Rules of Engagement (2000)

by Mike Ward


Donkey Bomb

Two years ago, many critics praised Saving Private Ryan as a new kind of war film that brought the horrors of war home with an unprecedented, visceral intensity. Ryan‘s portrayal of combat, at least in its first half-hour, is so harrowing that veterans of Normandy attested to its accuracy, and the film’s military advisors — among them the popular World War II historian Stephen Ambrose — lent it further credibility. Never mind that Ambrose’s perspective on the combat veteran experience tends to be overconvenient and monolithic, or that Ryan‘s narrative, bracketed in dreamy images of the American flag, ultimately invites us to feel good about war again.

Ryan never investigates why the U.S. government habitually entangles itself in warfare, nor does it question the decisions of the military’s top brass; instead, it protects its protagonists’ decisions through ill-defined appeals to symbolic patriotism. Largely in spite of this, the terrifying killing ground of Ryan‘s first few moments is a place where patriotism has little meaning. In the context of twisted, shattered, and broken bodies, meaning evaporates from symbols (twice in the film, and once in the heat of battle, typewriters are discarded as superfluous) and the onscreen combat actually looks like a desperate effort to mount a credible counteroffensive against withering attack, less an attempt to preserve national sovereignty than simply to survive.

cover art

Rules of Engagement

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, Blair Underwood, Philip Baker Hall, Ben Kingsley, Anne Archer


It was probably inevitable that Saving Private Ryan would eventually inspire an imitator or two. It’s only surprising that it took so long for the deeply flawed but occasionally powerful Ryan to spawn something as utterly nauseating as Rules of Engagement. Rules shares Ryan‘s preoccupation with the American flag, and liberally borrows some of the earlier movie’s much-touted technical tricks — its manipulation of camera frame rates and interruptions of synchronous soundtrack — designed to create a sense of immediacy. But where Ryan doesn’t quite endorse committing war crimes in the interest of victory, Rules nakedly advocates just such conduct through one Col. Terry Childers (Samuel Jackson), a “protagonist” who, while under fire, issues an order that results in the needless death of 83 civilians. Rules’ underlying premise is the sad, and false, presumption that to win wars, one must regularly, deliberately slaughter innocent people.

The movie opens with a title indicating we are in “Vietnam 1968,” and the camera follows a squad of U.S. troops under Childers’s command as they sneak nervously through the dense jungle that, in modern American cinema, has come to blanket (and represent) the entire country of Vietnam. It is here that the homage to Ryan is most apparent, when a seemingly random firefight breaks out under a hail of senseless slow-motion camerawork. Several stylistic deaths ensue until the Americans capture the Vietcong commander and his communications assistant, and Childers executes the latter in cold blood to coerce the VC commander into ordering his troops to pull back. The incident resembles the unseen, alternative outcome of a scene in Ryan when Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad capture a panicky German soldier and hotly debate executing him until Miller defuses the situation and sets the POW free. Much has been made of the POW’s later reappearance as the rifleman who claims Miller’s life; some have even argued that had Miller acquiesced to the prisoner’s murder, Miller would have survived and that Saving Private Ryan thus endorses executing prisoners as a necessary prerequisite to personal survival and military victory. In Ryan this is fairly ambiguous, but the message of Rules‘s execution is immediately clear. All other things being equal, American combatants should probably obey the meddlesome “rules of engagement” — such as the Geneva convention, which specifically outlaws murdering unarmed POWs — but under fire, who knows what you might have to do to protect your life and those of your troops?

Twenty-eight years after the incident in Vietnam — having aged maybe a couple of days — Childers is called into service again. He is ordered to evacuate American Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) and his family (Anne Archer plays the wife) from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen when a group of demonstrators, some with small arms, turns violent. Childers and elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Force fly to the embassy and do their duty, evacuating the Mourains. Childers goes so far as to risk his life to recover the shot-full-of-holes U.S. flag for the Ambassador, who has, in his panic, forgotten that such flag-recovery is his own duty and so, is much moved by the gesture. So far, so good. But when Childers returns to his troops on the embassy roof, he finds them pinned down by enemy gunfire — some from snipers on nearby roofs and some from the crowd below. Unable to draw a bead on a particular enemy, Childers hedges his bets by ordering his men to open fire on the demonstrators. He does so — to the hesitant-to-fire Captain Lee (Blair Underwood) — with the words, “Waste the motherfuckers.”

