Monday, March 07, 2005

Friendly Fire

"Friendly fire" (AKA Fratricide or "Blue-on-Blue") is one of the horrors of war. However, even between allies, it does not have major political fallout.

This is prompted by Friday's reported US Army shooting of an Italian security agent in a car carrying a ransomed reporter. No clear picture is yet available, but since Americans don't deliberately shoot Italians and Italians don't deliberately commit suicide by running roadblocks, I suspect it was what Brits call a "cock-up". It always is.

Friendly fire results from usually young and often scared armed men having to make split-second decisions that could save or lose their own and their comrade's lives. They make errors of position (shelling their own troops), or identification (mistaking their own for the enemy).

Here's some perspective.

World War 2

The Pentagon estimates US friendly fire deaths in WW2 at 21,000, a whopping 16% of all deaths. Details are heartbreaking. Thousands of men dying through recognition failures, trigger-happy gunners, poor aircraft recognition, incorrect map references and every error you can imagine. Often after surviving the worst the enemy could do. The leader of the Iwo Jima flag raisers later died in a US Navy bombardment.

One would expect deaths caused by allies to be particularly problematical, but in general this was not the case. The commanding officer of an RAF crew killed by USAF fighter planes gently reassured the distraught pilots that they were needed and suggested aircraft recognition training.

In spite of many disasters, Brit, Canadian and US forces fought together throughout the war. They learned that for joint operations allies need interoperable communications, and training in recognizing each-other's equipment. For example, for the invasion of France, all allied planes were painted with large white stripes to discourage the attentions of the notoriously trigger-happy Royal Navy and US Navy gunners.

Gulf War

The Pentagon estimates friendly fire deaths at 35, 23% of all deaths. But in addition, the BBC reported:
Of 16 British soldiers who died, nine were killed by Americans.
All 9 died in a single incident in which a Warthog hit a British APC.


This included the attack by US planes on a Canadian Army unit which killed 4 soldiers. One of the US pilots was threatened with prosecution, but last I heard was reprimanded and retired.

Iraqi Freedom

No final statistics, available but incidents included Patriot missile downings of Brit and US planes, Warthogs attacking Brit armor (again), and one Brit tank destroying another.

It seems from this brief review that nations accept friendly fire, while working to minimize incidents. Inter-nation incidents are more widely publicized, but have not dented the Brit/US alliance. It's possible that the Canadian losses in Afghanistan contributed to their government's decision to stay out of Iraqi Freedom, however its hard to disentangle this from other US/Canada issues.

So, where does this leave the Italians? Their man probably died through a typical identification error. This is Italy's first war as allies of the US and UK, and they have a substantial presence in Iraq. Their forces and some of their civilians, have shown great courage. My guess is they'll ride this tragedy out.