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43 years ago next month protests started in Iran against the Shah, under the leadership and inspiration of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The demonstrations would lead to the Shah’s fall 16 months later. Iran remains under the control of Khomeini’s hand-picked successor, the Ayatollah Khamenei. One of the memorable mnemonics of that uprising, one that still echoes through the streets of Tehran on occasion is: "Death to America! Death to America!”
It would seem to be an unequivocal statement of hatred, a clear announcement to the world that we’re enemies. Coincidentally, last April the US Navy created a little stir when it announced there would be an expansion of the security zone around US ships operating in proximity to Iranian vessels. More on that below.
But, what is an enemy?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an enemy as: “An unfriendly or hostile person. One that cherishes hatred, that wishes or seeks to do ill to another." The word has been used as such since at least the year 1300.
But, what does it mean to be the enemy of the nation? In an abstract sense, an enemy of a state (any state) is more or less the same thing: a nation or group that is hostile to another nation, that wishes that nation ill, that wishes to destroy the nation. Thus, we can say: “The Iranian Government considers the US to be its enemy.” But we’re not at war with Iran, nor are there any standing orders that allow US forces to go out and shoot at Iranian ships or aircraft, etc. That doesn’t change the fact that the Iranian Government views us as an enemy, or that, in fact, the Iranian Government wishes the US would whither away and die.
But, from the perspective of the US Government, Iran is not an enemy. To be an enemy to the US Government, you need to be declared to be so. There are several ways that can happen, but really, it boils down to just a few: Congress can declare the US to be at war with a nation (or an organization, such as a terrorist organization), and at that point they become enemies legally. Also, the US has a detailed set of laws and rules known collectively as the Rules of Engagement (ROE), that define what US forces may or may not do in defending themselves, the United States, and allies against “hostile forces.” The authority to declare a force “hostile” rests, within various boundaries defined by Congress, with the President and through him to the Secretary of Defense. This authority is also, under certain circumstances, delegated down the chain of command. This is actually all spelled out on line: Library of Congress web site: https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/OLH_2015_Ch5.pdf )
Thus, the ROE states, a ships’ captain has not only the authority to defend his ship from attack, he has an obligation to do so. And against whom? Any hostile force, that is a force committing a hostile act or showing hostile intent.
So, back to the Iranian vessels attacking a US Navy ship - showing hostile intent: the Captain of that ship is “obligated” to defend his ship; this has been so for years - prior to the current administration. Not only does this include US Navy ships operating in such hot spots as the Persian Gulf, it also includes the responsibility to protect US Navy ships everywhere. If you don’t believe this, get in a speed boat and charge at a US Ballistic Missile Submarine as it transits a channel heading out to sea.
In short, there already exists not only authorities, but situations in daily life, where US forces are prepared to act - violently - to protect US government assets, even if that involves killing Americans. Even if that were simply three or four idiots on a speed boat.
All this came to mind recently when a smart guy I know asked me what it really meant when we say the words “…all enemies, foreign and domestic” in the oath sworn to by every serviceman, every politician, and nearly every member of the US government: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
(The President’s oath is slightly shorter: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.” (Technically, the phrase “so help me God,” is not part of the oath, but every President has said those words.))
In June General Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to balk at the idea that US Army elements might be used to restore law and order inside the US, that American soldiers ‘shouldn't be fighting Americans.’ Certainly, no one wants that. But, it isn’t simply that US troops have been used before to restore order within the United States - and in the not too distant past. Or, that US forces, Navy, Army, Coast Guard, are armed and authorized the use of “deadly force” defending bases around the country; it doesn’t stop there.
On September 11th, nearly 19 years ago, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) scrambled F-15s out of Otis AFB and F-16s out of Langley AFB in response to the hijackings. The F-16s out of Langley patrolled in the vicinity of Washington DC to prevent United Airlines Flight 93 from reaching Washington. If that were to happen again, NORAD (which launches some 4,000 armed alerts per year) probably would respond faster, would intercept those aircraft, and would be able, if necessary, to engage and destroy the aircraft. And that would mean killing several hundred innocent US citizens.
Such an aircraft would represent a hostile force; the definition of hostile intent having been met, the aircraft would be engaged. In short, they would be enemies - whether foreign or domestic being more or less irrelevant at that point.
So, who’s an enemy? Go back to basics (just as burning a building isn’t protected by the 1st Amendment).How do you answer the question: Have you ever advocated the violent overthrow of the US government? If you answer yes, you’re probably an enemy.
You know, like someone yelling “Death to America,” as they burn a building down, whether in Tehran or elsewhere, like California or Oregon
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...