Is Friendly Fire Preventable? There's been an uproar in Britain, after a newspaper obtained a videotape of an incident in 2003 when U.S. pilots opened fire on a tank in Iraq killing a British soldier. Guests discuss why friendly fire happens, and if it can be prevented.
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Is Friendly Fire Preventable?

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Is Friendly Fire Preventable?

Is Friendly Fire Preventable?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

There's been an uproar in Britain this past week after a newspaper obtained a videotape of a friendly-fire incident in 2003, where American aircraft strafed a British convoy in southern Iraq. Lance Corporal Matty Hull was killed, four other British soldiers seriously wounded.

For years, Hull's family had been told there was no cockpit video of that attack. That may remind some listeners of the way the military handled the death of former football star Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan, saying first that he died heroically in a firefight, admitting later that he was killed by a fellow American soldier.

Friendly fire is always emotional. For some families, the death of a son or a husband is even more difficult when the cause is a mistake or an accident. And it's not new; friendly fire is blamed for an estimated 15 percent of all U.S. deaths in World War II and Vietnam. One hundred forty-eight Americans died in combat during the first Gulf War, 35 as the result of friendly fire. And as of last August, according to a report in Army Times, the number for Afghanistan and Iraq is at least 16 and as many as 25.

Later in the program, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards joins us to take your calls, and you can send us questions by e-mail now. The address is But first, friendly fire. Why does it happen? Can it be prevented? Are troops properly trained? Are families properly informed?

If you're active in the military or a military vet, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail Joining us now is Julian Borger, diplomatic editor for The Guardian, who's been covering the Matty Hull case. He joins us from the BBC studios in Brighton. Julian, nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JULIAN BORGER (Diplomatic Editor, The Guardian): Thank you, good to be here.

CONAN: The anger in Britain seems to stem from a couple of different factors, and let's take them one at a time. First was how this could possibly happen in the first place.

Mr. BORGER: Well, I think there's acceptance that friendly-fire incidents can happen. They happened in the first Gulf War and they've happened in this Iraq war. Really, the anger is focused on the failure of it seems both the U.S. and British governments to come clean on the circumstances of this incident: the denial that this videotape, this cockpit video existed, and the withholding of information from the family of the principal victim, Matty Hull.

CONAN: And there was also some anger about an investigation in 2003 where the U.S. pilots were cleared, and British participation in that.

Mr. BORGER: That's right. British officers took place - took part in this inquiry, and it cleared both the pilots from the National Guard and they went back to active duty. But if you look at that, the cockpit video and the transcripts from the cockpit video, there clearly are some real causes for concern about procedures not being followed; and it was clear that they were aware that these could be friendly vehicles, vehicles from allied forces, and yet they overrode those concerns.

So there were definitely concerns, and yet they seem to have been overridden in the inquiry.

CONAN: The vehicles were supposed to be identified, well in many ways, but one of them was by having orange panels on top of these scorpion tanks, which are small tanks. Obviously, after a couple of weeks in the desert, things can get dusty, hard to identify. The pilots thought they might have been identifying markers, or they thought they might have been Iraqi rocket launchers.

Mr. BORGER: Yes, absolutely. But it's clear that - even from the Second World War these orange panels have been carried by friendly allied-force vehicles, and it's a well-known sign of allied-force vehicles, so it should clearly have been a cause for concern and cause for caution among these pilots. And yet where you can read through the transcript, they see these orange panels, they wonder if these are friendly vehicles. And over the period of a few minutes they convince themselves maybe they're not the panels identifying friendly forces. Maybe they're rocket launchers.

But it's clear even after they go in for the first strafing run they still have doubts over whether these were friendly vehicles or not.

CONAN: I wonder how - the transcript also shows that these pilots expressed tremendous remorse as soon as they found out what was going on.

Mr. BORGER: Yeah, absolutely. The quote that was being singled out here is: We're going to jail, dude. And a lot of wailing in the cockpit when they're informed what happened. It clearly - you know, very emotional.

CONAN: Yeah. And how is it now that the Sun newspaper obtained this video which the family had been told for years didn't exist.

Mr. BORGER: Yes, it got leaked to them possibly from the coroner's office, possibly from the uniforms at the Ministry of Defense here. Because it's believed that the uniformed military in the Ministry of Defense were unhappy that this was being withheld, mainly, principally on the orders of the civilians in charge. So there's a certain amount of split there, and it's perhaps out of the split that this leak emerged.

