WASHINGTON — Wars are inherently exercises in unleashing and restraining chaos. The clash of opposing sides unleashes primal passions, which can only be controlled through enormous effort. That is why militaries, among other things, devise Rules of Engagement (ROE).

In military operations the ROE determine when, where, and how force shall be used. ROE essentially balance the need to use force effectively to accomplish mission objectives and the need to avoid unnecessary force. They can be considered a form of crisis management. If a ROE is too tight it can constrain a commander from performing his mission effectively. And if it is too loose a ROE can facilitate the escalation of a conflict which nullifies the political objectives that the use of force was meant to achieve.

Such rules are both general and specific. While sometimes the rules may be made public, as in a martial law or curfew situation, they are typically only fully known to the force that intends to use them.

That makes the release of the Consolidated Rules of Engagement for Iraq (2005) unusual.

The 27-page document, labeled SECRET, though much of it is actually unclassified, was obtained and released on February 4 by the Wikileaks website. Wikileaks is an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.

The document has received attention in the mainstream press because it it appears to authorize raids into Syria and Iran. One of the most interesting parts of the ROE is that it indicates that US attacks likely to result in civilian deaths required authorization at the top of the Pentagon, by the secretary of defense. Thus, as the ROE states repeatedly, “If the target is in a HIGH CD [collateral damage] area, SECDEF approval is required.”

The ROE defines High Collateral Damage as: “Those targets that, if struck, have a ten percent probability of causing collateral damage through blast debris and fragmentation and are estimated to result in significant collateral effects on noncombatant persons and structures, including: (A) Non-combatant casualties estimated at 30 or greater; (B) Significant effects on Category I No Strike protected sites in accordance with Ref D; (C) In the case of dual-use facilities, effects that significantly impact the non-combatant population, including significant effects on the environment/facilities/infrastructure not related to an adversary’s war making ability; or (D) Targets in close proximity to known human shields.”

The good news, as William Arkin, the Washington Post’s military affairs blogger points out, is that the essence of the ROE is about the extreme measures that are required to safeguard civilians in operations. One example is that the ROE specify that although commanders on the ground may return fire, or even call in airstrikes, against a mosque that is being used by enemy forces— US troops will not enter such buildings, even during fighting, “without the approval of the (senior regional commander) in coordination with (the Iraqi ministries of defense and interior)”. If approval is granted, the rules say, Iraqi security forces will enter the building, “with cordon support from US forces”.

Categories of targets, people and places, are discussed in detail, and levels of damage are designated, each demanding different considerations and approval authorities. For example, the ROE state: All personnel must ensure that, prior to any engagement, non-combatants and civilian structures are distinguished from proper military targets. Positive Identification (PID) of all targets is required prior to engagement. PID is a reasonable certainty that the individual or object of attack is a legitimate military target in accordance with these ROE. Military operations will be conducted, in so far as possible, to ensure that incidental injury to civilians and collateral damage to civilian objects are minimized.

Interestingly, as the Wikileaks analysis points out, all attacks, except those in self-defense or active pursuit, with a reasonable possibility of harming 30 or more civilians needed approval from then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Presumably such approval would need to be in writing. That means there may be an extensive documentary record of requests for attacks with the potential for resulting in significant civilian casualties.

In theory Congress could demand access to these documents to determine which attacks resulting in civilian casualties were authorized. That could potentially provide the basis for prosecuting possible war crimes committed in the course of the occupation.

Although, it is likely that the ROE have been revised since they were issued. Military officials have said that the threshold for high collateral damage actions is now lower than 30, although they will not say by how much.