Canada and the World

DEATH BY FRIENDLY FIRE

The country mourns four soldiers—while Ottawa and Washington face tough questions

JOHN GEDDES April 29 2002
Canada and the World

DEATH BY FRIENDLY FIRE

The country mourns four soldiers—while Ottawa and Washington face tough questions

JOHN GEDDES April 29 2002

DEATH BY FRIENDLY FIRE

Canada and the World

The country mourns four soldiers—while Ottawa and Washington face tough questions

JOHN GEDDES

The only term we have for it is the impossibly inadequate Vietnam War-era phrase “friendly fire.” It seems a bitter joke to apply that euphemism to the mighty explosion at Tarnac Puhl, a dusty, denuded patch of Afghanistan. Four Canadian soldiers died there, the first killed in a combat situation since the Korean War, and eight more were wounded. They were hit by a so-called “smart bomb”—another modern military expression that now rings so false—a laserguided, 500-lb. brute dropped by the American pilot of an F-16 fighter jet. In | the grief that followed, there were many & who remarked that this sort of mistake, | sadly, happens in war. “It just reminds us all of the business we are in,” said Brig.Gen Ivan Fenton, the top-ranking officer in Edmonton, where the dead and injured soldiers were based. “We do dangerous things with dangerous equipment.”

But that stoical, soldierly response may not be adequate. The deadly danger of friendly fire was identified as a major military problem after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when 35 of 148 U.S. deaths were attributed to such accidents. But how much real change on the battlefield has resulted from those heightened concerns is an open question. Just last month, the National Audit Office, the British equivalent of Canadas federal auditor general, issued

REMEMBERING THE FALLEN All of the slain were paratroopers and members of Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton.

Sgt. Marc D. Léger, 29, Lancaster, Ont.

A veteran of four tours of duty in nine years, Léger had served twice in Bosnia and once in Croatia. Outside their Edmonton home, his wife, Marley, said, “I’m going to miss him very much, and I loved him very much, and I’m extremely proud of him.”

CpI. Ainsworth Dyer, 25, Toronto

Known simply as Dyer, he was a big man who carried his squad’s C-6 machine-gun. But the recently engaged Dyer was a gentle giant who never had a bad thing to say about anyone. “He was like my older brother,” said Cpl. Yan Berube, who accompanied Dyer’s flag-draped coffin back to Canada. “He was always looking out for me. Now, it’s my turn to look out for him.”

Re. Richard A. Green, 22, Mill Cove, N.S. Green joined the Cana-

dian Forces in 1998, after graduating from high school. He’d served in Bosnia, and was planning to marry his fiancée, Miranda Boutilier, this summer. His comrades called him “Sunboy” for his sensitivity to the sun. “He enjoyed the airborne regiment,” said his grandmother Joyce Clooney, “even though he was afraid of heights.”

Re. Nathan Smith, 27, Tatamagouche, N.S. Smith also joined the Forces in 1998, and also leaves a fiancée, Jody. He was a by-the-book soldier, said Pte. Michael Frank of Barrie, Ont., who accompanied Smith’s remains back to Canada. Frank and Smith had planned to work on Frank’s basement. “I’ll still finish it but it won’t be the same.”

a tough report taking the British Ministry of Defence to task for not doing enough to protect its troops from friendly fire (nine British soldiers were killed during the Gulf War in an American air raid gone wrong). And a recent NATO analysis again raised the alarm, noting that “fratricide” has accounted for many of the coalition casualties in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

After last week, a new sense of urgency in the Canadian Forces on how to minimize the risk of friendly fire is inevitable. Any reforms, though, will come too late for the dead and the families they left behind. One new widows tearful account of how she received the terrible news seemed to capture, with anguished, plain-spoken eloquence, the national mood of shock and mourning. “It was like the movies,” Marley Léger, 27, told reporters in front of the Edmonton home she had shared with her husband, Sgt. Marc Léger. “I mean, three men came to the door and took their berets off and said, ‘There’s been an accident.’ And I said, ‘Is he OK?’ and they said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Is he gone?’ And they said, ‘Yes, I’m so sorry.’ ”

Sorry—and sorrowful, too, of course. But there were also hints of anger and incredulity in the response of senior Canadian military officers. Gen. Ray Ffenault, the chief of defence staff, himself a pilot, was careful to note that the U.S. flyer who mistakenly targeted the Canadians—they were participating in a nighttime live-ammunition training exercise—had to make a decision in a matter of seconds. Still, Henault seemed to have trouble remaining composed when he was asked if there was any chance the Canadians had failed to properly alert U.S. forces about what they were doing and where. “The operations and training exercises are done with the full knowledge of our allies,” he said. “So I am absolutely convinced that all of the mechanisms that have to be followed were followed.”

