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Book Reviews

Friendly Fire: The Untold Story Of The Us Bombing That Killed Four Canadian Soldiers In Afghanistan 

by Michael Friscolanti 

Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons, 2005
ISBN 0-470-83686-5
591 pages, $36.99 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Colonel Chris R. Shelley

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Book coverAs the Canadian military campaign in Afghanistan continues to produce casualties, including a second ‘friendly fire’ incident, one might assume that some of the impact of Michael Friscolanti’s book would be diminished. This is not the case. Anyone who has been involved with a board of inquiry, or who has dealt with the next-of-kin of military personnel killed in an accident, will recognize the personal dynamics at play in Friscolanti’s account of this tragic event and its aftermath. The title certainly represents truth in advertising, for the book tells far more of that unfortunate event, and in greater detail, than what appeared in the press. Making extensive use of the various inquiries into the bombing, along with information gathered in personal interviews with the protagonists and the families of the victims, Friscolanti succeeds in putting a human face on the affair. As a journalist without any particular background in military affairs, he comes at the story from a fresh point of view, with a feel for the human dimensions of this tragedy. The result is a compelling read.

Previously a reporter for the National Post, Michael Friscolanti is now a senior writer with Maclean’s magazine. A graduate of Lakehead University and the Ryerson School of Journalism’s graduate program, he was an editor at Ryerson’s student newspaper The Eyeopener, where he won a Canadian Association of Journalists award for student journalism. It should be no surprise, then, that his approach to writing the book is that of a journalist, “to tell the story, and let the readers draw their own conclusions... only years later, when I started to piece together this book, did I realize just how much of this story has yet to be told.”

Simply put, the story that he relates concerns the events surrounding how four Canadian soldiers were killed, and eight injured, by a bomb dropped on them by a formation of two US Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft on the night of 17 April 2002, while Canadian Forces soldiers were conducting a night shoot in the Tarnak Farms training area near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

That a bomb dropped by friendly forces should cause the first four fatal causalities of Canada’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan was a tremendous shock to Canadians. News coverage of the event and its aftermath was extensive. Friscolanti sifted through tens of thousands of words from official reports, and conducted numerous in-depth interviews with survivors, the families involved, the investigators, and the two F-16 pilots who conducted the attack – as well as their legal defence teams – to put together a story that makes gripping reading. These deaths were the first four of many that have followed to date, including some from a further ‘friendly fire’ incident in 2006. While Canadians may have become somewhat inured to the steady parade of losses, it is not easy to forget the shock that attended the loss of those first four at the hands of an ally.

The book proceeds in chronological order from that fateful night at Tarnak Farms, through the conduct of the inquiries and hearings, to the final interviews between the author and the pilots. Written in the present tense, and making liberal use of quoted dialogue from reports and interviews, the style is very much journalistic, placing the reader at the scene of the action throughout. While at times the text verges on the banal, in the style of the ‘adventures in real life’ genre well known to Readers Digest fans, the material is gripping enough to keep the reader engaged as the story unfolds.

Friscolanti does an excellent job of explaining military jargon and procedures, so that even a reader unfamiliar with military terms and the lexicon of battlefield airspace control measures can understand the complicated issues involved. While occasionally slipping up, (calling a C8 a ‘machine-gun,’ for example), Friscolanti displays an admirable facility for laying out how all the ‘bits and pieces’ of the military command and control structure in theatre worked, or failed to work. The elaboration of the shortcoming of the Airspace Control Order, Special Instructions (SPINS) and other control measures, so familiar to those of us who have flown in operational theatres, is well presented for the reader’s comprehension. The excerpts from the official investigations, combined with the statements he obtained from the persons involved, lead the reader to a clear understanding of what occurred that night when Major Harry Schmidt, USAF, dropped the bomb that killed the four Canadian soldiers.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one gains the illusion of understanding. The military investigations present an unambiguous case of two pilots, who, after flying long, boring missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the ground fire at Tarnak Farms as their chance to finally get into the war. Invoking self-defence as an excuse to circumvent the Rules of Engagement that prevented them from engaging what they perceived to be a legitimate ground target, they dropped a bomb on their Canadian allies. However, understanding dissolves at the Article 32 hearing conducted by the US Air Force to decide whether to proceed with charges against the pilots. The high-powered lawyers of the defence team do their best to confuse the issues, deflect responsibility from their clients and generally blame anyone but the pilots for killing the Canadians. Apart from the obfuscation of the lawyers, the military judge saw a clear legal problem with the charges: the pilots intended to kill their target, and therefore they could not likely be found guilty of negligent homicide. Rather, they could be more properly charged with murder, a charge the US Air Force was not willing to bring against pilots in time of war. The outcome generally satisfies no one: not the families, not the US Air Force, and not the pilots.

Friscolanti purports not to have taken any particular side as he chronicles what he terms, “the story of that mistake...I draw no conclusions, nor do I pass any judgement.” Notwithstanding this assertion, Friscolanti had to choose from thousands of pages of testimony and hundreds of hours of interviews for the material he used in the book, and what he did use ends up as complimentary for some and damning for others. The human parade passes before the reader. Some are either praised or blamed, according to their nature, and how they reacted to the stresses of the situation. A few relatives of the victims became obsessed with financial compensation, while others presented a more noble public face to honour their lost sons or lovers. Of the two pilots, only Major Umbach, the flight leader, seems to find a kind of redemption through making an unreserved apology to the families at the end of the Article 32 hearing. As for the other pilot – a Hollywood screenwriter could not have created a more stereotypical ‘Top Gun’ than Major Harry ‘Psycho’ Schmidt. The pilot who actually dropped the bomb, he escalates from one increasingly bizarre justification for his action to another, and he remains obstinately unrepentant to the end. The letter of reprimand Major Schmidt received from US Air Force General Mosely is a classic – it is worth buying the book just to read it. A more stunning denunciation would be harder to find. Schmidt never truly apologized, unlike Umbach, and he never saw the requirement. He comes across as arrogant, incapable of remorse, and forever unredeemed.

The result is both disturbing and unsatisfying. But life is often that way, and if that is what Friscolanti aimed to present – he succeeded. Friendly Fire should be on the reading list of every military professional.

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Colonel Shelley, a tactical helicopter pilot, is currently Director of Flight Safety for the Canadian Forces.