May 25, 2005

Pat Tillman and Friendly Fire

StrategyPage has a snippet on Pat Tillman and friendly fire.

In April 2004, former professional football player Pat Tillman, an infantryman serving with the Rangers, was killed in Afghanistan. Later, it was revealed that he was the victim of friendly fire. This became something of a media controversy, with the army accused of attempting a cover-up, and less charitable observers saying Tillman was killed by American troops on purpose. What was missed in all this was the historical reluctance of combat troops to admit to friendly fire, or even talk about it. This goes back to colonial days. Battlefields are chaotic places, and “friendly fire” has always been yet another danger in an already risky business. When the friendly fire came from people who knew the victim, there was a temptation to cover it up. Not so much to avoid punishment, which was rarely a consideration. The main reason was to spare the victim’s family the additional grief, and to make it easier on the guys who caused the death (or thought they did.) There were other deceits on the battlefield, like the delay in reporting a missing (and most likely dead) man as dead. This allowed his wife or family to continue getting his pay for a while. When the death was finally reported, the dead man’s friends would often lie to the next-of-kin, saying that they found the body and buried it (rather than reported "missing and presumed dead.")

In combat, an infantry soldier survives with the help of the other grunts in his unit. Squads and platoons are like families. Individuals may have their differences, but when in danger, everyone pulls together. It’s like the team spirit in athletics, but much more so. Combat is all about the real and immediate danger of death or mutilation. Stress is high, and desperate men will do desperate things. These lies and deceptions are not the sort of thing veterans will talk openly about. But the tradition, so to speak, continues. It’s much more difficult to cover-up a friendly fire incident these days. There are far fewer combat deaths, and the army surgeons will usually note, and report, evidence that an American soldier was killed by American weapons. There’s also a lot more media in the combat zone, although the soldiers who knew a victim of friendly fire are likely to clam up when a reporters shows up. Friendly fire not only kills the victim, it’s a major emotional hit to all the victims’ fellow soldiers.

Posted by Ted at May 25, 2005 6:13 AM