I’m reading Brandon Webb’s The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy Seal Sniper Corps and how I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen. In it he relates an incident in Afghanistan:
As I continued moving my rifle in a small oscillating arc, shifting view back and forth between Cassidy and his team and the little knot of Afghan farmers, I noticed one guy standing off to the side. He had a gun.
The man had his rifle slung casually over his shoulder, and there was nothing threatening about the posture. I couldn’t tell if he was a bad actor or an innocent farmer. I was leaning toward farmer–but why was he carrying a gun? Alarm bells were going off in my head.
Cassidy and the team were now close to the house. Man oh man, I was thinking, do I take the shot? Will it put Cassidy in tough spot?
The guy was about 600 yards away, slightly more than six football fields. I knew I could take him out in a heartbeat. No problem. I felt my finger against the trigger. Breathe out…focus…squeeze…pop. It would be that easy.
But if I did, it would certainly complicate the situation. If I shot the guy and it turned out he was innocent, we’d have quite a scene on our hands. On the other hand, if I didn’t and he wasn’t innocent, the team could be in danger. Even if these guys had more arms stashed close at hand, Cassidy and our guys would clearly outgun them, but you don’t want to let things get so far that the question of who outguns who is your determining factor.
What do I do? I had all the information I was going to have. There was no more intel to weigh, no path of logic to make the wiser choice. It came down to pure instinct. Do I take the shot or not?
I breathed out…focused…squeezed…
I decided not to take the shot.
It turns out the Afghan with the gun was in fact guarding the escape of a harbored al Qaeda fighter who got away. Webb goes on to say (my emphasis):
Thinking back over the whole sequence, I didn’t see what I would have done differently. With the information I had, giving this farmer the benefit of the doubt still seemed to me the right decision. Yes, these Afghan village people would sometimes harbor other Afghans who were Taliban or Arabs we would call al Qaeda. For the most part, though, they were not bad people; they were just trying to get along and survive, to go on living there in the mountains the way they had been for generations without getting caught in the crosshairs of battle.
When we first arrived, in Kuwait and Oman and finally Afghanistan, we were hyped up and angry and ready to deliver payback. We were coming right off the shock of 9/11, and we had all sorts of people e-mailing us from the States, voicing their support and cheering us on. Underneath that caricature of the white devil and “3 ECHO” on our platoon patch, I’d had a legend stitched out that said, EMBRACE THE HATE. That’s the mode we were operating in, and our rules of engagement certainly supported that. When in doubt, take them out. However, as we got more immersed in the culture and started seeing things from the point of view of the people who lived there, things began to shift a little. I’d been in Afghanistan long enough now to understand that not everyone had to die. I didn’t want to shoot anybody who didn’t need shooting.