likely been condemned by the media, and his team would have unethically killed unarmed civilians and a child. Lt. Murphy knew that letting the herders go would result in a higher chance of death for him and his SEAL team, but he decided that this outcome had better overall consequences than the alternative.

My Lai MassacreEdit

In a comparable case, the soldiers in the My_Lai_Massacre during the Vietnam_War chose not to follow the ROE. In this incident, U.S. Army soldiers “killed at least 175-200 Vietnamese men, women, and children,” only 3 or 4 of whom were confirmed enemy Viet Cong.[13] One of the rules of engagement for use of surface weapons in the Vietnam War was “surface commanders may initiate direct fire against positively identified enemy targets.”[14]

The mass killing of unarmed and innocent Vietnamese civilians at My Lai violated the ROE of the Vietnam War, and as a result platoon leader William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder.[15] By defying the rules, Calley breached the rule-following organizational culture of the U.S. military and acted unethically. Lt. Michael Murphy might have survived had he decided to defy the rules and kill the goat herders in Operation Red Wings, but that unethical decision might also have resulted in punishment like Calley. Rather than punishment for disobedience, Lt. Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his brave and professional decision.


Professionals are trained to make judgment calls in scenarios where there is no clear right or wrong solution. Outsiders often use hindsight to criticize these type of decisions, ignoring the tough circumstances of the situtation when the decision had to be made. Lt. Michael Murphy and his SEAL team made the decision to follow the ROE, resulting in all of their deaths except for Marcus Luttrell. While this decision resulted in a failure of the mission, Lt. Murphy acted in accordance with the established rules, maintaining his professional integrity even in the threat of death. Many outsiders use hindsight to claim that Lt. Murphy made the wrong decision. However, in the moment it is difficult or even impossible to determine when it is ethically “right” to follow or break rules when human lives are at stake. Thus the outcome of a decision, such as the success or failure of a mission, cannot be the only factor in determining whether or not that decision was ethical or professional.


  1. a b (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from
  2. CJCSI. (2005, June). 3121.01B, Standing Rules of Engagement/Standing Rules for the Use of Force for U.S. Forces
  3. Naylor, S.D. (2007). Surviving SEAL tells story of deadly mission. Army Times.
  4. a b c d e Luttrell, M. (2007). Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 (Hachette Digital, Inc.).
  7. a b c Moreau, R., and Yousafzai, S. (2013). The Afghan Village That Saved Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.
  8. Banting, E. (2002). Afghanistan - The People (Crabtree Publishing Company).
  9. Pierce, J. (2010, September). Is the Organizational Culture of the U.S. Army Congruent with the Professional Development of its Senior Level Officer Corps? Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from
  10. U.S. Agency for International Development. (2005, September). Field Operations Guide For Disaster Assessment and Response. Retrieved from
  11. a b Divine, M. (2014). SEAL Code: a Warrior Creed. Retrieved from
  12. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2014). Consequentialism. Retrieved from
  13. U.S. Department of the Army. (1970, March 14). Report of the Department of the Army of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident: Volume I. Retrieved from
  14. Congressional Record - Senate. (1985). "U.S. Rules of Engagement in Vietnam War - 1969-1972." Folder 05, Box 52, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 03 - Legal and Legislative, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Retrieved from
  15. U.S. Court of Military Appeals. (1973, December 21). United States, Appellee v William L. Calley, Jr., First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, Appellant. No. 26,875. Retrieved from