The Libyan rebels are learning that “no-fly zone” can translate in practice into lethal onslaughts in which NATO planes have killed or wounded at least a score of their number. Civilians in Tripoli have also died in large numbers from aerial onslaughts by NATO planes. There's no evidence that the missions flown by NATO planes have been anything other than a plus for Gadhafi. As always, bombardment swiftly engenders loathing for the bombardiers. Relatives of the slain in Tripoli shake their fists at the sky; the rebels proclaim that they have been “betrayed” by their supposed protectors.
The tiny number of planes now deployed by France and Italy, after the Americans withdrew their attack aircraft and handed off the mission, displays the half-hearted nature of the intervention. (This could be the reason why the Pentagon is now saying that U.S. aircraft are again flying missions over Libya.)
As the leader of the A-10 design team, Pierre Sprey, points out to me, “Thirty-three French and 17 British planes is a laughably miniscule force — the inevitable consequence of designing and buying $100 million hyper-complex fighters. In October of 1935, the Italians deployed 595 airplanes to launch their gallant invasion of Ethiopia.”
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The deputy commander of NATO's operation in Libya caused further outrage among the rebels by bluffly refusing to say he was sorry for the screwups.
Rear Admiral Russ Harding, a British officer, said: “It would appear that two of our strikes yesterday may have resulted in (rebel) deaths. … I am not apologising. The situation on the ground was and remains extremely fluid and until yesterday we did not have information that (rebel) forces are using tanks.”
It turns out that “friendly fire” is one of the big killers. An amazing essay on friendly fire by Lt. Col. Michael J. Davidson ran in the Naval War College Review this last winter. Davidson was chiefly concerned with the performance (lamentable) of the military justice system in connection with episodes of friendly fire, which he defines as the accidental killing in a combat setting of one soldier by another of the same or an allied force.”
He notes that the concept of friendly fire is similar in many respects to the accidental killing of civilians, but such accidental killings appear to be treated differently and are often referred to as “civilian casualties” or by more sterile terms like “collateral damage”.
The colonel adds dryly: “Reported cases of courts-martial involving the accidental deaths of civilians are rare.” He notes: “The most famous court-martial involving an accidental attack on civilians occurred during World War II, and its fame was generated less by the nature of the alleged misconduct than by the identity of the president of the court — a movie star, Colonel Jimmy Stewart.”
Davidson cites some numbers that could swiftly instruct the Libyan rebels that the deaths of their comrades at the hands of NATO planes is nothing out of the ordinary: “The number of casualties (i.e., killed and wounded) associated with friendly fire has often been stunning. One French general estimated that approximately 75,000 French casualties in World War I were caused by French artillery fire. An estimated 5 percent of (U.S.) Vietnam casualties were attributed to friendly fire. During the first Persian Gulf War, Operation DESERT STORM, 23-24 percent of U.S. fatalities and 77 percent of American vehicle losses were attributed to friendly fire.”
Another military scholar, Kenneth K. Steinweg, wrote a paper called “Dealing Realistically with Fratricide” (Parameters, Spring 1995), estimating that 10 to 15 percent of U.S. casualties during the 20th century were caused by friendly fire, which equates to between 177,000 and 250,000 casualties.
Historical examples of friendly fire are so prevalent as to be characterized as normal rather than exceptional. In some cases, friendly fire was the result of inexperience and inadequate training.
For example, in 1643, during the English Civil War, poorly trained and inexperienced parliamentary infantry organized in three lines attacked a heavily fortified building held by royalist troops. Instead of the forward line firing first and then retiring to the rear to reload while the next line in turn fired, all three fired simultaneously, effectively eliminating the front rank.
A particularly bitter case came right at the end of World War II when RAF pilots flying Typhoons attacked four German ships in the Bay of Lubeck in the Baltic Sea, believing them to be carrying escaping SS officers.
The Typhoons sank the ships, and then, under orders to spare no one, spent an hour strafing the survivors in the water, only to find later that they had machine-gunned about 10,000 Jews from the Neuengamme Camp in northern Germany.