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Pentagon's Endless Friendly Fire Probe

The besieged brass poke along in a case involving the notorious A-10 jet.

March 22, 2004|David J. Morris | David J. Morris, a former Marine, is author of "Storm on the Horizon: Khafji -- the Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War" (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

On March 23, 2003, between six and 10 U.S. Marines were accidentally killed by an errant U.S. Air Force A-10 attack jet during the battle for Nasiriyah, Iraq. The human toll in the incident is approximate because, a full year later, the Pentagon still hasn't completed its investigation.

Owing in part to the high-profile capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and her unit, which happened nearby about the same time, this incidence of fratricide has been mostly forgotten. Yet veterans of this battle and the relatives of the dead are still awaiting answers from the government.

The incident at Nasiriyah wasn't the first instance of friendly fire, and it won't be the last. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, friendly fire accounted for one-quarter of the total coalition casualties. Some veterans put this figure at closer to 50%.

More to the point, Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts -- one of the aircraft most frequently called upon to provide cover for ground troops -- have been implicated in a disproportionate number of friendly fire incidents in all of our recent wars.

A-10s killed at least 18 coalition soldiers during the Gulf War, including nine Britons in one 1991 incident that became a cause celebre in the British press. Four British soldiers were wounded by an A-10 near Basra, Iraq, five days after the Nasiriyah incident. A Marine officer who worked with the Air Force during the 1991 war and orchestrated scores of airstrikes told me, "I'd rather have an Iraqi battalion in front of me than an A-10 overhead."

Much has been made of how versatile the U.S. war machine is -- how much smarter, how much more nimble, how much more efficient it is in doling out violence. And yet, as the Nasiriyah case clearly demonstrates, one horrible common denominator remains. We still inadvertently kill our own. Sometimes it seems as if our war machine can do everything but stop.

There are several possible explanations for the Pentagon's glacially slow investigation. Friendly fire is extremely embarrassing, and no doubt the Pentagon is in no hurry to advertise its shortcomings. And now, with all the questioning of the U.S. mission in Iraq, neither the Pentagon nor the administration needs more bad press. Friendly fire investigations show our war machine at its worst.

Additionally, the Marine Corps and the Army don't want to jeopardize the air support they receive from the Air Force. If the Air Force were to find itself in hot water for its mistakes at Nasiriyah, it might be hesitant to dispatch its attack jets the next time the guys on the ground come calling. More grunts might die for want of A-10s than because of them.

Nevertheless, these larger political concerns don't obviate the need for a speedy and circumspect inquiry. The official foot-dragging is inexcusable. In 1991, the Marine Corps completed a virtually identical investigation involving an A-10 and seven dead Marines in 23 days. Why has it taken nearly a year to finish this most recent inquiry?

According to many veterans whom I've interviewed, Air Force pilots do not spend enough time training with Marine and Army ground units and learning how to distinguish allied vehicles from enemy ones. Because A-10s are the Air Force's primary ground-support airplane, they are more likely than almost any other aircraft to be drawn into a chaotic battle on the ground. One of the unwritten laws of modern warfare is that the most technologically advanced weapon system in the world, when commanded by a poorly trained individual, is infinitely worse than no weapon at all.

Regardless of the outcome of the Nasiriyah inquiry, the Marine Corps needs to train alongside the Air Force more intensively and to work out ways to better identify U.S. and coalition vehicles in combat. While doing research for a book, I interviewed dozens of Marines who watched seven of their buddies die in 1991, and to a man they insisted that the A-10 pilot in question misidentified one of their vehicles as an Iraqi one and was acting in defiance of his ground controllers. One Marine told me, "It was a textbook shot." Tragically, it was the wrong target.

Initial reports from Nasiriyah point to a similar pattern of error: Pilots numbed by the stress of innumerable hours in the air and worried about their diminishing fuel and the threat of groundfire can get trigger-happy. Regardless of the particulars, the result is always the same: more flag-draped coffins, more insufficient explanations.

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