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