August 26, 2011: The U.S. Department of Defense has changed its regulations to make military personnel hit by friendly fire (fratricide) eligible for Purple Heart medals (which until now were explicitly for those injured by enemy fire). The new regulations exclude injury or death caused by illegal actions (accidental or intentional self-inflicted wounds or murder). The new rules also recognize that, since World War II, American forces have usually brought most of the firepower to the battle. With all those American bombs and bullets flying around, it’s inevitable that some U.S. troops get hit. But, in part, because of the old Purple Heart regulations, troops and officers avoided accurately identifying friendly fire wounds. But research into the matter in the last few decades has revealed the truth.
At the same time, U.S. Army friendly fire losses have reached historic lows. Since September 11, 2001, about one percent of combat deaths were from friendly fire. This is about half the official rate during World War II. The rate during that war was actually much higher because, until recently, friendly fire was much more of a problem than the official statistics showed. That's because warfare has reached the point where it's very difficult for there to be unrecorded friendly fire incidents. But in the past, it was much easier to hide friendly fire incidents.
During World War II, it was later (using interviews of veterans) found that some 20 percent of all U.S. casualties were probably from friendly fire. That was more than ten times the official friendly fire rate. The combat veterans were particularly reluctant to talk about instances where rifle fire or grenades were the cause of friendly fire losses. But this was quite common, and confirmed by checking with battlefield surgeons (who could tell a U.S. bullet from an enemy one.)
The percentage apparently stayed the same in Korea, but may have gone up a bit during the Vietnam War (where the official friendly fire rate was 2.85 percent.) The most common place for friendly fire casualties to occur, and not be reported as such, is during infantry combat. In fire fights, or battle in urban areas, gun fire and grenades were going every which way and it was often hard to determine who was hit by whom. The only witnesses to this sort of the thing were reluctant to report it. For one thing, everyone knew that any of them could be the one to shoot one of their friends in the chaos of combat. Having your friends killed in battle was bad enough without having the dead man's family know it was American troops that did it. There are still friendly fire casualties in these circumstances. But the lower number of casualties, and better investigative capabilities, makes it more difficult for friendly fire casualties to be inaccurately reported.
Extensive research into the subject has led to a new set of numbers for the percentage of casualties caused by friendly fire. It’s now believed that it was 21 percent during World War II, 18 percent in Korea, 39 percent in Vietnam, 49 percent in the 1991 Gulf War, seven percent in the current Iraq war and 11 percent in Afghanistan. In the last two years, friendly fire casualties have been reduced by over 90 percent. As can be seen by the current friendly fire losses, a lot has been done since 1991 to reduce friendly fire losses.
Military personnel (or, if deceased, their families) wounded by friendly fire in past wars may now apply for a Purple Heart award.