CONAN: Has there been any explanation as to why they were misinformed I guess is a kind word. Somebody might say lied to.

Mr. BORGER: No, not at all. It's not clear at all because the British were telling the coroner in Oxfordshire who's looking into the death of Matty Hull that this - first that it didn't exist. And secondly, when it emerged, that there was a cockpit video, that it was classified.

Now the Americans say they were only asked last Friday by the coroner to hand this video over, the transcript over, and they were in the process of considering whether to allow it to be handed over when it was leaked.

So there's a different story being told in Britain and the U.S., and someone isn't telling the truth, clearly.

CONAN: Yeah, and what happens now? This coroner's inquest into what was the cause of death, that's going to go ahead?

Mr. BORGER: Yeah, it's going ahead. It had only been adjourned because the coroner didn't feel he could go on without this video. Now he's got it, he's going to continue, and he's reportedly asked for the presence of these two pilots in the National Guard. It's not usual for U.S. servicemen or servicemen from any country to go abroad to face justice. It's very unlikely that they will turn up, but it's believed that the coroners has asked for their presence at the inquest.

CONAN: Julian Borger, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. BORGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Julian Borger, diplomatic editor for The Guardian, who joined us today on a snowy day in London. We appreciate his being with us.

Joining us now from her home in Ontario, Canada, is Claire Leger. Claire's son, Marc, was tragically killed in a not-dissimilar case of friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 17th, 2002. And Claire Leger, it's very good of you to speak with us today.

Ms. CLAIRE LEGER (Mother of Sergeant Marc Leger): Thank you. If I may, I'd like to offer my sincere sympathy for this family and their friends, because this young soldier that was killed by friendly fire, it certainly touches home and I want them to know that I'm very sorry for their loss.

CONAN: And obviously we're very sorry for your loss, too. Is it more difficult to accept because it was friendly fire?

Ms. LEGER: I don't know if I can say more, but what you do is go through an awful lot because we had Article 32 in Louisiana, and we had to go through like a military court. And what was really painful was to watch Major Schmidt(ph), the pilot that dropped the 500-pound bomb on our son and his three comrades, and there was eight wounded also, stand there and tell us that during the fog of war, you know, he was trying to do the best he could. But there was no fog of war that night. It was a clear night.

There was nothing going on except the men, our son included, were having a practice and were right beside an airport. I mean, everything there made no sense when they dropped the bomb. All he had to do was wait for the call to say, you know, who was underneath them. He had no patience for that, apparently. Thought OK, well, I'm going down - he used self-defense as an excuse.

CONAN: He thought the flashes, the muzzle flashes he saw were aimed at him.

Ms. LEGER: Well it's so ridiculous because apparently the Taliban can't even reach that high. And their planes go so high. I mean, he swooped down on them just to let the bomb drop. So he put himself, the plane, in harm's way. He had flown away from them to start off with, then turned around and came back at them. So what he did was totally bizarre. Out of, you know, what they're supposed to do, like, their spins, and he was - in our case, Agent Schmidt is a top gun pilot. You couldn't get any higher. And he was part of the spin that they called - like, things that they have to do when they're up there. And he just ignored all of it and said OK, I'm doing down by self-defense. By saying it was self-defense, he cleared himself somewhat by using that.

CONAN: Was any punishment exacted? We know criminal charges were dropped.

Ms. LEGER: Yes. His punishment - I have it right here. They took off $2,836 for two months. He had to give them that kind of money, and of course when they talked dollars I was so insulted. I was just - I didn't want to see a number and everything. I had just seen it on this punishment. But what he had was what we insisted for some kind of justice that he would never fly another plane again. We thought we couldn't save our son now. He was already gone, but he was damn well not going to do it again to another family. So we insisted that he wouldn't fly in war zones. He does - he's an instructor besides this. He continues to do that. We don't deny him a livelihood. He has a family and we want him to live on with his family the best he can, but we don't have that luxury.

Anyhow, for an instructor it kind of worries me, because if he's instructing other ones, I'm not surprised that we have other friendly fires. And let me tell you if they're covering it up, you've got to imagine how many other families that feel that their friendly fire - so-called friendly fire - wasn't covered up also.

