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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Guardian (London) April 08, 2003

Accusations fly over lack of action on friendly fire deaths

By Matthew Engel in Washington

Recriminations began to echo through Washington and Whitehall yesterday after the sight of the BBC correspondent John Simpson escaping the worst friendly fire disaster of the Iraq war focused attention on one of the oldest and most covered-up hazards of warfare.

The Pentagon tried to shrug off the problem - "Human beings are human beings, and things are going to happen," according to the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld - but some analysts blamed the defence department for cutting back on technology that might have provided some protection. There were also suggestions that a gung-ho, drug-fuelled culture among American pilots may be a factor.

At least 13 American and five British troops have been killed by their own side in Iraq so far, plus about 20 Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq on Sunday, and the ITN journalist Terry Lloyd. Other incidents, including one killing nine US marines near Nassiriya, are under investigation. The number of Iraqi non-combatants killed will never be counted. The figure may thus have already surpassed that of the 1991 Gulf war, when 35 of the 148 US deaths were attributed to what many soldiers prefer to call "blue-on-blue" incidents.

After that war, senior commanders called for "realistic training and new technology" to prevent a recurrence. "There seems to have been a failure on the part of the defence department to install the technologies," said Patrick Garrett of the defence thinktank globalsecurity.org.

One US infantry division, the 4th, does have a sophisticated system designed to prevent mistakes, but this was the division supposed to invade Iraq through Turkey, and it is only now being deployed via an alternative route. Another army programme to equip all military vehicles with electronic devices to distinguish friend from foe was scrapped in 2001 as too expensive.

However, the British record is alleged to be no better. Colonel Andrew Larpent, the commanding officer of the Fusilier battalion that suffered the worst friendly fire disaster of the 1991 war, when nine British soldiers were killed, wrote to the Daily Telegraph in January, saying: "The fact that the same soldiers are now preparing to undertake operations in the same theatre, with nothing more to protect them from their own allies than the same fluorescent marker panels that we carried on top of all our vehicles in 1991, smacks of serious negligence on the part of the MoD."

The problem dates back to the beginning of warfare. The British writer Geoffrey Regan, author of Backfire, a history of friendly fire, has found incidents from the Peloponnesian war (431BC) and countless more from every big conflict since.

At Waterloo the British and their Prussian allies kept firing on each other; in the first world war a huge number of soldiers were mown down by their own artillery; and at the Battle of Kiska in 1942, Americans and Canadians began killing each other in an Alaskan fog - the Japanese had already vanished.

History's most famous victim was the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, shot in the back while he scouted out enemy lines; the strangest may have been Captain Elmo Zumwalt, who died in 1988, apparently from the effects of Agent Orange, introduced into the Vietnam war by his own father, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.

However, up to and including Vietnam, most friendly fire deaths were hidden from traumatised relatives. The official figures for these wars suggest the proportion was below 3%, which is regarded as incredible. In modern wars, in which the deaths of westerners have been rare and well documented, it has been harder to fudge the causes.

Regan is among those who think American pilots are disproportionately involved.

"The problem is in the choice of personnel in the elite elements of the American armed forces," he said. "It's a cowboy syndrome. They have produced too many people who push the parameters of their mission too far. They go looking for trouble. It's worse than it was 12 years ago because the arrogance of certain people has allowed it to go unchecked."

As this war broke out last month, an American colonel recommended that two pilots who killed four Canadian soldiers in the Afghan desert last year should not face court-martial, causing fury among the families. The pilots, members of the Illinois Air National Guard, thought they were under attack from the Taliban and had not been told the Canadians were conducting live-firing exercises below them. Defence attorneys suggested that amphetamines, issued by the US air force to keep flyers awake, may have impaired the pilots' judgment.

The use of amphetamines appears to be regular practice among some US flyers. "The air force tries to convey the sense that amphetamines are safe," said Mr Garrett. "But this isn't simply espresso or cappuccino. These are things that can wire someone pretty significantly."

Even without the drugs, forces are permanently vulnerable to their own side. In combat, wrote Colonel David Hackworth after the last Gulf war, "fear, nervousness, excitement and exhaustion numb the mind and cause miscommunication and misunderstandings. These circumstances are a recipe for error."

The losses

* Second world war (1939-1945)
US deaths:135,576
Friendly fire: 21,000 (16%)

* Vietnam (1966-1971)
US deaths: 58,000
Friendly fire: 8,000 (14%)

* Gulf war (1991)
US deaths: 148
Friendly fire: 35 (23%)
UK deaths: 47
Friendly fire: 10 (21%)

* Afghanistan (2002)
US deaths: 31
Friendly fire: 4 (13%)

* Gulf war (2003)
US deaths: 91
Friendly fire: 12 (13%)
UK deaths: 30
Friendly fire: 5 (17%)

Sources: Pentagon, Reuters

Copyright 2003, Guardian Newspapers Limited