Leadership: January 10, 2003

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Two air force pilots are accused of manslaughter for the bombing of Canadian troops in Afghanistan last year. Four Canadian troops were killed. When it was revealed that the pilots had taken amphetamines an hour before they took off, the media began piling on about drugged up fighter pilots running amok. The lawyers for one of the pilots is using a "drug defense" for his client. Pilots, sailors and soldiers have been using amphetamines for over sixty years. It's no secret, and, until now, everyone understood that the "uppers" were used to keep troops at top awareness during dangerous situations. The lesser of two evils and all that. But that's not what this is all about. The big issue is fear of friendly fire versus losing initiative in combat. Historically, troops tend to show little initiative. Most people in combat are scared and would really like to be somewhere else. Since that is not always possible, doing nothing seems to be a reasonable alternative. Well trained troops have learned to take action, which means taking chances and, especially in combat, making mistakes. When troops do this they tend to win battles. They also tend to make mistakes, often even killing some of their own people. It's long been a dirty little secret in the military, although you can find lots of military historians who have reported on this, if only in footnotes. But friendly fire is now out in the open, and has become an "issue." There are things you can do to reduce friendly fire, with more training being the most successful approach. But you can't eliminate friendly fire. At issue is whether the military can get the public to understand that prosecuting troops responsible for friendly fire incidents will backfire. Eager to avoid possible prosecution, troops will become so cautious that they will be less likely to win battles and will increase friendly casualties. Two decades of American effort to train troops to show initiative will be wiped out. Unlikely? No. Just put yourself in the place of a combat commander. These guys are only human and care about their career prospects. Most will hold back. They will avoid action and tend to foist responsibility for action onto someone else. This is dangerous stuff, as these are the same habit of poorly trained and incompetent officers who tend to lose battles. And this is the direction we are now going.


 


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