Last quarter we had a long discussion in class about civilian casualties and the risk of creating more insurgents. We also talked about the cold-blooded dimension of droning and air bombing. As a way of continuing and widening our debate on the subject, I decided to include the following piece on the blog. It was written by a friend of mine who serves as combat pilot in the Royal Air Force. He describes his own experience and evokes the ethical dilemmas that combat pilots inevitably come across when fighting the “War on Terror.” It is very personal, very intense, and I really enjoyed reading it. I hope you will too.
“As an operator at the sharp end myself, I see other events that also force focus. On the evening of 28th January 2010, I led a pair of GR4s to support a combined SBS & SAS “soft knock.” Two squadrons, nearly 200 men, 4 Chinook transport helicopters, 2 Apache attack helicopters, a Commando Sea King helicopter with a high powered infrared camera, a Hercules AC-130 Spectre gunship, and us, were allocated to the operation. The goal of the operation was to capture or kill two key IED facilitators and their caches. The two targets were within 5 miles of each other and the first boots on the ground were to be at 11pm. The insertion went as planned, and we watched 200 odd men secure the buildings and surrounding area and everything seemed quiet. At around midnight, the Spectre gunship reported “5 individuals moving tactically” up a small river gully towards the secured areas. They were initially located at 1300m to the friendly forces. All sensors in the air were pointed to them. Our picture from 18000’ was not very good, but we could make out 5-6 people moving along the wooded riverbank, stopping periodically at trees and hunching down. There was extensive conversation on the radio between the ground commander, the Sea King camera operator and the Apache pilots. Several long barreled weapons were identified, as was a heavy object one of them was carrying. All of them accumulated at a position 1000m from the friendly forces, still in the tree line, and took up a firing position. During this time the ground commander had sought clearance from a higher authority to use an unrestrictive Rule of Engagement. The conversation in my aircraft was about whether these people were posing a threat to friendly forces, and our general feeling was that the aircraft much lower and closer to them were in the best position to decide that. From the level of confidence in the radio conversation, we were satisfied that at least they were satisfied. A relatively unrestrictive Rule of Engagement was granted and an Apache fired 30mm high explosive rounds at the 6 people in a firing position. The enemy were neutralised and shortly after the attack I led the GR4s home as we were short on fuel. On the ground, my formation agreed that we would not have engaged that target on what we could see, but our level of trust in what the other platforms were reporting was high. We also wondered at the level of understanding of the insurgents about our night capability, about how from several thousand feet we could identify long barreled weapons and how easily we could track their movement.
The following day five bodies were delivered to a Forward Operating Base 10 miles from the attack; a six, eight and 10 year old boy, a 20 and a 30 year old man. They were presented as victims of the previous night’s attack. According to those who brought the bodies, they were picking fruit. Photos of the bodies showed them dirty, lightly blooded, but wrapped in blankets. Several experienced onlookers suspected the bodies had been dug up, noting the common Taleban strategy of claiming already deceased civilians as victims of NATO attacks, or even gratuitously killing and presenting the same. A check of the CASEVAC records for the previous 24 hours showed one person with life threatening injuries delivered to that FOB at around 0900, with estimated 40mm shrapnel wounds, no further details.
Command at the Apaches’ home base, Camp Bastion, were unsatisfied with the conclusiveness of the gun tape, and wanted more compelling evidence that they were indeed armed. We checked our tapes of the engagement to see if there were telling moments but the quality, due to the distance, was poor. We watched the Sea King’s tape, which was far better resolution. The people were definitely crouching alongside trees, keeping wide spacing between them, and definitely carrying objects. At least one of them, possibly, was carrying a rifle. One of them, clearly, was carrying a shovel. The people were all the same size, and appeared to be adults.
There was overarching desire to discover the truth, and the elements remained confusing and potentially contradictory. No one involved wanted to hide anything, and hours were spent watching and rewatching the tapes, looking for evidence either way. Although it would be a terrible tragedy if they were indeed civilians, our honest belief is sufficient defense. None of us has anything to gain and all much to lose by lying.
Watching six people killed under a fiery hail of high explosive believing that they are enemy forces is confronting moment. Watching the same events under the light that they are potentially civilians, collecting fruit, albeit from bare trees past midnight in the middle of winter, is horrifying. It set me thinking about what I might do if presented with the same circumstances again – I was providing area coverage searching for potential enemy activity, there were several aircraft far better placed than I to make a judgment about the threat posed. During a Special Forces’ operation, many highly trained, armed and capable people and aircraft involved – at what point is it appropriate to step in with a suggestion about escalation, being the worst placed to assess any of the events? Ironically, that point now stands out clear as day. Precisely that fact, that we were the worst placed to assess the threat gave us the detachment to make such a call. I’ll never know if it would have made a difference that night, or if we would simply have been told to no longer contribute.
As it turned out, there were other intelligence sources that were able, along with the tape evidence, to conclusively identify the victims as enemy fighters. The ground commander had access to these before the attack, and made his judgment considering that information. Nonetheless, the experience is a lesson in humility. It really hammers home the truths all combat pilots know: it’s far better to let 6 enemy go free than to kill a civilian; a flick of a switch from the air will be irreversible, lethal, and totally detached.”