Is the Army lying about friendly fire deaths?
The military claims fratricides in Iraq and Afghanistan are down 90 percent
from previous wars -- but experts call the figures suspect.
by Mark Benjamin
Thursday, Jan 15, 2009
New statistics obtained by Salon depict a spectacularly
low number of U.S. Army deaths from friendly fire in the current
conflict in Iraq, a mere fraction of historical rates. According
to data released
to Salon by the Army's Combat Readiness/Safety Center, only 24 of
the 3,059 U.S. Army soldiers killed in Iraq since the invasion in
died by fratricide.
That is a rate of .78 percent, less than one-tenth of almost every estimate
from previous conflicts stretching back to World War II, despite six
years of combat in Iraq, often in confusing urban terrain, using intense
U.S. firepower. Army officials gave Salon similar statistics for Afghanistan:
six out of 484 dead, or a rate of 1.24 percent. By comparison, the Army's own estimates of the friendly fire rates for every war from World War
II to Desert Storm are between 10 and 14 percent, except for a low of
6 percent during the invasion of Panama. During the last U.S. conflict
in Iraq, 1991's Operation Desert Storm, fratricide killed 35 of 298 U.S.
service members, or a rate of nearly 12 percent, according to a 1992
report by the Center for Army Lessons Learned.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said improved technology
and better leadership and training contributed to the low fratricide
rates in the current Iraq
war. Some observers, however, called the new data fishy. "That is
almost impossible," said Geoffrey Wawro, director of the University
of North Texas' Military History Center, who closely followed the
Army's cover-up of football star Pat Tillman's death by friendly
fire in April
2004. Wawro says that technology and training can help minimize the
friendly fire rate, but "still, the fog of war is such that it has to
be higher than .7 percent."
The retired Army colonel and West Point graduate Andrew Bacevich, now
a history professor at Boston University and a prominent Iraq war critic,
was just as emphatic.
"To say we have suddenly stopped all these problems
that have been a part of warfare since the beginning of time? I don't
believe it ...
To claim that this Army is somehow uniquely disciplined in that regard? It is
a great army, but they are still human beings. They are still scared
Those unusually small numbers, along with anecdotal
reports from soldiers and a string of cover-up allegations, raise
the possibility that the Army
has routinely swept fratricide incidents under the rug in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Salon detailed just such a case last fall, in which battle video and
testimony from soldiers contradicted the official version of events.
Army casualty officers, therefore, might have provided incorrect information
to an unknown number of parents about the death of their son or daughter
in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army might also have missed a similar number
of opportunities to learn from friendly fire incidents and avoid knocking
on more parents' doors with the same bad news.
As Bacevich notes, many of the problems that create
friendly fire incidents have existed "since the beginning of time." In an e-mail to
Salon, the Army's Paul Boyce listed the "leading causes
of fratricide throughout military history": "chaos and confusion of warfare;
inadequate situational awareness; inadequate employment of, and adherence
to, fire control measures; and combat identification failures."
Expressed another way, the fog of war and human error
cause soldiers to misidentify friends as foes. A more easily quantifiable
Boyce does not cite is the collision between different branches of
the military or between different units in the same branch. A 1992
says that fratricide is most likely to occur "along shared unit
boundaries," or when different units fight side by side supporting
each other. This can mean, as in Grenada in 1983, a Navy jet mistakenly
attacking Army troops, or as in the incident first reported last
fall in Salon, members of an Army tank unit in Iraq in 2006 allegedly
on Army infantry.
The military still employs mixed units, and it cannot eliminate human
error or the fog of war. The consistency of the numbers from World War
II to Desert Storm 50 years later is remarkable. The Army's figures for
World War II are 12 to 14 percent; for Vietnam, 10 to 14 percent; for
Grenada, 13 percent; for Panama, 6 percent; and for Desert Storm, 12
percent. (Figures for Korea were not provided.)
Those numbers are consistent despite leaps in technology.
Though Boyce says that "warfighter training and leadership are the principal
determinants," he says that "technology also contributes to
the avoidance of fratricide" in the current conflict. "Fire-control
systems sights and computers are far more capable than in the past. Weapons
and ammunition are able to achieve high probabilities of hits and kills
at greater ranges." Technological improvements since the first
Gulf War have greatly improved the Army's ability to track friendly
on the battlefield.
Yet Wawro notes that technology can also increase
the lethality of friendly fire incidents. The extremely powerful
weaponry the United States now
brings to the battlefield means that "one tiny mistake
results in heavy casualties."
The Army's official stats for the current Iraq war suggest that fewer
soldiers were killed by fratricide over the past six years than the total
number of service members killed by fratricide during Operation Desert
Storm, which lasted 42 days. The statistics from Desert Storm come from
well-documented events, though it isn't hard to find Gulf War veterans
who claim even those numbers are low.
Why should numbers from the current Iraq conflict be so different from
numbers from the last one? Army officials say that Iraq and Desert Storm
don't provide an apples-to-apples comparison. Desert Storm was a brief,
extremely violent conflict fought in the open desert and marked by some
costly fratricide mistakes. On Feb. 27, 1991, for example, one group
of American tanks opened fire on another already firing at an Iraqi unit,
killing six U.S. soldiers and wounding 25.
