As the US moves closer to war with Iraq, a tragic episode in Afghanistan eight months ago sets the scene for what could be some of the toughest issues the American military may have to deal with.
Last April, two Illinois National Guard pilots on active duty flying F-16 jets with the Air Force accidentally bombed Canadian infantry soldiers conducting a night exercise near Kandahar, killing four and wounding eight.
They have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault, and dereliction of duty, charges that could mean up to 64 years in prison. The military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, determining whether they should be court martialed, begins next week at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
The specifics of the case are fairly clear-cut. Headed back to base from a long but uneventful mission, the two pilots - Maj. Bill Umbach and Maj. Harry Schmidt - thought they saw enemy fire coming their way. Major Schmidt rolled in on the target, dropping a laser-guided 500-pound bomb that landed just three feet from a Canadian machine-gun crew. A Pentagon investigation determined that both pilots (Major Umbach was the senior of the two) exhibited "reckless" behavior and violated rules of engagement in not getting permission to fire from air controllers who - a moment too late - warned that "Kandahar has friendlies."
But the broader issues are more difficult:
• The Air Force policy of issuing amphetamines to pilots flying repeated long-range, exhausting missions. Both pilots had taken the drug an hour before the accident. Many Air Force pilots in Afghanistan take these "go pills," as was the case during the Gulf War, despite the dangers of addiction and such adverse side effects as aggressiveness and paranoia. Air Force officials say the pills are taken voluntarily and in small, safe doses.
• What seem to be increasing incidents of allied deaths and injuries caused by "friendly fire." Nearly a quarter of the US and allied casualties in the Gulf War were from friendly fire, and there have been several such instances in Afghanistan.
• The balance between encouraging individual initiative on the battlefield by US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines versus rashness and overaggression. Some officers, as well as military reformers, say there needs to be more such initiative. Making one mistake, however, can quickly end one's career.
• A military justice system that critics say sometimes focuses on lower-level officers and enlisted men and women without addressing such things as the command environment or the "rules of engagement" made by those higher up the chain of command.
"There's a raft of issues here that go beyond the factual," says Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who now heads the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington. "The question is, how broadly will the net be cast in this investigation?"
Lawyers defending the two pilots will focus on the use of amphetamines as an indication that they were overtaxed. (Manufacturers say the drug should not be used while "operating heavy machinery.") They also will stress that the pilots had not been told that the Canadian troops were holding a live-fire exercise at a former Al Qaeda training camp.
Those who have flown in combat - experiencing enemy fire and the "fog of war" that can make an imagined attack seem real, working with intelligence information that is incomplete or just wrong, fighting fatigue or bad weather - understand the difficulties in assigning blame in such a case.
"This type of accident could happen with fresh experienced pilots, and has on many occasions," says Phil Gay, a retired Navy combat pilot who commanded the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy during the Gulf War.
"I personally don't want to know where all the bombs I dropped in Vietnam actually went." As has happened several times in Afghanistan, even the kind of precision aerial weapons unavailable in Vietnam occasionally kill "friendly" troops as well as civilians.
"Did the drugs influence their judgment?" asks Captain Gay. "Who can say? My guess is that if these had been our own troops, this issue would have long since gone away. Since they were Canadians, it won't go away, nor should it, without the proper and complete vetting required of an international incident. The outcome in my opinion will be acquittal of the individuals, chastisement of the Air Force, payment of reparations by the US, and an official end to the policy [of issuing amphetamines to pilots] by the Department of Defense."
More broadly, experts say, the episode points to the need for new thinking, not only in the areas of command environment and rules of engagement.
If a person in combat has been negligently reckless, the punishment should be appropriate, says Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington. But, he says, more needs to be done to ensure the individual is better trained, counseled, or assigned to prevent such problems in the first place.
"It can be a fine line," says Mr. Corbin. "But the military has to get far better at training its people for complex peacekeeping or semicombat missions requiring careful application of lethal force, because regular shooting wars are a thing of the past."