The latest 'friendly fire' incident in Iraq was the worst so far, killing at least 18 people. Anthony Swofford, a US veteran of the first Gulf war, recalls what it is like to be attacked by your own side
During my years of training before going to war, I rarely considered the possibility of dying by "friendly fire". I had heard of it, and it was nominally considered in training manuals and warfare exercises. As a member of an infantry battalion, the most likely way I might have been killed by my own men would have been upon re-entry to friendly lines - having forgotten the password and coming upon a few crazy-tired or trigger-happy grunts.
But a few weeks into the 1991 air campaign against Iraqi forces in Kuwait, I realised that I would also need to look into the sky for fear of being hit by my own guys. An armoured personnel carrier from a nearby unit had been attacked by a US marine plane. When the attack occurred the vehicle had been deep in friendly territory - in fact in an area where the enemy had never been sighted - with all of the markings that were supposed to identify it as part of coalition forces. Word was that the remains of the two men were packed into a few metal ammunition boxes. Among their effects were found pictures of and letters from various women and also ample quantities of pornography. Shortly after this our sergeant ordered us to remove from our rucks any matter we would prefer our mothers and lovers not to find.
But we troops talked. It was marine-on-marine "friendly fire", and this made it hurt more. Marines fight and brawl in bars and in the barracks, but marines are supposed to protect one another on the battlefield. And they do. But the battlefield is unfortunately not like the street or the pub. The battlefield is confusing and violent, and we understood this, but still we cursed the "air wingers", pompous pricks in the air above us who thought they knew about warfare. Warfare happens on the ground, we agreed, and on the ground we were safe from other ground warriors. Or were we? Maybe we also needed to check the rear and the flanks.
When the coalition ground invasion started, my scout/sniper team took the point position for our battalion. The combat engineers ahead of us had cleared safe paths through the minefield and made easy work of the enemy obstacles. Just across the minefield we witnessed the start of the massive Iraqi surrender. We were on foot, and within half an hour our progress was halted due to a bottleneck of Iraqi soldiers waving white flags, their boots hanging from their necks.
All of this pleased us - surrendering Iraqis and the possibility of dropping our rucks for a few minutes, what great luck! But in combat the luck never holds. As we dug our shallow shelters, rounds ripped over our heads and hit trucks in the supply train behind us. The enemy was reportedly miles away, and we were stunned and horrified by the destruction of the vehicles. I gained visual on the tanks firing at us, and they were our own. My team leader dialled up the tankers' command centre and attempted to stop the assault, but he wasn't quick enough and more rounds sailed over our heads and exploded behind us. Eventually the assault ended, with at least two marines dead at the hands of their marine brothers. We were ordered to stop looking at the carnage behind us and march on.
Now the war was happening everywhere at once. And our heads were affected. The forward thrust of battle is trouble enough, but when the fighter must also worry about being hit from all sides from his own men the tension rises, morale takes a hit, and the fighter becomes like a caged and confused animal. Who is my enemy? Where is my friend?
March 2002 - MoD warned over friendly fire