Morale: Exploiting Battlefield Mistakes


November 3,2008: After much political and media grandstanding, the British Army decided not to court martial a British army sergeant who gave an American F-15E the wrong GPS coordinates, causing a smart bomb to land too close to a group of British soldiers in Afghanistan, killing three of them. Political activists, egged on by the media, wanted the sergeant punished for his error. This despite the fact that many of the kin of the victims were against such punishment.

There's more to this story than what gets reported in the mass media. Friendly fire incidents in past wars were routinely misreported, usually at the lowest levels (friends of those who got shot, or did the shooting.) Any attempts to get to the bottom of friendly fire statistics from old wars, would open too may psychological wounds. Same with the misreporting of dead soldiers as "missing in Action" during World War II. This was often done by the dead soldiers friends, so the widow could collect the soldiers pay (which was higher than widows benefits) for a while longer.

The basic problem is that, for as long as there have been wars, there have been "friendly fire" losses. This only increased with the appearance of gunpowder weapons a few centuries back, and all the smoke these new instruments of destruction generated. What has changed recently, at least in the American military, has been the appearance of a historically low casualty rate, and increasing monitoring of the battlefield. All those surveillance cameras you encounter downtown or at the mall, are all over the battlefield as well. A lot more radios and other electronic gear as well. There's much more evidence to work with, if you want to find out what really happened.

But one thing that has not changed is the psychological shock to soldiers who are involved, as the shooters, or just bystanders, in a friendly fire incident. There's still the urge to pretend it didn't happen. The troops are thinking of the next-of-kin as well, for it's common for a dead soldiers friends to visit the family of the deceased, or at least get in touch. Coming by and saying, "I killed your son by accident," is a message few troops are capable of delivering.

But friendly fire stuff makes such great headlines. It attracts eyeballs, and that's how the mass media says in business. That won't change either. Neither will activists out to punish their political rivals.


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