The Impossible Search for the Perfect War

Over the years, many inventors have tried to create a perpetual-motion machine. The idea of a device that, once started, would run forever of its own accord with no external source of power was too great a challenge to resist. Such efforts always came to naught, however, because their inventors disregarded such obvious problems as those caused by friction.

Something comparable is taking place in the United States today with respect to warfare. Many Americans are apparently convinced that wars can be fought in such a way that no mistakes are made, everything goes according to plan and no one is killed or wounded. Unfortunately, they are searching for the equivalent of a perpetual-motion machine.

To explain why such a war is impossible, the 18th-century German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called upon a scientific concept: friction. As Clausewitz explained, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” An inability to comprehend the impact of such friction hasn’t inhibited the media in its coverage of today’s wars.

Because casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan are low in comparison with previous wars, every combat death is reported individually by the national press, and the causes are dissected and commented on in detail. The scrutiny is particularly sharp when the death results from so-called friendly fire.

Casualties accidentally inflicted on one’s own forces have been a fact of war for as long as war has existed. Ancient Greek and Roman histories contain numerous examples. The invention of firearms simply magnified the problem. In the chaos of the fierce battles of the Civil War and the two world wars, determining the cause of each casualty was impractical if not impossible. Estimates of casualties from friendly fire in those battles run in the thousands.

In those days, friendly fire was accepted more or less as an unavoidable cost of war. Because of today’s heightened sensibilities regarding casualties, every incident is investigated in the most detailed way, both by the military and the press. Media coverage is particularly detailed when individuals from more than one nation are involved, as is often the case with coalitions.

Recent examples include the bombing of Canadian troops by U.S. Air Force planes in Afghanistan and the shooting of an Italian intelligence officer at an American roadblock in Iraq.

Investigating such incidents with the object of finding how to prevent similar ones in the future makes good sense. Too frequently, however, various political agendas arise, and the search for information becomes a search for someone to blame. When that occurs, the results can have the opposite effect of that intended.

During my tours as an infantry officer in Vietnam, the units I was with experienced friendly fire on several occasions. One incident is particularly instructive.

One of the first things that a U.S. commander would do after establishing a defensive position for the night was to register artillery. That meant calling for practice rounds of artillery fire where you might need it if attacked, to ensure that it would be available with little or no delay. As an adviser to a Vietnamese marine battalion, I was surprised to find that my counterpart _ a Vietnamese officer who had much more combat experience than I _ refused to register artillery. His explanation was that doing so was “too dangerous.”

After repeated efforts on my part, he relented and agreed to try registration. In the days before handheld global positioning system devices, determining your location in heavy jungle was a tricky proposition, but we eventually agreed on where we thought we were. I called in a fire mission for a single round at what I estimated to be a safe distance from our perimeter. In a matter of minutes, we heard the sound of a shell crashing through the jungle canopy and exploding behind us instead of far to the front. No one was hurt, but that near-miss ended any hope I had of getting my counterpart to register artillery.

I reported the incident and left it at that. I had no desire to be killed by friendly fire, but neither did I want to be supported by an artillery unit that was so afraid of making a mistake that it would refuse to fire unless everything was perfect regardless of how urgently I needed their support.

That is the basic dilemma of friendly fire. In the process of trying to eliminate casualties from friendly fire, a crossover point can be reached beyond which casualties will be increased, not reduced. Because determining that point precisely is impossible, a certain amount of risk is involved.

In my case, I was willing to accept the risk of registering fire in order to reduce the risk if we had needed artillery fire in a hurry. My counterpart was not.

American commanders can never appear to be callous about casualties. Neither, however, can they afford to let uninformed public opinion about friendly fire force them to take steps that increase the overall risk of casualties instead of reducing it.

(Retired Marine Col. Theodore L. Gatchel is a military historian and a professor of operations at the U.S. Naval War College. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the Navy or the Department of Defense.)