That Whole Rigamarole

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Fog of War

I've been meaning for the longest time to post on the matter the possible court-martial of Majors Schmidt and Umbach of the Illinois Air National Guard. There really is no good end that can come out of this tragic mistake, but I've found some of the statements curious. There is a viewpoint out there that the defendants should not have been so much as subjected to an Article 32 hearing. I don't think it's realistic to expect that an incident in which allied forces are killed is going to be handled in an entirely administrative manner. That would have damaged the credibility of the Air Force, and suggested that they are not serious about examining their operations. There are plenty of people around with doubts about the military justice system, and not investigating this incident would reinforce those doubts.

I have heard some people express the sentiment that this honest mistake should not be turned into an occasion to end the careers of these men. I'm pretty sure their military flying careers are effectively over no matter what course the matter takes. But I also think we owe the families of the dead Canadian infantrymen a trial. I've also read the argument that this is a political exercise, because most friendly fire incidents don't receive this level of scrutiny. That's probably true, but then again most such incidents don't feature someone disregarding a direct warning to hold fire. To me that is the feature of this incident that almost mandates a court-martial.

I also have a little theory about how the court-martial is being set up. I think the potential defendants are being "over-charged." The most serious charge is involuntary manslaughter. If I understand the definitions correctly, the prosecution will have to show "culpable negligence." That seems as though it will be difficult to establish. A more appropriate charge might be negligent homicide. The punishments available for a conviction on that charge are still pretty steep, and it would seem much easier to prove. My little theory is that these pilots, and the Marine aviators who knocked down the cable car in Italy, were charged as they were precisely to enable their acquittals. In the Marines' case, I believe that I heard they went out and flew their low-level route without knowing the airspeed restrictions on the route. That seems like simple negligence to me, but the court saw it differently. In this Afghanistan case, there are a couple of elements that strike me as negligent. One is the aforementioned disregard of the AWACS call. The other is the decision to attack this target instead of simply flying away. My understanding is that the F-16s observed small arms fire. That is not much of a threat to a modern high-performance fighter aircraft. Infantrymen are generally taught to engage aircraft with small arms only if the aircraft is attacking them directly, because infantry weapons are not very effective against aircraft. "Leave him alone, and maybe he'll go away" is the best approach when aircraft are about and one has no anti-aircraft weapons.

To sum up, the publically available information on this incident is such that I think a court-martial is definitely warranted. I don't think I'm pre-judging these men, but there are bigger issues at stake than their careers.


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