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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 12:22 GMT
How does it feel to kill a comrade?
Reconstruction of D-Day landings

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The media are quick to seize on episodes of "friendly fire", as in the recent case of Matty Hull, a British soldier killed by US comrades in Iraq. But what is the effect on those responsible?

Imagine being deep in the jungle looking for the enemy when six shadowy figures materialise in front of you.

Open fire and you'll wipe out this enemy patrol before they know what hit them. It almost seems too good to be true. You hesitate and one of the enemy turns round to reveal a familiar face.

Military analyst Major Charles Heyman was in exactly this position while on active service in Borneo.

"The other patrol was in a place where they shouldn't be. They wandered into our killing zone. Luckily I had a feeling it was too good to be true.

To know inadvertently you have killed your own buddy, your own colleague, your own countryman is a massive psychological horror
Dr Joseph Mancusi
Combat stress expert

"Somebody less experienced than me would have opened fire and wiped the whole lot out. When you are in that situation, when you are about to open fire, your senses are heightened. If you get it wrong, you die."

Sympathy for the American A-10 pilots who killed Matty Hull has been in short supply in the past few weeks. This has not been helped by America's refusal to send witnesses to the inquest, but one tabloid columnist went so far as to label the incident "murder".

But the now notorious cockpit tape showed men so appalled by the mistake they had made they were left nauseous and tearful.

Dr Joseph Mancusi, a former head of psychology at the US Veterans' Administration and an American Psychological Association expert on combat stress, knows there is often little sympathy from those with no experience of military life and life-and-death decisions.

Infantry melee

"The fact friendly fire is inevitable is not understood by the public and the press has a terrible understanding of these things.

"Friendly fire is perhaps the greatest horror and fear of war. To know inadvertently you have killed your own buddy, your own colleague, your own countryman is a massive psychological horror. It strikes at your own belief system. You ask 'what did I do wrong?'.

"Anyone who has experienced a car accident that you knew was basically your fault, you can be haunted the rest of your life. It is much worse for soldiers."

Soldiers on a landing craft during the D-day landings
Military historians believe there were many friendly fire incidents at D-Day

While it is hard to gauge the changes in the numbers of incidents of friendly fire, the nature of friendly fire has changed.

Historically these incidents have happened in the melee as infantry clashed or were inflicted by far-away artillery. Now friendly fire can be delivered from the air with everything recorded on videotape.

Dr Mancusi says "psychological distance" is now lacking. Instead of the confusion of the past, those involved in the incidents now have to confront what they have done, sometimes immediately.

"It is very important for human beings to deny. The lack of deniability means that you are going to be even more depressed and anxious."

Esprit de corps

Some in the British and American military prefer "fratricide" to "friendly fire". And the most painful aspect of the phenomenon is wrapped up in the terminology, the killing of a brother.

From the day a recruit joins up, the emphasis is on creating esprit de corps, a belief in the unit and a willingness to defend colleagues to the death. Without this, armies cannot function.

"You have performed the work of the enemy. Through your lack of training, through your distractibility, you have killed one of your own," Dr Mancusi notes.

Helicopter hovers above a carrier in the Falklands War
Even those who have not killed comrades can suffer survivors' guilt

"This is like a mother killing their own child. You fight for common values. It is totally like a family.

"Veterans are more concerned with the boys that didn't make it than the leg they lost. That part of military life is almost impossible for regular people who don't do that to understand."

For soldiers who would risk their lives to retrieve a body, killing a comrade is the unthinkable. The spirit is carried in the creed of the US Rangers.

"I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country."

Dr Mancusi, who saw Vietnam veterans broken by their experiences, says many of those responsible for friendly fire deaths will never recover without help.

"It is almost impossible for people who know it was them to live the rest of their life in a genuine sense of peace. In order to handle it, those people often drink, often engage in drug abuse, never achieve their real potential.

"The military has always underplayed the amount of stress that has gone on. During the Vietnam war officers did not report any stress for fear of being booted out of the military as a result."

You begin to doubt your professionalism, you wonder how you could have reacted differently
Peter Caddick-Adams
Military historian

But it is not easy to offer conventional counselling to those in the military, Maj Heyman believes.

