The hidden cost of war

What the Pentagon isn't telling you about friendly fire.

Published April 5, 2004 8:35PM (EDT)

The battle for An Nasiriyah, Iraq, in March 2003, best known for the digitally recorded rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch nine days later, was supposed to be the Pentagon's shining first moment of the new and controversial war. And yet, underneath the gripping Lynch rescue saga lies one of the great tragedies of the war: Nasiriyah was also the site of the deadliest outbreak of friendly fire since Vietnam. The long-awaited investigation of the incident, finally released last week by U.S. Central Command, singles out only a misoriented Marine forward air controller for the tragedy, but this simplistic explanation is one that many in the ranks find suspect.

Minus Jessica Lynch, the battle of An Nasiriyah isn't the type of story that Americans as a whole like to hear. Beneath the seductive mythology of Yankee know-how lies a murky, little-probed reality: On the modern battlefield, friendly fire is so pervasive that the greatest threat to American servicemen is often their own comrades. For reasons that have never fully been explained, the United States has never developed technologies to aid pilots and other trigger pullers in distinguishing our friends from our foes. Sometimes it seems as if our war machine can do everything but stop.

The chaos of An Nasiriyah was typical. The Marines of Charlie Company had been cut off from their comrades early in the battle, fighting for their lives behind enemy lines for two hours before the vaunted American air armada finally showed up. They had already taken five wounded and lost a mechanized vehicle by the time they heard the friendly jet's fire echoing against the buildings. It was an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt, a gangly airplane expressly designed to kill tanks. Its huge 30 mm cannon shot slugs the size of milk jugs, and the Marines hoped that as it flew low it would kill the scores of fedayeen who were swarming around them.

Then the Thunderbolt pressed its attack, and it became clear that it was the Marines, not the fedayeen, that the pilot was aiming at.

"Abort air! Abort air!" one of Charlie's officers screamed into the black handset of his radio, while others fired red flares into the air, but the Thunderbolt made seven more gun runs that day. Eyewitnesses say the American jet killed 10 U.S. Marines -- although because of the disparate fire from friendlies, fedayeen and the Thunderbolt, it was impossible to tell with any semblance of clinical certainty who had shot whom.

Taken in context, the incident at Nasiriyah seems to fit into a larger pattern of overwhelming American power and technology, intersecting with a pervasive fog of war. Whereas in all of America's previous wars, the fratricide rate hovered between 2 and 12 percent of the total casualties suffered, in Operation Desert Storm this figure jumped to 24 percent. Further, some Gulf War veterans contend that the 24 percent figure is too low and point to instances where commanders urged their troops to keep a lid on accusations of friendly fire for fear of the crisis of confidence that it might engender in the ranks. In one way, friendly fire is like rape on college campuses: It is frequently underreported.

Comparing Nasiriyah to the Gulf War's deadliest engagement, the battle for Khafji, one sees a familiar script emerging: American and Iraqi forces clash unexpectedly, and in the ensuing chaos, the Iraqis are defeated but with an unnecessary loss of American lives via fratricide. All 11 U.S. Marines who lost their lives at Khafji in 1991 did so by friendly fire, seven of them notably by an Air Force A-10.

For many Marines, the Air Force A-10 has become the symbol of all that is wrong with the modern American fighting machine. To them, it seems that whenever A-10s show up, their buddies start dying. Critics of the A-10 point to ill-trained pilots who aren't proficient in distinguishing friendly fighting vehicles from enemy ones and who don't train alongside their Marine counterparts nearly enough. Lt. Col. Jim Braden, a Marine attack helicopter squadron commander who helped orchestrate the latter stages of the Nasiriyah battle, personally ordered two A-10 pilots to abort a rushed airstrike there. Braden says, "A lot of Air Force pilots I've worked with just seem to be looking for an excuse to pull the trigger and aren't really concerned about where friendlies are located. Their attitude is 'Just give me a GPS grid coordinate and let me do my thing.'" And while he concedes that, on the whole, Air Force pilots are a committed, professional bunch, he argues that their perception of ground-support tactics varies widely from that of chest-thumping Marine pilots who pride themselves on their nap of the earth modus operandi.

The A-10 controversy has also had ramifications on the larger American-led coalition in Iraq. In January 2003 -- two months before the battle for Nasiriyah -- British Army Lt. Col. Andrew Larpent, whose unit suffered nine dead and 12 wounded when an U.S. Air Force A-10 mistook them for enemy troops in 1991, called on the British military to implement a system to protect British troops from American fighter pilots before sending them into battle in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Asked to characterize the nature of problem, Larpent responded, "It is a lack of care by U.S. pilots who should take more care."

On March 29, 2004, more than a year after the battle of Nasiriyah, U.S. Central Command released its investigation of the alleged friendly-fire incident. The inquiry board, overseen by an Air Force brigadier general, blames the deaths on a poorly oriented Marine forward air controller who was located behind Charlie Company's position. The board pointed out that the A-10 pilots had been repeatedly "cleared hot" by the controller to engage what were thought to be Iraqi fedayeen. The investigation goes on to say that laboratory tests determined that no Marines were killed and that only one Marine was wounded by the Air Force jets, contentions that fly in the face of virtually every eyewitness account of the battle.

Another Marine forward air controller operating in the Nasiriyah area at the time of the incident argues that although the Marine blamed for authorizing the A-10 strikes was clearly in the wrong, the pilots still had a responsibility to visually confirm their targets before squeezing the trigger: "They made eight passes before finally breaking off their attack. They knew there were friendlies nearby. The pilots never confirmed what it was that they were shooting at." This officer, who controlled 42 airstrikes in the opening stages of the war, further asserted that given the atmospheric conditions -- it was daytime and there was no ground haze -- and the very low flight of the A-10s, the pilots had acted recklessly.

In response to those charges, a Central Command spokesman said that because of the reported threat of Iraqi ground fire, the A-10s had been loitering above Nasiriyah at high altitude and had descended into visual range only when they were cleared by the Marine forward air controller. According to Air Force regulations, pilots are not obligated to visually confirm their targets before engaging.

Other former military officers have criticized the Central Command report for failing to tackle possible technological solutions to the friendly-fire problem. In an article in the Houston Chronicle, Ralph Hayles, a former Apache attack helicopter pilot, said the investigation's findings missed the bigger picture. "Blaming a forward air controller on the ground doesn't address the problem of having no way for combat aircraft to identify who they are targeting on the ground," said Hayles, who mistakenly fired on U.S. troops during Operation Desert Storm, killing two. After the 1991 war, the Pentagon promised that it would make anti-fratricide technologies a high priority. Nevertheless, after spending $180 million over the course of the next decade, no anti-fratricide system was ever fielded.

For the survivors, friendly fire remains a difficult issue to process emotionally. One widow of a Marine killed by friendly fire during the Gulf War told this writer that she often feels like a second-class citizen among other surviving families, as if her loss were somehow less real and devastating than those whose loved ones had died at the hands of the enemy. Their deaths are treated by many as an embarrassment, a grim asterisk, something not easily fathomed and thus to be looked past. Fratricide occupies a strange place in the horrific panoply of war because it not only snuffs out the precious flicker of life but also creates a villain where before there was a comrade. War reduces us all with its grim report on the human condition: soldier, civilian observer, correspondent, all must cope with war's soul-crushing revelations, fratricide being but one element of the plague. Nevertheless, friendly fire remains, in a sense, the perfect metaphor for the evil of war as a whole: We are, in essence, killing ourselves.

By David Morris

David Morris is vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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Iraq War