Attrition: Friendly Fire Follies Forever


October 2, 2007: The British Army must routinely deal with newspaper headlines back home, calling for something to be done about the friendly fire incidents that have British troops getting killed by American bombs.British military press officers have long since despaired of explaining that there are far fewer friendly fire incidents now, than in past wars, and that far more British soldiers have been saved from injury or death because of air support. Friendly fire losses are believed to be more than fifty percent less (as a percentage of overall losses) than in previous wars.

While friendly fire has always been a contentious issue, it has also been a poorly reported one. Between 1941 and 1972, it is believed that 10-20 percent of American casualties were from friendly fire. This data showed up only after vigorous efforts to get details from troops.

Friendly fire incidents in past wars were routinely misreported, usually at the lowest levels (friends of those who got shot, or did the shooting.) Any attempts to get to the bottom of friendly fire statistics from old wars, would open too may psychological wounds. Same with the misreporting of dead soldiers as MIA (Missing In Action) during World War II. This was often done by the dead soldiers friends, so the widow could collect the soldiers pay (which was higher than widows benefits) for a while longer.

The basic problem is that, for as long as there have been wars, there have been friendly fire losses. This only increased with the appearance of gunpowder weapons a few centuries back, and all the smoke, and longer range fire,these new instruments of destruction generated. What has changed recently, at least in the American military, has been the appearance of a historically low casualty rate, and increasing monitoring of the battlefield. All those surveillance cameras you encounter downtown or at the mall, are all over the battlefield as well. A lot more radios too. There's much more evidence to work with, if you want to find out what really happened. But one thing that has not changed is the psychological shock to soldiers who are involved, as the shooters, or just bystanders, in a friendly fire incident. There's still the urge to pretend it didn't happen. The troops are thinking of the next-of-kin as well, for it's common for a dead soldiers friends to visit the family of the deceased, or at least get in touch. Coming by and saying, "I killed your son by accident," is a message few troops are capable of delivering.

But friendly fire stuff makes such great headlines. It attracts eyeballs, and that's how the mass media stays in business. That won't change either.


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