November 9, 2005
Friendly FireBy Frederick J. Chiaventone
Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz has issued an international warrant for the arrest of three American soldiers whose tank fire killed a Spanish journalist and his Ukranian cameraman during the assault on Baghdad. Pedraz issued the warrant for the arrest of Lieutenant Colonel Philip de Camp, Captain Philip Wolford, and Sergeant Shawn Gibson. At the time of the incident in question all of them were assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division of Fort Stewart, Georgia. The U.S. military and the court system have not responded. It'll never happen.
It is a sad fact that journalists lost their lives during the campaign in Iraq but this was not unexpected by the news agencies and it is hardly unavoidable whenever reporters cover a war zone. To be rather blunt, it is the cost of doing business. Most American—based and European news organizations understand this. Some folks still can't do the math.
During the final push on Baghdad there was considerable upset in the media over the deaths of Reuters news cameraman Mazen Dana, Spain's correspondent Jose Couso, and his Ukranian cameraman Taras Portsyuk at the Palestine Hotel when they were fired on by an American tank. There is no disputing that the tank fired the rounds in question as, in the case of Couso and Portsyuk, there were any number of witnesses and, in videotape of the incident, the American tank is clearly seen on the bridge in Baghdad revolving its turret and firing in the direction of the camera.
Journalists were indeed killed and injured when that tank fired.
None of these facts are in doubt but it helps to know that these were not deliberate assaults on journalists but tragic and understandable accidents of war. At worst these are examples of the strangely named 'friendly fire.' Despite the insistence of journalists (or their survivors) who feel that, perhaps having been shot at by Israeli troops in the Middle East, that American soldiers likewise deliberately target reporters the notion is patently absurd.
While teaching Media and Military relations at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College I had occasion to show to my students two photographs — one photograph was of a television journalist aiming a camera, the other of a man aiming a shoulder—mounted anti—tank missile of Soviet manufacture. To my students, all experienced officers of many years service and representing not only the United States but a number of other nations, the photos were virtually indistinguishable. It was a sobering experience for them.
Knowing that television cameras have become more and more a ubiquitous aspect of the modern battlefield it must be expected that there will be serious errors made. Unfortunately, when a television camera is turned on, a small red light called a 'tally light' generally lights up on the front of the camera. When soldiers are exposed or under fire and scanning for a target, a red light tends to attract the eye — and by extension, the fire control system. When the object seen through a tank's sights look remarkably like an anti—tank rocket, the immediate reaction is one of self—preservation. It is only a natural instinct.
A reporter located at the Palestine Hotel and interviewed by Charlie Rose after the incident was stunned by the deaths and noted with incredulity that there were 'obviously' no weapons pointed from the hotel at the tanks on the bridge.
And so it would seem...to him.
I suspect that the view from a tank's turret, exposed on a bridge in an urban setting during a firefight was rather less sanguine.
Not only do mistakes happen, but sometimes they are perfectly understandable. While there was not a heavy firefight in progress in the immediate vicinity of the reporters' deaths there is no debate that scores of American soldiers had suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves under heavy fire in what to that point had seemed benign surroundings — such as at the university in Bagdhad. The impulse of the tank gunner — usually a nineteen year—old man —— to squeeze the trigger on a figure pointing a large, shoulder mounted device on which a red light has just flashed is, at the very least, understandable — it is a reflex generated by the self—preservation instinct. Civilian police officers in the United States have all too frequently killed someone carrying what they thought was a gun — it happens. In combat, when someone points a large sinister object at you, you either react quickly or you die — it's that simple.
The world lost a number of dedicated, engaged journalists over the course of the war in Iraq — people like David Bloom, Michael Kelly, Mazen Dana, Jose Couros, and Taras Portsyuk just to name a few — and they and their insights and observations will be missed. Over the coming weeks and months it is quite possible that other news gatherers will join the ranks of the fallen — either through accident, hostile action, or even 'friendly fire.' But there should be no doubt that their deaths or injuries will not be inflicted with malice aforethought by U.S. or coalition forces.
The words which opened this article were uttered by General Irvin MacDowell on the eve of the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. A cynical man at the best of times, MacDowell's sarcasm was entirely lost on future generations of war reporters. In 1983 an editor for Time Magazine cited MacDowell's 'magnanimous attitude' as an indication of how far Military—Media relations had deteriorated since the Civil War.
What the high—minded editors of Time failed to realize was the fact that MacDowell knew full well that on a battlefield of the Civil War a 'white uniform' quickly attracted the eye.....and hostile fire.
We've come a long way since Bull Run and an unfortunate accident of war should not prove an excuse to turn back the advances made by both the military and the media in covering the wars. The antics of such grandstanders as Judge Pedraz should be considered for what they truly are — nonsense. Unfortunately it is doubtful that the media at large will spend much time examining the hard truths of the case. As a friend of mine was quite find of reminding me — people are remarkably adept at not finding out what they don't want to know.
Frederick J. Chiaventone is anovelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer , who taught International Security Affairs at the US Army's Command and General Staff College.