"You can't counsel people on the battlefield. Generally speaking, soldiers don't like counsellors."

Military historian Peter Caddick-Adams, who served in Bosnia, says there has always been some form of counselling available in the British military.

"Informal counselling has always been there through regimental padres. Every battalion or ship or squadron has always had their confessor on hand.

"Quite often their primary role would have been to minister to those who have doubts about what they are doing.

"Now there is formal counselling. That is a step forward."

Napalm attack in Vietnam
The nature of the fighting in Vietnam meant comrade often accidentally killed comrade

Dr Mancusi chose to set up local centres for veterans, which often employed psychologists and counsellors who had themselves fought in Vietnam. The effect was dramatic.

"In my therapy they would be crying, reliving it with other men who were veterans who could tell them 'things like this happen, it was not intentional'."

One of the psychological obstacles now is the massive public attention that can be focused on any incident.

"In a blame culture someone is likely to get the rap if someone is killed," Mr Caddick-Adams adds. "In World War II it was known about, but you didn't publicise it."

"Those who have been guilty of a friendly fire incident usually don't get sacked or demoted but they are quietly moved. In today's blame culture you want a head on a plate."

Send us your comments using the form below.

I thought how humane it was of Matty Hull's wife to offer words of forgiveness to to the US pilots. Civilised society should know that War is horrific and part of that horror must be the potential for accident or human error. I also thought it might be a good idea for Matty Hull's wife to be given the opportunity to offer her words of forgiveness to the US pilots in person to perhaps give them all some peace.
William Randell, Leicester

I totally agree that the media should not try and place blame or judge people in a world which few understand. The military is a totally separate world to civillian life and should be kept that way.
Theodore Floyd, Truro Cornwall

The British press feelings against the war in Iraq has been obvious in its coverage of the freindly fire deaths. Freindly fire deaths happen in every conclict in history and will in the future.
Jerry, Carmel, USA

It's hard to feel sympathy for Matty Hull's killers when they hide behind their government and remain anonymous. If they are sorry, they should have the guts to apologise to his family in person.
David, Ely

You can not expect soldiers to go out and fight our wars and then destroy them when mistakes happen in such highly stressful situations. Surely it is down to the higher ranking officers to ensure plans are followed correctly and not the guy that pulls the trigger. After all, they are taught to follow orders without question. This does not mean that there should be no responsibility on each soldier to do their very best, but cruel accidents are surely a part of war where the outcome is life or death.
Lourdes, London

I understand that mistakes can and are made in the heat of battle when split second reactions are needed. However, I have difficulty in understanding, given the technology available these days, how a plane can attack/bomb their comrades especially since a split second reaction is not usually necessary therefore allowing more time to assess the situation.
Gerry Cunningham, Aberdeen, Scotland

Matty Hull's widow was extremely courageous and generous in saying that she hopes the men responsible for her husband's death can now put it behind them - not forget, but move on - and live out their lives in peace doing something worthwhile for the world. If she can find it in her heart to say that, then I believe those men ought to heed her words, and try to do just that. There's nothing to be gained by hating or reviling them: they had no intention of doing what they did, and are certainly unlikely to make a similarly tragic bad judgement call in the future.
Susie, Turriff, Scotland

It is a difficult and awful position to be in. One which many commenters here will have had no experience (myself included). I doubt very much that the pilots involved have been going round telling everyone how wonderful it feels to do what they did. The one person to show absolute courage and dignity in this matter is Matty Hull's wife. If the world were full of more like her maybe we could avoid war altogether. An amazing lady.
Pete, Kingswinford

One needs to remember that soldiers are not trained based on democratic principles. They are trained to follow orders from superiors who they are to consider infallible. Those superiors are only human and will, unfortunately, invariably make mistakes themselves. Although modern technology has reduced the occurrences of friendly fire, it will never disappear, and we need to support those unfortunate soldiers who receive the wrong orders instead of criticizing them. How a government responds to such an incident is not necessarily representative of the feelings or views of those soldiers.
David, Vienna, Austria

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