Friendly Fire Deaths Haunt Families

Soldiers slain by enemy fire are lauded as heroes and honored with parades. But those who die at the hands of their fellow soldiers in the fog of war usually don't get much attention.

Until the killing of former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman made headlines, friendly fire deaths occupied an unexamined niche in the annals of warfare.

The death of Tillman, who was killed in a lonely canyon in Afghanistan, was the subject of five separate military investigations. The most recent probe found no criminal negligence and recommended that nine officers, including up to four generals, be held accountable for blunders in the wake of the killing.

But most friendly fire deaths don't make headlines, and due to a combination of factors, from embarrassment to fear of disclosing mistakes on the battlefield, the Pentagon chooses not to give them much publicity.

Initial Account of Tillman's Death Misleading

Although dozens of soldiers -- including high-ranking officers -- knew within minutes that Tillman was killed by his fellow American troops, the Army told his family that he was shot during a conventional ambush. That claim was repeated during a nationally televised memorial service. It took five weeks before his family found out the truth behind his death.

That's not long compared to the ordeal of Peggy Buryj, who claims that the Pentagon waited a year to inform her that her son Jesse had been killed in a friendly fire incident in Iraq just 13 days after Tillman's killing.

Last month, another friendly fire incident in which an American warplane attacked a British regiment in southern Iraq, killing Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, made headlines. Although the attack occurred in 2003, a copy of the cockpit recording, on which American soldiers are overhead saying, "We're in jail dude," when they realize their mistake, was only leaked to the British press in February.

And last year, former Canadian Olympic relay runner Mark Anthony Graham was killed when two U.S. A-10 Thunderbolts fired on their own NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.

Despite these high-profile cases, the number of overall friendly fire incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq is quite low. At least two dozen U.S. soldiers, and several British and Canadian soldiers, have been killed in such incidents, a small percentage of the total of 3,500 coalition deaths.

The ratio was higher during the Gulf War, when 17 percent of American casualties were killed or injured due to friendly fire. Of the 18 British soldiers who died during that war, half of them were killed by their U.S. allies during a single attack by an American A-10 aircraft.

In previous wars, friendly fire incidents were much more frequent. An Army captain who researched small-arms mishaps in Vietnam found that 398 soldiers were killed due to fratricidal or self-inflicted bloodshed. During World War II, tens of thousands were killed by their fellow soldiers. And by some estimates, 75,000 French soldiers alone were killed by their own troops in the First World War.

The course of the Civil War may have changed due to the well-known friendly fire killing of Gen. Stonewall Jackson. The brilliant military strategist was shot by his own Confederate troops, and he died several days later.

Learning the Truth

Although the military's advanced technology, from GPS to situation awareness systems, has helped reduce the chance of such incidents, it's also made it sometimes difficult to recognize friendly faces.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...