Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Bring back the Nimitz standard

In case you don't read the British press; I thought I would bring to your attention what is above the fold news right now.
The Pentagon refused last night to take any further disciplinary action against the US pilots whose "friendly fire" attack on British tanks in the Iraq war killed a soldier and wounded four others.

Despite the leaking of graphic cockpit video and voice transcript evidence of the 2003 strike, Washington said the officers were cleared in an inquiry held within months. It did not have to re-evaluate its position.

But, faced with a public relations disaster, it agreed officially to hand over the evidence for the inquest into the death of L/Cpl of Horse Matty Hull on condition that it was seen only by his family and by the Oxford assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker.
The Sun, The Guardian, Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Evening Standard, The Independent, The Times, The Telegraph; they all are covering the issue.
“We’re in jail, dude,” is the unforgettable line from the cockpit video that appears to show the “friendly-fire” attack that killed Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull.

This was a mistake that should never have happened. It is not among the few cases, these days, that might be justified by the “fog of war”.

All the same, after watching the video, many will sympathise with the pilots of the two US A10 aircraft that fired on the British convoy near Basra. As they realise what they’ve done, the recording breaks up into anguished swearing; they could not be more stricken or berate themselves more harshly.

The same cannot be said of the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon.

The MoD told Lance Corporal Hull’s family that some classified material could not be released to the inquest, but did not reveal the existence of the recording. It then said that it could not release the tape without authorisation of the US military. But the Pentagon refused to give the video to the family, saying that only the MoD had clearance to see it.
British officials have rushed to say that they tried to persuade the US to release the tape to the family, but it would not. The MoD said yesterday that it had not intended to deceive the family by withholding its knowledge of the recording, but this is disingenuous; it hardly helped them. The leak is an embarrassment to the British Government, which went along too quietly with the US stonewalling.

The US can legally refuse to have the pilots give evidence at the inquest, but it has a harder job morally explaining its refusal to help an ally when it had important facts to hand.

The US Embassy in London added farce to that insult yesterday when it said that the US was “considering declassifying” the video, which has now been seen around the world.
We owe the British better, I think. I am not going to Fisk or do my usual snarking on this. This is a serious and sad event - but one that is not uncommon. There are some things to keep in mind here; the fog of war, situational awareness, comehomeitis, seeing what you think/want to be be there - not what is. Roll that into the time compression that takes place in combat. A few minutes can make all the difference; as a pointy-nose guy, I am sure Lex could explain in better detail the fact that 5 minutes on tape feels like 15 seconds while you are there - and 15 seconds feels like 5 minutes. All that being said - these things happen. Humans are not perfect.

This is a dangerous line of work and good people - very good people - can make a mistake. I don't fault the two A-10 pilots per se. Sure you can Monday AM quarterback them - but you shouldn't - and I won't. There is an issue though about holding people accountable and doing justice to those killed - even in an accident.

This can be difficult to watch, but you can watch the cockpit video here, and read the transcript here.

So, you ask - what does Fleet Admiral Nimitz of WWII fame have to do with all this? Recall that at one time, a Courts Martial could take place and not be the automatic career and savings killer.
Nimitz as a 22-year-old Ensign was given command of an old destroyer, USS DECATUR. Out-of-commission for some time, crew and armament assembled in only two days, and with only sketchy charts of the Philippine water, the young naval officer ran the ship aground on a mud bank. The future Fleet Admiral received a court-martial for "hazarding" a ship of the U.S. Navy.
Should we look again as to what should get a full airing and what should not? If there was a Courts Martial in this case, would the British public feel that the U.S. had done the right thing? Probably. Do they think we have now - no.

Some cases, especially in an age of Coalition Warfare and media, it is best for all to let things get a full airing out - to avoid a three year echo of damage because the impression, wrong or not, it out there that makes it look like no one is being held accountable.
A US Air Force Brigadier General did conduct an inquiry behind closed doors into what went wrong. Its findings were never released. But The Sun has learned that Skeeter and his wingman were cleared of any wrongdoing, with neither pilot being court martialled.

Oh, and for Skippy - the Page 3 girls are here (actually, Skippy has the professional background to comment here as well).

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