As the US moves closer to war with Iraq, a tragic episode in
Afghanistan eight months ago sets the scene for what could be some
of the toughest issues the American military may have to deal with.
Last April, two Illinois National Guard pilots on active duty
flying F-16 jets with the Air Force accidentally bombed Canadian
infantry soldiers conducting a night exercise near Kandahar, killing
four and wounding eight.
They have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault,
and dereliction of duty, charges that could mean up to 64 years in
prison. The military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding,
determining whether they should be court martialed, begins next week
at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
The specifics of the case are fairly clear-cut. Headed back to
base from a long but uneventful mission, the two pilots - Maj. Bill
Umbach and Maj. Harry Schmidt - thought they saw enemy fire coming
their way. Major Schmidt rolled in on the target, dropping a laser-
guided 500-pound bomb that landed just three feet from a Canadian
machine-gun crew. A Pentagon investigation determined that both
pilots (Major Umbach was the senior of the two) exhibited "reckless"
behavior and violated rules of engagement in not getting permission
to fire from air controllers who - a moment too late - warned that
"Kandahar has friendlies."
But the broader issues are more difficult:
* The Air Force policy of issuing amphetamines to pilots flying
repeated long-range, exhausting missions. Both pilots had taken the
drug an hour before the accident. Many Air Force pilots in
Afghanistan take these "go pills," as was the case during the Gulf
War, despite the dangers of addiction and such adverse side effects
as aggressiveness and paranoia. Air Force officials say the pills
are taken voluntarily and in small, safe doses.
* What seem to be increasing incidents of allied deaths and
injuries caused by "friendly fire." Nearly a quarter of the US and
allied casualties in the Gulf War were from friendly fire, and there
have been several such instances in Afghanistan.
* The balance between encouraging individual initiative on the
battlefield by US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines versus
rashness and overaggression. Some officers, as well as military
reformers, say there needs to be more such initiative. Making one
mistake, however, can quickly end one's career.
* A military justice system that critics say sometimes focuses on
lower-level officers and enlisted men and women without addressing
such things as the command environment or the "rules of engagement"
made by those higher up the chain of command.
Focus of investigation
"There's a raft of issues here that go beyond the factual," says
Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who now heads the National
Institute of Military Justice in Washington. …