CONAN: Stay with us, if you will. We have to take a short break - take a couple of more questions for you after we return. We're speaking with Claire Leger, the mother of a Canadian soldier, Sergeant Marc Leger, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. If you'd like to join our conversation about the phenomenon of friendly fire, why it happens, how it can be prevented, and if families are properly informed, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us,

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION form NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about incidents of what's called friendly fire. Later in the hour we'll be talking with presidential hopeful John Edwards. If you have questions for him, you can e-mail them to us now. Our address is

Our guest is Clair Leger. She's the mother of Canadian soldier Sergeant Marc Leger, who was killed when a U.S. pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers on a training mission in Afghanistan in 2002. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

And Ms. Leger, I have to ask you, did you ever receive - you said you saw the pilot there at the proceedings - the Article 32 proceedings in Louisiana. Has anyone ever expressed an apology or regret to you?

CONAN: Yes, we had - from General Carlson, who was the one that had the last say and gave the pilots the reprimand. He sent my husband and I a beautiful letter stating how he was very sorry and that certainly felt good. From the pilots we had a beautiful - from major (unintelligible) a beautifully sincere sorry from him. We know they weren't out there hunting Canadians. We understand that. But Major Umback(ph) showed that, you know, he really felt sorry. What hurt the most was Major Schmidt(ph) standing there on - like on TV, we weren't in the same room - defending himself about fog of war that didn't even exist. He was inventing stuff to get the hell out of this situation. And it was an insult. It was a slap across the face for me.

I thought OK, you did it. We know that you didn't do it totally on purpose, but what you did was wrong. You didn't do the things you were supposed to do, admit to it. Because he's such a top gun, you know, he can't admit to doing anything wrong. It's like he was so arrogant through the entire thing. I'm so glad we weren't in the same room because I think I would have been clawing at him. I was so angry. I couldn't believe how he made me so angry. And we didn't get an apology from him. We got excuses. I called it a declaration of excuses. You can add that to your country's declaration - his excuses. It was sickening. I was just almost throwing up at the time I listened to this man stand up there do that. I mean, oh my God.

CONAN: Finally, let me ask you, this video that finally came out after all these years in Britain, the family of Lance Corporal Matty Hull has now seen his last moments from a different vantage point. Did you watch the video of what happened to your son?

Ms. LEGER: Very much so. We were shown on small TV his very last moments before the bomb actually fell. They showed that to us. Our son was the only one standing up walking - well, three other comrades were laying down with guns. They were practicing. And our son was a sergeant, so he was going back and forth to make sure everybody had their proper equipment and that night he was making sure that everybody had their equipment on. I can't remember the correct position. And one of his friends had taken off his helmet in order to fix a gun that was broken, and he insisted he put back his helmet back on and it saved his life. But our son was walking and we could watch him walking towards the impact of this bomb. So if he would have walked the other way, he'd be still here with us today. But as life is, that's the way it works.

But I can't imagine these people having being lied to. I mean, it's bad enough - like, I understood that, you know, my son was a soldier. I understand fog of war when everybody's shooting at each other. You know, you can't tell who's who after a while. But these - our guys were so clearly marked and they had (unintelligible) and did all of the proper procedures, and this still happens.

I mean, for God's sake. I mean, what else can they do. There's not a damn thing they could have done unless these pilots, you know, do what they're supposed to do. It doesn't take much to say OK, we better make damn sure that the right people we drop a bomb on here. I mean, all it took was a few more minutes. They heard: Disengage, it's friendlies. Well it was too late. It takes seconds for this to happen. Now come on here, I don't know what's going on.

But to have this, these people lying to you - I couldn't put myself in their position. You know what it does? It makes your country look like, Oh wait a minute, you know - we're looking at the States and thinking they're lying about this, what are they lying about? I mean, there's other things here that they might be lying about. Why are we here along with them standing side by side fighting against this war against terrorists if we're not getting told the truth. We're supposed to be buddies here. We're neighbors and we can't even be given the truth? I mean, I can put up with the truth, but I can't put up with a bunch of lies. I'll live with the truth even if it's hard to live with.

CONAN: Claire Leger, thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. LEGER: My pleasure.

CONAN: Claire Leger, her son Marc was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. She joined us today by the phone from her home in Ontario, Canada. Joining us now from Member Station WBUR in Boston is Sarah Sewell. Sarah is the first person ever to hold the position of deputy assistant secretary for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistant in the Department of Defense under the Clinton administration. She's currently director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and she joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. SARAH SEWELL (Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard University): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Why is - are these anomalous incidents or is - we think about the Pat Tillman incident or the Matty Hull incident, is the military reluctant to admit to what's going on?

