What’s so “friendly,” many have been asking, about being killed off by your fellow soldier?

So-called friendly fire accounts for an astonishing proportion of the casualties suffered by the U.S. and its allies in the war in Afghanistan.

Astonishing — yet predictable. The proportion of U.S. military deaths blamed on friendly fire has increased steadily since the Second World War.

Casualties in Afghanistan

Nobody knows how many thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. and allied forces. A recent Commonwealth report suggests that 1,300 civilians have died. Some European aid workers in the region cite figures closer to 8,000.

Similarly, casualty estimates vary widely for Afghanis fighting for the U.S.-led coalition. Non-Afghan coalition casualties are easier to assess. For a start, the numbers are far smaller. But media reports here also vary. The following tally averages figures for non-Afghan casualties published by several sources, including CNN, CBC, BBC and The Guardian:

  • 5 American soldiers died from enemy fire;
  • 11 Americans died in military aircraft crashes;
  • 4 Americans died in an accident involving firearms;
  • 9 Americans died as a result of friendly fire;
  • 4 Canadians died as a result of friendly fire; and
  • 1 New Zealander died as a result of friendly fire.

In sum, 41 per cent of non-Afghan coalition casualties have been caused by friendly fire. Around 44 per cent have died in accidents involving military hardware. That leaves just 15 per cent who have died by hostile fire.

Rise in Friendly Fire

The American War Library reports that 21 per cent of U.S. casualties in World War II — fatal and non-fatal — resulted from friendly fire. That figure rises to 39 per cent for the Vietnam War, and to 49 per cent for the Persian Gulf War.

The rising proportion of casualties caused by “friendly” versus hostile fire traces largely to technological advances in warfare methods. As guns and shields get fancier, any enemy has less chance of getting in a successful shot.

No one can compete directly with U.S. firepower at this point in world history. Who stands a chance against pilots gliding unseen, thousands of metres up, with arrays of smart bombs at their disposal? This hardware superiority means America and its allies suffer fewer deaths from enemy fire.

However, while the hardware has improved, the prowess of soldiers has not. Troops have been accidentally killing their own throughout the history of armed conflict. But the proportion of soldiers killed by friendly fire rises as fewer fall victim to the enemy.

Also, humans are not always accurate creatures. They make mistakes. They broadcast false co-ordinates. They freak out, assuming they’re under attack when they’re not. High-tech war machines, fed flawed information, will simply follow orders. You tell them to blow up a training area, and they will blow up a training area.

There was an terrifying instance in the Balkans conflict where a soldier had just replaced the batteries in his mobile enemy-locating device. He instructed base to target the co-ordinates flashing on his device — and the bomb came straight at him. The soldier forgot that the device, when loaded with fresh batteries, resets itself to show the co-ordinates of its own location.

There is a grotesque irony in all of this. As the United States, driven by a new war fervour, evolves from a military super-power into a military colossus, it will kill a growing number of soldiers and civilians who are considered enemies. At the same time, despite the swelling lethal accuracy of its hardware, it will also kill more and more of its own (and allied) soldiers.

Why? Because those tools are operated by people, and people make mistakes.