Deaths of Western hostages latest of ‘deadly mistakes’ in wartime

Two hostages – one American, one Italian – were killed by a CIA drone strike in January


WASHINGTON – Two years ago, President Barack Obama stood before a military audience and spoke of the “heartbreaking tragedy” of accidental civilian deaths caused by U.S. military strikes in the fight against terrorism in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Now, with news of the death of two Western hostages – one American, one Italian – in a CIA drone strike, the president has received a brutal reminder that every American commander in chief may have to face the loss of civilians as collateral damage in wartime.

“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” Obama said.

Military technology may grow ever more sophisticated, but there still is no surefire way to ensure innocents will not be caught in harm’s way, even by the most elite of U.S. forces.

In 2010, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 tried to rescue Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove from Taliban captors in Afghanistan. She was killed by a grenade thrown in haste by one of the American commandoes.

“Sometimes you get it wrong,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University. “There’s no way to have a perfectly clean war.”

He pointed to the U.S. prisoners of war killed in World War II when American submarines targeted Japanese cargo ships in the Pacific, some of which were transporting allied prisoners. More than 21,000 American POWs were killed or injured from “friendly fire” from American submarines or planes on what the survivors called “hell ships,” according to “Death on the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War,” by Gregory Michno.

At the war’s end, when the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, at least 10 American POWs being held there were among the 140,000 who were killed.

Speaking of the current U.S. drone program, Mansoor said that while civilians have died over the years, such losses have been dwarfed by the military benefits. Under the rules of war, he added, the potential gain from hitting a military target needs to be commensurate with the possibility of damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

In the case of the hostages killed when the CIA targeted an al-Qaida compound, Mansoor said, “It was simply incomplete information and you’re never going to have complete information. … There’s no way to completely excise these sorts of collateral damage incidents from military affairs.”

Instances of more typical “friendly fire,” in which U.S. forces have been killed by members of their own military, date to earliest days of the nation and stretch all the way to the modern battlefield, despite better training and the precision of the latest weapons.

In 1758, during the French and Indian War, a detachment of the British Army led by Col. George Washington got into a firefight with a fellow infantry unit that had arrived to offer assistance. At dusk on a foggy day, they apparently mistook each other for French forces, and at least 13 British troops were killed.

In the Civil War, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson died of pneumonia eight days after being hit by friendly fire during the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia.

Flash forward 150 years, and Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defence specialist at the Brookings Institution, said it’s inevitable that “if you try to use drones to kill terrorists, you’re going to sometimes hurt innocent people.”

He said the U.S. goes to great lengths to protect civilians, “but you’re never going to be 100 per cent certain.”

O’Hanlon said the U.S. had already begun limiting its use of armed drones in Pakistan because of Pakistani concerns and exaggerated claims of civilian casualties in that country.

“We’re already in that era of greater restraint,” O’Hanlon said

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Deaths of Western hostages latest of ‘deadly mistakes’ in wartime

  1. As usual a very superficial and shabby piece of journalism. WW1and2 and Korea and Vietnam had an unbelievable high rate of friendly fire deaths; a lot of them deliberately hidden ( who wants to tell a parent that their son got killed by your his own side); most though could not be proven in the heat of battle; also it was to time consuming and expensive to pursue them and it didn’t exactly fit propaganda purposes to do it either. The football player Pat Tillman I think was his name; there were tens of thousands of guys like him in the past. And don’t forget about desertion executions and what organizations like the Russian NKVD did to their own side; and other blocker and penal battalions and other self inflicted horror stories. Regarding civilian deaths, the bombing raids of Germany and Vietnam and Japan: we are talking big numbers of civilians; and massive war crime material that got buried under victors justice. On the opposite scale though, it is unbelievable how expensive it is to run a war today in the sense that many front line soldiers have to be backed up by massive good for nothing support people who watch and monitor their every move just to insure that some civilian out there does not get a scratch. I know one thing for sure if it was my son on the line my motto would be to shoot first and ask questions later at every single opportunity if push came to shove; military lawyers and waiting to pounce gutless journalists who are too cowardly to join up and fight are always great Monday morning quarterbacks. But it would be different if there son came home in a casket because he was hesitant to engage over the traditional game of journalistic guilt tripping. Better to be judged by 12 than buried by six.

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