Why death by friendly fire has become the big issue in Iraq.
‘He had absolutely no regard for human life, I believe he was a cowboy’, said British Lance Corporal Steven Gerrard – not about an ‘Iraqi fanatic’, but about the US fighter pilot who fired on British armoured vehicles in southern Iraq on Friday, killing one British squaddie and injuring four others.
Friendly fire incidents – or ‘blue-on-blue’ incidents as they are now called in military circles – have been hitting the headlines since the war started 13 days ago. Twenty-seven British soldiers have died in Iraq to date – 17 in accidents, five killed by Iraqi forces, and five killed by friendly fire (three by Americans and two by fellow Brits). Of the 62 American soldiers killed in action so far, one report claims that 10 may have died as a result of friendly fire.
But why are friendly fire incidents becoming such a big issue now? The number of blue-on-blue deaths has fallen dramatically over the decades – yet they quickly became the major focus in this war, more so than in any earlier conflict. Today’s all-out focus on friendly fire points to deeper problems within the American and British camps, and in their current campaign in Iraq
One US military official claims that the friendly fire stats in Iraq are ‘quite high’ and of ‘grave concern’. In fact, the number of friendly fire deaths to date is relatively low in comparison to earlier conflicts. Some reports point out that, as a percentage of overall deaths, friendly fire fatalities rose exponentially during the first Gulf War of 1991 and are disproportionately high in the current conflict. That is true – but only because the overall number of allied deaths in conflict has fallen dramatically in the past 100 years.
In the Second World War, the number of American deaths caused by friendly fire was about 16 percent; in Vietnam it was about 14 percent; in the Panama conflict in the 1980s it was about 13 percent. In the 1991 Gulf War it rose to 24 percent, and for British forces in the current campaign there is a 50/50 split – with five of those who have died in combat killed by friendly fire, and five killed by Iraqis.
But in the Gulf War and the current campaign, there were and are far fewer allied deaths than in earlier wars, so friendly fire incidents appear as a much higher percentage. For example, 58,000 Americans died in the 10-year Vietnam War; 146 died in the six-week Gulf War. So where the estimated 8000 friendly fire deaths that occurred in Vietnam show up as 14 percent, the much smaller 35 friendly fire deaths in the Gulf War show up as 24 percent (1).
No doubt every friendly fire incident is tragic – but friendly fire has been a problem of war for as long as war has existed. And for all of today’s newspaper headlines about ‘ignorant’ and ‘trigger-happy’ Americans killing their own troops and British troops in ‘cold blood’, the current friendly fire incidents can seem mild when compared to what happened in the wars of the last century.
During the Korean War of the 1950s, British troops received instructions to seize a ‘key hill’. They did so successfully – but then an allied American fighter plane arrived and dropped napalm on them. As one report says: ‘The lucky ones were the 17 who died instantly…. Another 76 suffered horrific burns in the inferno.’ (2) About 37,000 Americans died in the three-year Korean War, an estimated 6500 of whom were killed by friendly fire (3).
During the Second World War, there were an untold number of friendly fire incidents. In August 1943, 35,000 US and Canadian troops invaded Kiska, an Aleutian island, believing it to be occupied by the Japanese. There was fierce fighting, in dense fog, resulting in 28 deaths and 50 injuries. It wasn’t until morning that the allies discovered that there were no Japenese on the island – they had been fighting among themselves (4).
In the First World War, many thousands of troops were killed by their own side’s artillery barrages. In April 1918, the Australian 50th Infantry Battalion advanced towards German trenches during the battle of Villers-Bretonneux, lobbing hundreds of grenades at the Germans. It later transpired that the trenches were not occupied by German troops but by British troops – scores of whom were killed by their allied Australians (5).
Friendly fire has always been a lethal danger in war. The difference today is that friendly fire incidents have become such a heated issue – even as the war continues. After the killing of nine Brits by US fighter planes in the first Gulf War, a British investigation after the war refused to draw a conclusion as to the culpability of the American fighter pilots. In Gulf War II, already, British defence minister Lewis Moonie has promised a ‘full inquiry’ into the friendly fire deaths of the current campaign.