That leaves attention firmly fixed on the American pilot. He is reportedly a member of the U.S. Ar National Guard —not a full-time military pilot. But U.S. military experts were quick to refute suggestions that might mean he was more prone to error. Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman with the Tampa, Fla. central command for the U.S.-led coalition in

Afghanistan, said reservists train extensively with active pilots, and many are retired Gulf War veterans with combat experience. There were conflicting reports about whether the pilot in this case made his own decision or had authorization from ground control or an AWACS command plane high overhead to drop his bomb. He may have acted alone, believing he was under fire when he saw the flashes from the Canadians practicing on the ground. Lowell noted that U.S. pilots have the go-ahead to “take on targets of opportunity” as they see them, and to defend themselves.

But how the Canadians could have appeared to be al-Qaeda terrorists is hard to understand. About 100 were conducting a routine exercise just 14 km from the coalition air base in Kandahar. TheTarnac Puhl site they were using had been clearly designated for such practice fighting, and was often used by coalition troops. According

to one Canadian soldier who has been there, it’s a grim place, with a battered road passing by a bombed-out former al-Qaeda base on one side, and small, disused farm plots on the other. This unlikely site now becomes a tragic part of the lore of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the storied regiment of the paratroopers who were killed and wounded there. But the Canadian forces’ commander in Afghanistan, Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran, a cigar-smoking black belt in karate, said the Patricias will finish the job in Afghanistan. “Our spirit is not shaken,” he declared. “Our resolve is unwavering.”

That sort of steadfastness is what Canadians want from their soldiers in the field. But politicians and the military brass back home will need to supply answers. Defence Minister Art Eggleton announced a board of inquiry into the incident, to be headed by retired general Maurice Baril, Henaulfs predecessor as Canadas top mil-

itary officer. One member of the board, Brig.-Gen. Marc Dumais, will also serve on a parallel U.S. inquiry, after U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld invited Canadian participation. Christopher Heilman, an analyst with the Washingtonbased Center for Defence Information, said that, typically, this sort of inquiry in the U.S. resembles a “murder investigation,” involving extensive interviews with everybody involved and an assessment of how the command structure functioned. Once a report is issued, the military brass decides what should happen next, which can range from a finding of no fault to a full court martial if the pilot is judged to have been negligent.

But beyond attributing blame in this tragedy, experts say real progress in cutting down on friendly fire deaths will require new technology and better command systems. In military jargon, the issue is “combat identification”—sorting out friend from foe in often confused or chaotic battle situations. Joe Gordon, a technical adviser with the U.S. armed forces’ Joint Combat Identification Evaluation Team, a research group set up in response to friendly fire concerns raised by the Gulf War, says the new systems already being tested are promising. One would see a fighter jet automatically beam a radio signal at its target, asking for identification before launching a missile or dropping a bomb. Friendly forces on the ground would be equipped with compatible devices that would automatically send back a message identifying them. The right question-and-answer sequence “could override the operator’s decision to release the armaments,” Gordon says.

But technological fixes are for later. Mourning comes first, and there is no innovation when it comes to grieving for youth wasted in war. “For this moment, we must give over our hearts and prayers to the loved and the lost, and to the families to whom the nation holds a debt of gratitude that is beyond mortal calculation,” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said in the House of Commons. That phrase, “the loved and the lost,” was used by Abraham Lincoln in a famous letter to a mother whose five sons were killed in the Civil War. Chrétien spoke to the families of the Canadians who died in Afghanistan by telephone, continuing that old duty of leaders whose nations find themselves burdened with an unrepayable debt.

Julian Beltrame