Information Warfare: November 1, 2003

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: Spend enough time discussing military affairs with somebody in the U.K. and you invariably run into an interesting attitude; American soldiers are trigger-happy cowboys. Its sort of the consolation prize the Brits awarded themselves after U.S. military power eclipsed Britains by an order of magnitude: You Yanks may outclass us in quantity and quality of material, but at least our boys dont go blundering about blasting everything in sight, is the unofficial credo. The Brits are justifiably proud of their troops and I don't mean to slight them, but the suggestion that British forces are more disciplined than U.S. forces is an un-provable school yard style proposition. 

The attitude is powerfully reinforced every time there is a friendly fire incident of some kind. Do British armed forces ever accidentally fire on each other? You bet they do. Are there more friendly fire incidents involving U.S. forces? The anecdotal evidence suggests there is, but thats more likely a function of the higher percentage of U.S. forces in theater. Pure and simple, more weapons firing gives you a statistically greater likelihood of friendly fire. A statistical analysis would likely bear this out but insofar as there were less than a dozen friendly fire deaths in Iraq prior to the announcement of the end of major hostilities, an analysis of the current conflict is probably meaningless.

Some "blue on blue" incidents, as the military calls them, are probably unavoidable and arguably only receive the attention they do because the U.S. and U.K. forces so outclass the opposing forces they regularly encounter that they frequently inflict more casualties on each other than the enemy itself can manage. The real story is that the casualties have dropped to such a low rate that the percentage of people killed by friendly fire may appear to be abnormal," says retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who was in command of coalition air power in the Persian Gulf War.

Still, the myth of the American soldier/cowboy looms large in the British psyche. Case in point is this report on the BBC website describing an accidental shooting of civilians in Baghdad on August 7, 2003. Now the U.S. is not denying that the shootings in question were accidental. And the article reports that the surviving family members have received $11,000 on the direct orders of Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq. So Im not faulting the BBC for reporting the story in the first place, its legitimate news and civilian deaths have, if anything, been under-reported following the fall of Baghdad. 

My problem with the report is this uncritical quotation of a supposed witness to the accidental shootings: 

It all happened just outside the Jabari household. Members of the family talk of a scene of chaos breaking out as the troops were searching a nearby house for weapons. 

"The Americans seemed to panic," said Hussein al-Jabari, who witnessed the events. 

"As well as the two cars that were hit, they fired indiscriminately all around them. I heard someone shout in English: 'Shoot anything that moves'. They even shot each other. Two of them were laying screaming in the road," says Hussein.

Utter nonsense! There is no way that a U.S. Army officer, commissioned or otherwise, would ever give an order to shoot anything that moves, particularly in a civilian neighborhood. That kind of talk only takes place in the movies, which is undoubtedly where the purported witness heard it. 

The BBC reporter should have caught this falsehood immediately instead of uncritically reporting it. Particularly since there are other indications within the article that the witness is embellishing his account: 

Coalition military spokesmen at the time of the incident said the troops had already come under attack during their operation. There are no reports of friendly fire incidents.

In other words, the witnesss claim that that the U.S. soldiers also shot each other is false. 

Ive often accused the BBC of intentional bias against the U.S. and its policies. But in this case, I think the problem is more the reporters innate prejudice than any purposeful intention to smear the U.S. Army. That the slander may have been unintentional does not however excuse it or lessen the damage done. The BBC reporters own preconceived notion that U.S. soldiers are trigger-happy cowboys prevented him from spotting an obvious untruth about how American forces operate. In so doing, the reporter also served to perpetuate the myth of the "trigger-happy" U.S. soldier by reporting the falsehood to the British public as news. --Darren T. Kaplan


 


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