At the risk of being flamed, I’m going to post a portion of an email about this subject I sent to my Dad, whom is a two-time Vietnam veteran and a retired 36-year career Army officer, and his reply.
Me, to Dad:
…Frankly I’m getting pretty concerned with the wars as well. Some of the news of botched assignments in Afghanistan is certainly not helping in the “hearts and minds” campaign. I just read an article about one such incident where apparently US Special Forces acted on bad information and swept into an Afghani school and murdered a bunch of school kids/teenagers in their sleep with silenced weapons, thinking it was some sort of IED factory. Another recent one I read about was where US forces acted on other bad intel and killed an Afghani family, and once they realized their mistake, pried the bullets from their bodies and washed the wounds with alcohol to try to cover up what they’d done.
I know war is hell (well, I can only imagine that it is) and that in realtime combat environments where quick and decisive actions are required to stay alive that civilians will get killed, especially in the type of warfare we’re seeing now where enemy combatants aren’t easily distinguished from the civilian population. I saw the Wikileaks video from 2007 in Iraq where an Apache engaged what it thought were insurgents during the height of ethnic and Al-Qaeda operations and ended up killing a couple Reuters reporters. And then wiped out a van that tried to help one of the wounded photographers. That didn’t bother me so much.
What bothers me is that we seem to keep relying on bad intelligence from locals that likely bear grudges against some other tribal/ethnic group in the hopes that we’ll go in and kill some innocents to make us look bad and we keep falling for it. Our “precision weapons” are also not quite as precise as many people believe…bombings always kill civilians, and there’s been plenty of stories/videos circulating that make the US look like its indiscriminately killing civilians from the air.
I don’t know what else we can hope to accomplish in either Iraq or Afghanistan other than quickly ensure some type of stability and then get the hell out of there (for the most part…I realize that we’ll probably have permanent bases there for some time yet) and quit squandering our treasure and American lives on wars with questionable intentions (Iraq) or without a clear vision or exit strategy for what defines “success…its over!” (Afghanistan)…
*Steve – I’ve added some comments to your very good observations below. But let me start off with a little something about combat.
First of all there is no excuse for not having your soldiers trained to the nth degree – that saves lives! Second, the consistent thing about war is confusion. If your intelligence pinpoints a lucrative enemy target, a well-trained outfit rehearses their plans thoroughly, have back up plans and all the supporting plans, escape, supporting fires, etc., etc. They then execute. In today’s Army, so much is done after dark – U.S. Forces have the advantage. But night-vision goggles, no matter how good, do not and cannot give you the same visualizations as broad daylight. In the confusion if something is not obviously what we expect to find, you run into a serious dilemma. I said obviously…if you can tell that the target is clearly children, for example, when it was supposed to be hardened terrorists, then abort. But when one cannot tell that your target is not accurate…hesitating can get your men killed. When have too many examples of news media Monday morning quarterbacks questioning “well, you could CLEARLY tell that while they was one child “strategically” placed in the room, the rest were all terrorists and you got men killed because you aborted the mission while the terrorists, now being warned, open fire on your troops.”
Friendly fire accidents happen. One time in Vietnam while I was a Company Commander we pushed out our perimeter to incorporate a borrow pit where we had equipment and soldiers placed overnight but cut off from our perimeter. We notified all our units so they could adjust their predetermined fields of fire so as to not fire into our new positions within the perimeter. Somehow the Infantry Company on our flank was not notified. After dark one of my positions spotted VC implanting an IED in the road leading to the borrow pit and opened fire on the two individuals. An Infantry position on our flank, seeing the muzzle flashes coming from one of my positions but not informed it was friendly, opened fire on my position. My radio started going nuts…the rest of my positions started firing, mostly into the village of Cu Chi which was adjacent to our borrow pit. Once we were able to determine that this was friendly fire, we were able to silence the infantry positions, sent out a patrol to find two riddled VC bodies and enough explosive to destroy an M-60 tank. We fortunately took no friendly fire casualties (the infantry guys later on asked us to help them build their fighting pits because they shot the hell out of one of my positions but my troops were not hit.) Unfortunately we killed three and wounded about a dozen innocent villagers in the exchange. These things really tear you up and it’s not about an American life being more valuable than a Vietnamese child’s, but the fog of war, as Clausewitz describes it, will always be present in armed conflicts. But commanders must make split moment decisions because lives depend on his/her ability to assess and decide; sometimes you access on bad intelligence or bad communication feedback but act on the best information available. That’s part of the “Fog of War.”