May 11, 2011:
NATO military advisors in Libya noted a lot of problems that had to be addressed with the ragtag rebel army. But one of the most obvious ones, the habit of firing weapons into the air at the least provocation, is also the hardest one to stop. This, despite the fact that it is a major waste of ammo (which is in short supply) and a major source of casualties. All those bullets eventually return to earth, and people do get hurt. For example, in Iraq, after any major news event, that results in many people firing off rifles and pistols into the air, the hospitals in places like Baghdad will see up to a hundred casualties, including several dead, from the bullets falling down and hitting people. This is all about the Arab custom of firing weapons into the air on happy occasions (they are called "joy bullets" in Arabic), often with deadly consequences. When someone is killed or injured by the bullets that, inevitably come back to earth, the injury is shrugged off, or blamed on a handy enemy. Palestinians blame Israelis, some Iraqis blame any armed foreigners in the vicinity, or nearby Iraqis they don't get along with. In Libya, it's got to be someone working for Kaddafi. Otherwise it's just "God's Will."
Bullets falling to earth and causing lots of casualties is nothing new. As more automatic weapons have become available in the last half century, it's become more of a problem. But it was during World War II, when lots of anti-aircraft guns were used around densely populated urban areas in Europe and Asia, that this became a major problem. There were thousands of casualties from what were, at first, simply seen as mysterious metal objects falling silently from the sky.
Remember, what goes up, must come down, propelled by gravity. Before too long, the truth became apparent. The British later estimated that some 25 percent of civilian casualties from German World War II bombing attacks on their cities, were from friendly fire. That is, British anti-aircraft shells eventually falling back to earth, causing property damage and casualties. Another example occurred in late 1941. Most of the civilian casualties from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were from American anti-aircraft shells and bullets falling back to earth. A lot of the anti-aircraft guns used to defend Pearl Harbor were .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-guns, and these bullets will kill you if they drop on your head, and injure you if they hit any other body part. A .50 caliber bullet weighs about 55 grams (nearly two ounces). This is four times heavier than rifle bullets, which will also kill or injure you if one drops on your head, and hits the right spot. Kids are more vulnerable to this sort of thing. Shell fragments often weigh over a kilogram (2.2 pounds), and have sharp edges as well.
In Iraq, during the 1990s, there were instances of anti-aircraft missiles falling back to earth intact. Since these things weigh several tons, they hit like a bomb. Normally, the missiles are supposed to self-destruct (explode) in the air if they don't find a target. But even if they do that, thousands of fragments fall back to earth. Some of these missile pieces weigh five kilos (11 pounds) or more. Get hit by one of these and you are dead. Large objects coming down will damage buildings and vehicles. Most explosions, be they roadside bombs, smart bombs, artillery shells or missiles, toss heavy objects into the air. This stuff comes down somewhere, and if someone is in the way, they become a casualty. Whose casualty is largely a matter of who gets the more convincing press release out.
This rain of joy bullets are a minor danger to troops, who are wearing helmets and body armor. But for local civilians, they are a real, and often fatal, danger.