Friday, June 20, 2003

No Criminal Penalty

In a stunning victory of justice over politics, the Air Force dropped homicide and assault charges Thursday against two fighter pilots who mistakenly bombed Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year, killing four. The pilots, Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty and faced up to 64 years in prison if convicted in a court-martial. One of the men, Maj. Harry Schmidt, who released the 500-pound bomb, still faces two counts of dereliction of duty.

Had the Air Force gone ahead with the court martial, it would have been the first such proceeding in the history of American warfare regarding a friendly fire incident. The action was commenced, over the objections of the military leadership, by political and diplomatic operatives for the administration, in order to mollify the Canadians, whose troops were lost. Ironically, these troops were members of the Rakkasans, attached to the 101st Airborne Division, and as such were the last troops to complain or demand such an action be instituted in their behalf, although even the most elite troops have families that bleed and cry over their dead like everyone else.

Mistakes were made, although most of them were committed by members of the upper ranks, especially the fact that the pilots were not apprised that friendly forces were operating in the area. What judgement calls the pilots missed can be blamed on the fatigue that comes with being in the hot seat for over ten hours, popping uppers to stay alert. And remember that the bombing occurred on a moonless night at Tarnak Farms, a former Al Qaeda base once owned by Osama bin Laden. They were deep in Indian country, these men truly believed that they were in danger, and it was the natural response to that danger that precipitated the attack. A successful court martial on these men would have had a chilling effect on our future air operations. We place these men in harm's way to do a very dirty job for the rest of us, and we need to give them a lot of leeway in the carrying out of that job. There will be career penalties for these men, and they will never again be in a position to make such a mistake again. Under the circumstances, that is all the punishment that is warranted.

There are those who will say that these men were let off because Canada refused to back our play in Iraq. I wish that it were so, but I can't give our national leadership that much credit.