The film’s racial politics are, to say the least, unconsidered, given that its two primary black characters are most visibly responsible for shooting the Yemeni civilians, and that race never comes into the legal and pseudo-political discussions that follow. And these come with a vengeance. For reasons that still kind of escape me, we seem to be expected to find it terribly unfair when Childers returns to the States to learn he’s being brought up on 83 counts of murder. Facing punishments ranging from relief of his command to the death penalty (all managed by a civilian official, National Security Adviser William Sokal [Bruce Greenwood, playing yet another villain]), Childers seeks the representation of fellow Marine, longtime friend, and unskilled trout fisher Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones). Hodges’s legal abilities are a bit lacking. Hodges is, however a combat veteran as well as a witness to and beneficiary of Childers’s actions in Vietnam (the execution of the radio operator saves Hodges’ life, though every one of his own men is killed). And so, Hodges is, in Childers’s opinion, best equipped to mount a defense based on the argument that the stress of combat taxes reason, and that sometimes atrocities must be committed to ensure personal survival and further the interest of national security.

What follows is a fairly standard, or more accurately, sub-standard, courtroom drama designed to recreate and interpret the events surrounding the massacre in Yemen. Hodges flies to Yemen and finds evidence of a clandestine jihad against the U.S. government. The treachery of this anti-U.S. Islamic movement seems boundless — the terrorists, for example, are so unsporting as to plant explosives under mule saddles to smuggle them to American targets, thus creating an ordnance known as a “donkey bomb.” In light of this and other information, Hodges begins to believe Childers’s claim that there were armed soldiers among the demonstrators he massacred, and ultimately Hodges comes to share Childers’s view that what he did was necessary, and that those who question his actions are simply ignorant of the demands that combat makes upon the will and judgment.

Rules tries to illustrate combat’s rigorous demands by once more evoking the blank terror of Private Ryan‘s opening moments in the battle that precedes Childers’s massacre. Frightened American soldiers are once more seen pinned down by enemy gunfire, threatened with annihilation if they so much as rise to their knees. But here the comparison ends. In Ryan‘s opening scene the troops have no avenue of retreat — they must either advance or be destroyed (and at times it appears that both happen at the same time). But Childers deposits the Ambassador in a waiting helicopter and then returns to the roof of the embassy to retrieve the American flag. At this point the narrative becomes less about bravery borne of survival instinct and more about a supposed heroism tied in with national symbols.

Indeed, tactically the demonstrators on the ground pose little threat to the Marines under Childers’s command, since the Marines occupy the higher ground, behind a wall that denies the demonstrators a clear line of sight. The real threat is from the array of snipers positioned on several nearby buildings. All the shots that find their mark are from these positions. (Except for one that strikes Childers after it is fired from the ground and, through a deft and manipulative cross-cut, passes impossibly through a thick stone wall.) Given this, Childers’s order to fire on the demonstrators seems not only senseless and brutal, but plainly ineffective.

When the prosecuting attorney, Maj. Mark Briggs (Guy Pearce), asks — quite reasonably — why Childers didn’t direct probing fire at the building opposite the embassy instead of firing on demonstrators that posed no real threat to him, Childers responds by demanding to know how many times Maj. Briggs has been in combat. Rules returns frequently to this refrain, reiterating the inscrutable terror of combat and the inability of the inexperienced to gauge the decisions combatants make. I don’t imagine I’m qualified to examine the actions our soldiers take in wartime if first-hand combat experience is a prerequisite to any such examination. Most of the people in the audience I saw Rules with probably lack this qualification, too. The trouble is that to take such a rhetorical position to its extreme — which Rules very nearly does — is to beg us meager civvies to never question war and to meet any use of deadly force with blind acceptance.

This seems to be Rules of Engagement‘s guiding purpose. The biggest question — one, incidentally, which Rules certainly never asks — is what those demonstrators outside the embassy were upset about in the first place.

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