Ms. SEWELL: Well first of all, you've got to recognize that there's a historical context for this, which is that up until Desert Storm, we didn't recognize this to be a particular problem. We knew it was a chronic problem but the way most people thought about it is that it was a corollary of war, sort of nasty but unavoidable corollary. And it was really only after Desert Storm, when they did the analysis of battle death and found that some 24 percent of a very small total number were from fratricide, that Congress and the United states in particular really got a bee in its bonnet and started pushing this issue.

In a sense, it's the attention that these incidents get now is a luxury because they are, relatively speaking, much rarer than they used to be. And ironically, the nature of incidents has really changed. It used to be that most fratricide cases were from dropping bombs and from indirect fires where you didn't know what you were shooting at per se. Now most of them happen, you know, with direct fires, where we are intending to hit the target, we just hit the wrong target.

CONAN: So that's a function, I gather, of improved accuracy of weaponry. It doesn't improve their targeting necessarily, but it goes where you're pointing it.

Ms. SEWELL: Yes, that's right. And what has happened is that while we have recognized that there's a problem and there was a demand on the part of political leaders for the military to address it in the early 1990s, there were huge bureaucratic impediments and resistance to doing that, in part because of this lingering concept that this was a corollary of war and that really if you were concerned about reducing the numbers of casualties among your own forces you'd win the war quickly. But there were questions in terms of bureaucracy and who owned this problem and who's going to pay to fix this problem.

And then you had a third factor, which was the American pension for the technological fix and this search for the silver bullet that really continued for over a decade, such that while we had an improved awareness of the battlefield and some new abilities to monitor in a cooperative way friendlies, to see them and reduce fratricide, and indeed we did.

The initial combat phase of Iraqi Freedom we estimated it at 11 percent of combat deaths were fratricide, rather than the 24 percent from Desert Strom. But it still fell far short of expectations at the time. And as Admiral Giambastiani, who was the head of Joint Forces Command at the time, said any one death is too many. So we have yet to really take this problem by the tail and wrestle it to the ground.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in the conversation. 800-989-8255. And this is Derek(ph). Derek calling us from Elkhart, Indiana.

DEREK (Caller): Yes sir, I just wanted to address the fact that sometimes no matter how much training you actually have or the technology that you have, it becomes quite difficult to identify who it is sometimes that you're shooting at. One time during training - luckily it was a training incident - we were doing desert training out in the California desert and I asked an individual to identify themselves. I had night vision goggles. He did not. And I could not identify him by his insignias despite having the night vision goggles. He failed to identify himself and as a result he was actually shot. So again, luckily it was a training exercise, but had it been a real situation, you know, he would have been a casualty or, you know, have been killed.

CONAN: So in a training exercise in California - that wasn't live fire, was it?

DEREK: No, it was - we actually have - it's called MILES equipment. It's similar to, like, laser tag.

CONAN: So he was shot, but virtually shot.

DEREK: Right. Exactly. So sometimes even with all the technology in the world, you know, the night vision is somewhat - you still, you're vision is still impaired, so. And I mean despite all the training and everything else in the world, you know, this guy had a 50-50 chance to identify himself as being friendly or foe. And since he had failed to identify himself, you know, like I said, he was actually shot.

CONAN: Derek, thanks very much. It sounds like you may have gone on to serve elsewhere. So this didn't happened in combat to you?

DEREK: I actually was activated a couple of different times and put on alert and stand-by and things of that nature. When I was stationed at Fort Benning, half of my unit went, nine stayed behind. So luckily, I never had to do anything dangerous like that but, you know, so - and I have no complaints with that at all.

CONAN: OK, Derek, thanks very much for the call.

DEREK: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with Jay(ph), and Jay is with us from Norfolk, Virginia.

JAY (Caller): Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JAY: Back in the late '70s, when I was in the Navy on the carrier Eisenhower, I happed to have read a book and I believe it was called "Friendly Fire," which was then turned into a movie of the week starring Carol Burnett. And it was a story about how this one woman desperately tried to find out the truth about how her son had died in Vietnam.

And what I remember from that book was she had struggled so hard to find out the truth. People lied to her, civilian members of the military as well as military members themselves. And when she finally did find out the truth about how her son died, it was because of such - just a stupid little mistake, just a very tiny mistake.

