Is Army covering up friendly fire deaths?
John Byrne
Published: Friday January 16, 2009

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From World War II through Desert Storm, the percentage of American combat deaths reported from friendly-fire during conflict has remained remarkably consistent: 12-14 percent in World War II, 10-14 percent in Vietnam, 13 percent in Granada, 12 percent in Desert Storm (the invasion of Panama is the exception, at 6 percent).

But a new Pentagon report claims that friendly fire deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan -- also known as fratricide -- have dropped to just .78 percent, a figure that seems statistically impossible.

To put it in perspective, the Army claims that fewer Americans were killed by friendly fire in the six years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed during the 42 days of Operation Desert Storm.

Coming on the heels of the fifth anniversary of former football star Pat Tillman in April 2004, whom the Pentagon first said had been killed by enemy fire but who later emerged had been killed by his own men, Salon reporter Mark Benjamin suggests the Army is lying. Anecdotal evidence within the military doesn't corroborate with this sharp departure from the norm, and some experts are highly critical.

"That is almost impossible," Geoffrey Wawro, director of the University of North Texas' Military History Center, told Benjamin. Technology and training can help reduce deaths by friendly fire, but "still, the fog of war is such that it has to be higher than .7 percent."

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel teaching at Boston University, agreed.

"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," Bacevich said. "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 shitless."

Last year, Bejamin revealed that two privates that the Pentagon said had been killed by enemy fire had apparently been shot by an American tank. The attack had been captured by a camera mounted on another soldiers' helmet.

He also reported that soldiers had been ordered to shred documents relating to the incident.

"Those unusually small numbers, along with anecdotal reports from soldiers and a string of coverup allegations, raise the possibility that the Army has routinely swept fratricide incidents under the rug in Iraq and Afghanistan," Benjamin writes. "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."

There has always been incentive for the Army to under-report friendly fire incidents. A study prepared for the House Armed Services Committee in 1993 recorded that a fratricide rate of 15-20 percent "may be the norm, not the exception," and that statistics from the past wars were "systematically and substantially underestimated."

The Army contends that new technology and better training contribute to the lower rate of fratricide.

"Fire-control systems sights and computers are far more capable than in the past," Army spokesman Paul Boyce said. "Weapons and ammunition are able to achieve high probabilities of hits and kills at greater ranges."

"Nobody wants to talk about this," Wawro, the military historian, said. "It is a disincentive to recruitment and everything. There is real incentive to cover it up."