In the first Gulf War, US military commanders did not reveal how many of their troops had died in friendly fire incidents until August 1991, five months after the war had ended. And even then, according to the Washington Post, they ‘withheld nearly all details of the friendly fire incidents, including the names of the casualties, their specific units below division levels and most of the circumstances of their deaths and injuries’ (6). Now, the details of each incident are all over the media within hours, while American commanders publicly profess their ‘concern’.
In the past, many soldiers would have accepted friendly fire incidents as one of the dangers of war, however horrific they may have been. Now British troops give primetime interviews to BBC News, denouncing their supposed allies in the American camp as ‘cowboys’. ‘To be honest’, said one British squaddie, ‘I think they [Americans] are just ignorant’ (7).
How did friendly fire become such an openly divisive issue? Many have tried to explain the current concern with blue-on-blue deaths as a consequence of war becoming ever-more hi-tech, where modern troops expect conflict to be clean, quick and not especially risky for them or their mates on the battlefield. No doubt there’s some truth to that. Many young American soldiers will not be used to large numbers of deaths in wars of intervention – the last big American losses being the nine deaths in the ground battle of Shah-i-Kot in southern Afghanistan in March 2002, and the 18 deaths in the disastrous battle of Mogadishu in 1993.
But there is more to the current fretting over friendly fire than techno-expectations of what war will be like. It expresses a broader discomfort with the old-style idea that ‘war is hell’ – that fighting for something is an often deadly and lethal business, which will almost certainly result in deaths at the hands of the enemy and blue-on-blue bloodshed.
The French phrase ‘C’est la guerre’ – which captured the belief that, yes, war is dirty and bloody, but sometimes worth it – doesn’t cut it today, at a time when many, from military commanders to individual troops to the rest of society, seem uncomfortable with the notion of fighting and dying for a cause. While they were no doubt serious and heartfelt, one interpretation of the British troops’ complaints about their trigger-happy American partners could be that death in war is increasingly seen as, not just unexpected, but almost unacceptable.
Also, there is little in the current campaign to contain individual troops’ concerns and fears, even those expressed in relation to their supposed allies. Today, when there is little sense of what the Iraq war is for – or how well it is going or how long it will last – there is little to tie soldiers on the ground together in anything like solidarity.
In the past, a soldier’s sense of being part of a broader mission would have helped to suppress his individual fears and antagonisms. The notion that they were fighting for something bigger than themselves, for some national or moral good, helped to create a sense of solidarity among allied forces, even while those allied forces were killing one another in blunders and ‘judgements of error’. Now, in the absence of a cohering mission or definable war aim, tension among troops can easily come to the fore.
The focus on friendly fire doesn’t just come from fearful troops on the ground; it is encouraged by the military authorities themselves. Increasingly risk-averse military commanders, cautious of the consequences that military action might have, now talk up something like friendly fire as a ‘grave concern’ that they would like to rein in and ‘control’. This top-down scrutiny of what has always been a problem of war can only increase tension and suspicion among coalition forces on the ground, creating a sense that troops ought to, as one British soldier put it, ‘look over their shoulders’ for approaching coalition forces as much as for the Iraqi enemy.
It is always the broader political attitudes to a war that dictates how something like friendly fire is interpreted and dealt with. In the past, friendly fire incidents were often kept quiet for fear of damaging troop morale. Sometimes, soldiers were never told that they had killed their own, in case it induced in them what one US commander called ‘a deep, understandable shame’. In the First World War, those who died in friendly fire incidents were listed as ‘lost in action’, alongside those killed by the enemy, with no clear-cut distinction between the two types of death. After the Gulf War, a senior officer said that details of blue-on-blue deaths had been kept quiet becuase ‘friendly fire incidents often have a devastating effect on troop morale’.
All of which begs the question – what kind of impact will today’s obsession with friendly fire have on those fighting in Iraq?
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) Misfiring in the fog, Amanda Bower, Time, 7 April 2003
(2) ‘Friendly fire’ a tragic part of modern war, Ben Rooney, Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2003
(3) See Clinton honors veterans of Korean War, Bradley A Rhen,, ArmyLINK News, 28 June 2000
(4) ‘Friendly fire’ a tragic part of modern war, Ben Rooney, Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2003
(5) ‘Friendly fire’ a tragic part of modern war, Ben Rooney, Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2003
(6) Washington Post, 14 August 1991
(7) Survivors slam friendly-fire ‘cowboy’, Alan Freeman
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