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May-05-2010 14:50printcomments

Eroding a Nation's Will to Fight

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse" - British philosopher John Stuart Mill

Wiltshire Coroner David Masters
Wiltshire Coroner David Masters Courtesy: Afghanistan photos by Tim King

(ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.) - I noticed a recent verdict by the UK’s Wiltshire Coroner David Masters regarding the deaths by friendly fire of three British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Coroner Masters correctly noted that the deaths were caused by friendly fire as a result of a British Forward Air Controller (FAC) who gave the American F-15 the wrong coordinate locations for dropping a 500 pound bomb. The bomb was dropped, mistakenly, in among the British soldiers causing the three deaths and the injury of others.

Sadly, in war and battle, these things occur and will continue to do so in the future. It is not necessarily because of human error or faulty equipment (although they can be contributing factors) but rather the incredibly inherent violence of war itself. It is this concept that I find lacking in recommendations made by Coroner Masters as a result of this incident.

Coroner Masters has a legal background and is, I believe, an attorney. He has made recommendations to the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) that have very little legitimate reality for the soldiers on the ground who are engaged in the hell of daily combat with a determined, well-armed enemy. Nicely worded phrases, drafted in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside, do not translate to common sense on the ground in Helmand Province.

For example, Coroner Masters recommended that each FAC be issued with headsets so that the communications between FAC and pilot not be interrupted by the noise of battle. While this recommendation has apparent merit inside the Coroner’s Office building, I submit that the overwhelming din of battle is not really subdued by the donning of a headset.

Coroner Masters also does not appreciate that there is a significant loss of situational awareness when a fighting soldier dons a headset in battle. The FAC is quite possibly more likely to make more mistakes than not as a result of a reduction in sensory awareness during an intense firefight.

English military deployed in Afghanistan, photos by Tim King

Coroner Masters does not fully understand the environment in which the British soldier has to do his job when engaged with enemy combatants. While Coroner Masters may make a suggestion as to better timing on a cross walk to the local council, he is out of his depth when making recommendations to the Ministry of Defense.

For example, Coroner Master suggested that two FACs be used when conducting combat operations to ensure that mistakes not be made in reporting coordinates to pilots. Again, reality on the ground is that there are barely enough trained FACs and equipment to support one FAC per infantry unit. Would the good Coroner care to leave his office and help the FAC team carry the batteries needed to operate the Ground to Air radios? I think not because the Coroner has no idea what his recommendation means to the reality of the fighting British Soldier.

The main reason for my negative comments regarding the absurd recommendations made by Coroner Masters is that his actions are symptomatic of a malaise that is common when counties become engaged in protracted warfare of an insurgent nature. British people will read Coroner Masters recommendations and believe that they can be implemented because Coroner Masters has a position of authority as a Coroner. His recommendations therefore carry an aura of merit when in reality they will not work for the British fighting soldier.

As warfare continues into the future a foundation is laid that begins to undermine the legitimacy of the conflict. Doubts are placed in the minds of members of the pubic who are under the impression that the Coroner may actually know what he is talking about when making recommendations to the MOD.

As this malaise of misunderstanding builds over time, there will be a swell of discontent of public opinion against the conflict, partly fueled by misconceptions created in recommendations such as those made by people like Coroner Masters.

Eventually this leads to political and public pressure being put on the MOD to limit the actions of soldiers on the ground in a specific conflict. To relieve the pressure from the public and politicians, MOD will begin to issue restrictive Rule of Engagement (ROE).

The ultimate example of this situation occurred when America was fighting the war in Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder was a campaign designed to bomb critical infrastructure in North Vietnam. However, the ROE of Rolling Thunder prohibited the use of B-52 bombers because civilian authorities were mistakenly of the opinion that their use may have caused Russia or China to join the conflict.

British forces deployed in Afghanistan, photos by Tim King

Other aspects of the ROE were complex, excessively restrictive and confusing. The eventual outcome was that North Vietnam exploited the restrictions of the ROE and was able to build a significant Surface to Air Missile (SAM) defense system. US Civilian authorities had determined that attacking SAM sites was a violation of ROE as they were often near populated areas!

We now know that had the US been able to use B-52 bombers in an unrestricted role, the North Vietnamese military and industrial capacity would have been diminished to the point of not being able to maintain combat operations in South Vietnam. There are even opinions among historians on the Vietnam War that the use of B-52 bombers would have forced the North Vietnamese to quit the war altogether.

Our young soldiers wage a very violent and destructive conflict against an enemy determined to destroy both our culture and existence. We have to maintain conflict against these insurgents in overseas locations in order to not have them detonating suicide bombs in the parking lots of Sainsburys and Wal-Mart in our home countries. This is the reality of the current conflict and a potential future for many years. Losses by friendly fire will be a small but unfortunate part of this reality.

But for Coroner Masters and those of his ilk I will leave you with the wise words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.

========================================= has a wide variety of contributing writers, but the most common thread may be issues related to veterans, and specifically, issues related to the Marine Corps. David Bedworth was the tenth former Marine to join the writing team, and we are happy to welcome this former Lieutenant Colonel to our ranks. A disabling encounter with prostate and brain cancer have put David in a situation where he cannot work and has limited abilities as a result of treatment. However, brain surgery seems to have stimulated a long dormant creative surge in literature, music and poetry.

Dave is monitoring a number of ill veterans and family members who were exposed to contaminants at the Marine Corps Base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. This is a subject that has paid serious attention to for years, that we are increasing our coverage of at this point. Dave's joining our team will amplify our ability to pay more attention to Camp Lejeune, since our writers have concentrated primarily on exposing the contamination at MCAS El Toro, and we could not be more happy about it. You can write to Dave Bedworth at:

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.