And it seems to me that it's in these instances where it is such a superficial mistake, such a tiny little error and it results in somebody dying. It's in those cases that our civilian and military leaders lie even the most. And I don't give them the benefit of the doubt. I think it is a lie. And the way that in these cases these people can look you right in the face and lie without blinking - it amazes me.

CONAN: Yeah, is there - Sarah Sewell, there seems to be, and again it may be anomalous, but this situation seemed to be - they seemed to be cover-ups.

Ms. SEWELL: Well, I think the most disturbing part of this story is the lack of respect that seems to be shown the victim's family. I mean my heart really goes to both Mrs. Leger and the Hull family. They endure a horrific lost, and I want to get in a minute to the difference between the two situations because they're very different.

But in either case, they deserve the respect of the truth. I love the way Mrs. Leger said I can handle the truth, you know. I think that's exactly right and that, to me, seems to be the biggest problem with the current case is that it suggests a lack of respect and honesty about dealing forthrightly with the consequences of this tragedy.

JAY: And I guess the question would be is: Why do they lie? Why is just not easier to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may?

Ms. SEWELL: Well, I can't speak for the military on this, but I do think that one interesting point to remember is that bureaucracies don't always intend to have the outcomes that they have.

And I think that if we're serious about dealing with the problem of friendly fire, we have to - and I hope the Tillman case has shown us - that we have to deal more seriously with the follow-up pieces of that in terms of addressing not only the victims but then the learning process to make sure the mistakes don't happen again.

That's my biggest concern about friendly fire cases is that we'll do great analysis but, again, getting the results back into the field, getting the fixes to the common institutionalized is a bigger problem.

CONAN: Thanks, Jay, for the call, Jay.

JAY: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: We're speaking with Sarah Sewell, former deputy assistant secretary for Defense.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Sarah, you were saying there were important distinctions between these two cases.

Ms. SEWELL: There really are. I mean, my recollection of the case with Major Schmidt is that when Mrs. Leger was talking about how he contravened his (unintelligible), his special instruction is basically his air rules of engagement. His behavior there was strikingly problematic in terms of disregarding the instructions that he had at the time. And her sense of outrage at his defense of disregarding those rules by claiming self-defense as a result of having disregarded the rules and dropped down so low for the strike is I think justified. This case is much more complicated…

CONAN: This British be Matty Hull case?

Ms. SEWELL: The Matty Hull case. There are real questions about, I think legitimate questions about the communications and the lack of understanding, not just on the part of the pilots but on the part of the forward air controllers. It seems as though there was confusion over what types of physical geography they were talking about. It seems as though there was second-guessing of the visual identification but a tendency to trust the forward air controller, rely on the technology.

Those are grayer areas than simply disregarding your ROE. I think Mrs. Leger made a very important point about both of these cases, which is that in both there did not appear to be a need for imminent action. And perhaps one of the questions when you look at learning from these events is whether the training adequately addresses the issue of choice in these circumstances. Because in both cases, the pilot's very eager to drop their bombs on target, and many of the most decorated pilots are those who make the judgment call not to. And it's very important that the institution recognize and honor those choices.

CONAN: Is it accurate that U.S. pilots have immunity from friendly fire incidents?

Ms. SEWELL: I'm not sure what you mean by immunity. It depends on where they're flying and what kind of surface-to-air threat that they face or whether there's even an air war. I mean, obviously, if you're fighting against an advanced nation that has a significant air capacity, you don't have immunity in the air.

CONAN: I see. I meant legal immunity from prosecution. It's also a situation. Is it exacerbated when you're working with allies? Obviously, the Canadians and the British…

Ms. SEWELL: That's exactly right. You know that -

CONAN: …are the closest allies we've got.

Ms. SEWELL: Yes, because not - we have problems within services. We have problems across services. An even bigger problem was when you're combining a joint military effort with the forces of other nations who are going to have different communication systems, different standard-operating procedures. NATO has recognized the need to try to standardize even within NATO, but that's not a complete process yet. So you're absolutely right.

CONAN: Sarah Sewell, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time.

Ms. SEWELL: My pleasure.

CONAN: Sarah Sewell, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. She joined us today from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston.

When we come back from a short break, presidential candidate John Edwards and we'll take your questions. You can give us a call 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. E-mail us

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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