Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, newspapers in California and Arizona reported, yesterday, Saturday.
In combat, there is almost no sound as good as hearing friendly fire whizzing over your head. It is enroute to pound an enemy bringing smoke on you. At least that is the way it was in Vietnam. Unfortunately, as good as friendly fire could be, on occasional, one of those friendly rounds goes awry. And, more than we would like to admit, it pummels the wrong people.
To be hit by friendly fire was the most dreaded happenstance in Vietnam and equally as bad in today’s war. Our troops killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan are a sad thing and is just as much a part of war as if they had been laid waste by the enemy. And, in many cases, as I think of Nam, it is a wonder more soldiers weren’t killed by friendly fire. It takes incredibly precise coordination.
With the episode in Afghanistan, it happens that it was fairly straight forward: could have been miscommunication, wrong coordinates or errant bombs. Regardless of how sophisticated we think we are, there are so many things out of our control. It appears that it was simply human error i.e., maybe troops on the ground giving the wrong coordinates.
In Vietnam, it was a little more understandable that friendly fire was more a reality. For one thing, there were hundreds of actions going on at any one time with all kinds of players. Most units had an FO, artillery forward observer, attached to them. This was an artillery Lieutenant with his radio telephone operator, wired into a firing artillery battery. The battery was usually a 155 howitzer or a 1O5--deadly weapons that could deliver an awesome payload. These weapons did often deliver with great accuracy;but, on occasion, they went astray. The internal artillery could also hurt you if one unit was too close to another, i.e., mortars.
In the Nam, nothing brought sheer panic more than the sudden realization that your own artillery was coming in on top of you. We had some pretty bad incidents, most never reported. In many ways, there seemed to be some unwritten rule that friendly fire was the absolute worst way to be killed--let the enemy get me, but not my own folks. The fact that either way, one is dead, deceased, gone, seems to have no real significance to soldiers in combat. -->(continued top right)
And, I think that for Vietnam, there was an unwritten rule, whether we admit it or not, if an individual was killed by friendly fire, it was covered up. Soldiers in Nam wanted the feeling that they died for a reason and purpose. How much that played a part can’t be known, but to die by the enemy’s hand surely seemed better than your own troops killing you.
There are heroics like the infamous Carpenter incident where he called in artillery on himself and his own men. Desperate would be the word his unit was being overrun.
The incident that has become part of the Vietnam psyche, at least for me, is in a book called Friendly Fire. I first read about it when I was a student at Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
Wandering around in the library one day, I happened on a copy of an article in the NY Times Magazine about an incident of friendly fire and cover-up. It had to do with an Iowa farm boy who was drafted, goes to Vietnam, and is killed. As often happens in grief, the family wanted more info.(I understand. In Nam, I would write letters to soldier’s families and invariably they would want more information how did it happen, who was there, did he die quickly one letter followed several mostly about grief.)
In this case, if the military had written a scenario to screw it up, they could not have been done a better job. The family couldn’t get information, there was an inordinate amount of stonewalling--one thing after another.
In fact, the youngster’s battalion commander in Vietnam was none other than Stormin Norman who went on to fame and fortune in the Gulf War. His help was negligible to the family if not downright unhelpful. From the incident, the family became incredibly anti-military, especially about Vietnam. The mother wrote a book, which later became a movie. It publicized the whole concept of Friendly Fire.
Friendly Fire is part of being a soldier. Soldiering is not a picnic nor is it a day at the beach. The best efforts of all involved are going to make this happen from time to time.
The military chain of command seems to have learned from prior mistakes like in Vietnam: tell it like it is and move on. Were we wrong to cover up many friendly fire incidents like we did in Vietnam? No, I don’t think so and if handled properly; in the long run, families might have felt better and then maybe nothing could make a loved one’s death palatable in a war so muddled as the Nam. Kelly Thomas