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Risk of friendly fire long an element of war

Jun. 11, 2014 - 04:07PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — The deaths of five Americans killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan stand as a fresh reminder of the dangers of friendly fire, an element of war that is older than the nation.

In 1758, during the French and Indian War, a detachment of the British Army led by Col. George Washington got into a firefight with a fellow infantry unit that had arrived to offer assistance. At dusk on a foggy day, they apparently mistook each other for French forces, and at least 13 British troops were killed.

In the Civil War, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson died of pneumonia eight days after being hit by friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia.

In World War II, Army Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair died when an errant Allied bomb struck his position as the Allies struggled to break out from Normandy.

In Vietnam, helicopter gunships killed U.S. troops on Hamburger Hill.

Today, the basic challenge remains the same: distinguishing between friend and foe.

Better training and the precision of modern weapons have helped to reduce the risk but can’t completely eliminate it, says retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University.

“War is a very human endeavor, and mistakes inevitably will occur,” says Mansoor.

Some examples of friendly fire incidents in recent history:

2004: AFGHANISTAN-PAT TILLMAN

It was a celebrated moment when Pat Tillman turned down a professional football contract to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The military said officers knew within hours that his death was from friendly fire but violated regulations by not telling Tillman’s family or the public for five weeks.

2003: IRAQ-DEADLY DAY

On one of the Iraq war’s deadliest days for American troops, as many as 10 Marines were killed by U.S. airstrikes ordered by a Marine air controller who mistook their vehicles for enemy forces. A Pentagon investigation of the events of March 23, 2003, found “communications problems throughout the battalion.”

2002: AFGHANISTAN-CANADIANS KILLED

Four Canadians died in April 2002 when an American pilot dropped a bomb near where the troops were apparently conducting a live-fire exercise. The pilot blamed the bombing on the “fog of war,” saying he mistook the Canadians’ gunfire for an attack by Taliban forces. He said his superiors never told him the Canadians would be conducting live-fire exercises that night.

2001: AFGHANISTAN-KARZAI'S CLOSE CALL

Three American soldiers and five Afghans died when special forces troops escorting Hamid Karzai’s fighters called in an airstrike meant to hit Taliban positions on Dec. 5, 2001. Instead, a B-52 bomber dropped a satellite-guided bomb on a battalion command post occupied by the American forces and Afghan allies, including Karzai, the future president. Pentagon officials later said the bomb went astray, because the Air Force combat controller who set the coordinates for the attack had changed the batteries on his GPS receiver, which reset the coordinates back to the user’s own location rather than the Taliban position.

1994: IRAQ-HUMANITARIAN MISSION

One of the worst self-inflicted losses in U.S. military history occurred in April 1994, when F-15 fighters shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in the “no fly” zone over northern Iraq. Twenty-six people were killed, including 15 Americans, military officers from Britain, France and Turkey and five Kurdish workers. They were supporting U.N. humanitarian relief efforts on behalf of Kurds in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. The F-15 pilots thought the Black Hawks were Iraqi craft violating the restricted zone.

1991: IRAQ-BRITISH SOLDIERS

Nine British soldiers were killed on Feb. 17, 1991, when two U.S. Air Force A-10 attack aircraft fired on their armored personnel carriers in southern Iraq, mistaking it for an Iraqi target the Americans were trying to destroy 13 miles (20 kilometers) to the east. In all, 35 Americans and nine British troops were killed by friendly fire in the Gulf War. The Americans killed represented nearly one-quarter of the total of 148 U.S. combat deaths.

———

Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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