Or there is the possibility that something has changed about the way
the military reports such incidents. Studies done by both Congress and
the military suggest that officers have an incentive to cover up fratricide,
which is particularly corrosive to morale.
According to a study prepared by the Office
of Technology Assessment for the House Armed Services Committee in June 1993,
after the first
Gulf War, a "15 to 20 percent fratricide rate may be the norm, not
the exception," as "past rates of fratricide have been systematically
and substantially underestimated." It notes that the "psychological
effects of friendly fire are always greater than from similar, enemy
A decade earlier, a 1982 report by Army Lt. Col. Charles
Shrader called "Amicide:
The Problem of Friendly Fire in Modern Warfare," which put the friendly
fire rate far lower — perhaps as 2 percent — had reached
the same conclusion about the temptation to hide friendly fire incidents. "Commanders
at various levels," wrote Shrader, "may be reluctant to report
instances of casualties due to friendly fire either because they are
afraid of damaging unit or personal reputations, because they have a
misplaced concern for the morale of surviving troops or the benefits
and honors due the dead and wounded, or simply because of a desire to
avoid unprofitable conflicts with the personnel of supporting or adjacent
The 1992 report from the Center for Army Lessons Learned,
cited earlier, says that friendly fire can be "devastating and spread deeply within
a unit." Friendly fire, it says, also results in "loss
of confidence in the unit's leadership."
"Nobody wants to talk about this," says Wawro. "It
is a disincentive to recruitment and everything. There is real incentive
to cover it up."
These latest fratricide statistics from the Army already include incidents
initially blamed on the enemy. There was Pat Tillman. Another example
was Lt. Kenneth Ballard. The Army told his family he died in Najaf from
enemy fire in May 2004. By December of that year, the family was asking
for more information. The Army admitted to friendly fire as the culprit
in September 2005.
On Oct. 14 of last year, Salon began a series of stories about the deaths
of two infantry soldiers, Pfc. Albert Nelson and Pfc. Roger Suarez-Gonzalez
on the rooftop of a building in Ramadi, Iraq on Dec. 4, 2006. Soldiers
there said a nearby U.S. tank fired at the building, blowing Suarez off
the roof and killing him instantly. Nelson died later that day.
Salon also released footage from a helmet-mounted camera from that day.
The video shows an explosion at that building, soldiers claiming they
watched the tank shoot at them and a sergeant attempting to report what
he though was a friendly fire incident over a radio. A superior officer
then apparently overrules the sergeant. The Army says two enemy mortars
landed simultaneously on Nelson and Suarez.
During several visits to Nelson and Suarez's old unit at Fort Carson
late last year and in interviews since then, scores of veterans from
Iraq have described non-lethal friendly fire incidents as surprisingly
routine. In the same neighborhood, tanks blast clean through house walls,
the air wobbles with hits from massive 2,000-pound bombs dropped from
U.S. aircraft, and infantry shoot from dusty house to dusty house. It
Some soldiers present during the battle on Dec. 4, 2006 say Nelson and
Suarez's death wasn't the only exchange of friendly fire that day. It
was only exceptional because of the firepower involved and the resulting
Several expressed anger – but also, some understanding – at
the tank that allegedly fired on Nelson and Suarez. The resentment toward
the chain of command for the alleged cover-up was unmitigated. "A
bunch of guys with fucking rags on their heads weren't good enough to
kill those guys," one soldier in the building with Nelson and Suarez
said about the two men. "I lost more respect for (my platoon sergeant)
because we knew he knew."
Late last year, Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.)
sent letters to the Pentagon requesting a new investigation into Nelson
and Suarez's deaths. In early December, Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid (D-Nev.) asked his staff to take a new look into the incident.
The Army has so far declined to open a new investigation,
offering only to review any "new specific evidence" about
the incident, according to Army spokesman Paul Boyce.
The Army did conduct an initial investigation into the deaths. Army
officials say it included 170 photographs, dozens of interviews and hundreds
of pages of ballistic analysis. Since July, Salon has repeatedly requested
this material through the Freedom of Information Act, to no avail. So
far, the Army has only released a heavily redacted, 10-page summary of
The tragedy of burying friendly fire incidents is that
the opportunity to study and prevent future, similar incidents dies
along with the truth.
The Center for Army Lessons Learned, in fact, studies fratricide events
and develops techniques to avoid similar tragedies in the future. "If
you make a mistake, you have to learn from it," explained Ralph
Nichols, a senior military analyst at the center who helped craft new
Army guidance last September on avoiding fratricide. "If you know
what causes it, you can plan and train to avoid it."
In early 2007, Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, 18 and Spc. Alan McPeek, 20 took
cover on a rooftop in Ramadi during a firefight with insurgents. It was
Feb. 2, two months after Nelson and Suarez's death in the same town.
During the battle in February, a tank mistakenly fired on Zimmer and
McPeek's position. McPeek died instantly. Zeimer was blown to the other
side of the roof. He died a short time later. The families of the two
men were originally told their sons were killed by enemy fire.
The Army says Nelson and Suarez did not die from friendly tank fire.
If the Army is wrong, there is no way of knowing if admitting it would
have saved the next two young men just two months later.