A Brief History
On April 14, 1994, the US Air Force proved once again that there is no such thing as “friendly fire!” (Note: So called “friendly fire” is a case of one side killing or destroying its own troops or equipment by accident. Calling such “blue on blue” type of accidental fire “friendly” strikes us as an oxymoron!)
In 1994, US military forces engaged in “Operation Provide Comfort” in Iraq had a mission of protecting ethnic Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s military. On the fateful day, 2 Air Force F-15 Eagles enforcing a “no fly zone” mistook 2 US Army Blackhawk helicopters for Iraqi helicopters and shot them down, killing 26 Americans.
In wartime when a particular military shoots at, kills, or destroys some of their own or allied force people and equipment it is known as “friendly fire.” How friendly is it when your own buddies accidentally kill you? Unfortunately, the problem happens more often than you might think.
In 1999, the US Air Force trying to forcibly enforce peace on the former Yugoslavia accidentally bombed Albanian refugees, killing 75 of them. NFL football star Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by US friendly fire when US forces mistook his small unit for the enemy. Tillman had patriotically left behind a multi-million dollar salary in the NFL to serve with the US Army.
In trying desperately to break the deadlock of the Normandy beachhead in 1944 heavy bombers were used to pound German positions that kept the Americans and British hemmed-in in a small area. Rather than causing a breakout, the bombers dropped many of the bombs on Allied forces! As if this was not bad enough, they tried a second time and did it again, the 2 days bombing costing over 800 American casualties! Even Confederate hero General “Stonewall” Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own sentries.
Many methods have been tried to prevent such accidents, which is how uniforms for soldiers came about. Those bright colors on pre-20th century armies were for a reason, and the reason was identification. Likewise, flags on ships and markings on airplanes are supposed to provide them protection against fire from their own comrades, but it does not always work! Nervous gunners after the Pearl Harbor attack shot down American airplanes trying to land, which illustrates how fear and tension can cause trigger happy carelessness that results in friendly casualties.
Allied aircraft in the European theater of World War II had large white stripes painted on their wings, and ground troops used “recognition panels” spread out on the ground to keep their own airplanes from attacking them. Still, accidents happen. Today airplanes have sophisticated IFF (identification Friend or Foe) electronics to prevent “friendly” kills, vehicles are often fitted with a designated color flag or light, or even special infrared lights. Still, friendly fire incidents continue to happen, just not as often as they used to.
Statistics vary from source to source, and perhaps senior officers try to disguise the real cause of battle deaths in some cases. In Desert Storm (1st Gulf War) 77% of US vehicles destroyed were from friendly fire, along with 17-23% of deaths. World War II and Vietnam saw friendly fire account for 10-14% of casualties and currently our military claims only about 1% friendly fire casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sinking ships carrying prisoners or refugees, “short” artillery rounds, bad visibility, jumpy sentries, mechanical failures; all these factors contribute to friendly fire incidents, and so does stupidity and carelessness! There is no such thing as friendly fire! (All weapons fire is inherently “unfriendly!”)
In World War I the German 49th artillery regiment was so prone to firing “short rounds” on their own troops they were called the 48 1/2!
Question for students (and subscribers): Has anyone in your family ever been the victim of friendly fire? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see….
Snook, Scott A. Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq. Princeton University Press, 2002.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of U.S. Military personnel inspecting the wreckage of a Black Hawk helicopter in the Northern Iraq No Fly Zone during Operation Provide Comfort, April 15 or 16, 1994, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.